Alexei Sayle on what makes us human: We need to realise that the best things in life are not things

Continuing our What Makes Us Human series, Alexei Sayle reflects on the time Paul McKenna planted a suicidal post-hypnotic suggestion in his brain, and how our restlessness has been exploited to devastating effect.

Several years ago I attended a summer party where one of the other guests was the stage hypnotist and motivational speaker Paul McKenna. For some reason we got talking about environmental issues in which I know he has an interest. I was talking about how so much of my own and other people’s supposed environmental activity such as recycling wine bottles or buying organic bread is just a mask for continuing rampant consumerism and he replied, “Yes, if you were truly serious about trying to save the planet then what you would do, would be you would kill yourself.”

I had never heard this opinion expressed before. As the child of communists and a vestigial Marxist myself, my belief had always been that mankind’s depredation of the planet was as a result of our exploitative economic system. I had unthinkingly subscribed to the view that capitalism was the problem and if we had a different, fairer economic system – such as socialism – then we could heal the scars we have inflicted on the earth in pursuit of the wilder excesses of capitalist consumerism. Socialist man would walk arm and arm with nature into a kinder, greener future.

But what McKenna seemed to be saying was that what makes us human also makes us destroyers of the earth, and that – given human nature – there is no way that we could live in harmony with the environment. Therefore the only hope for the planet was if mankind disappeared completely. Once we had disappeared from the face of the planet a great peace would descend – wars would stop, the destruction of the rainforest would be halted and gradually green growth would cover the landscape scarred with our buildings. The beauty of this wonderful blue-green planet would be restored and its only inhabitants – the animals –would live in harmony with Gaia.

A few days later I was having my breakfast and I was chewing on a piece of toast when the unbidden thought popped into my head, “This toast is a bit dry. I might as well hang myself.” Of course, this was Paul McKenna who at the party had clearly planted a suicidal post-hypnotic suggestion in my brain. I managed to avoid committing suicide but continued to wonder whether to be human means that I will inevitably be part of destroying the natural world. Or is there some way in which we can live in harmony with the earth?

Given that every other creature except us has always had a benign relationship with the planet, and that before the invention of agriculture we did, too, and that there remain tribal societies in a few remote corners of the earth that still do no harm to the biosphere while the vast majority of us live profoundly unnatural lives, how did this come about? And can we reverse at least some of the worst effects of what it is to be part of the disease that makes us human in the 21st century?

Pascal said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And that has got to be at the root of what has gone wrong with our relationship to our environment. We can’t leave well alone; we are never satisfied. This perpetual search for novelty may have made us reach for the stars but it has also led us constantly to seek the better, bigger exercise bike. Capitalism has seized on this flaw in our make-up and refined it so that we think that happiness will come from the next thing – the very next thing – that we buy. Our last phone did not make us happy but this new one with a 13 billion-pixel camera will. Or, if only I had the £300 pair of trainers instead of these crappy ones that I bought last week for £129. Why did I ever imagine they would make me happy?

What obsesses all industrial societies is ceaseless growth, making more and more things, building more and more buildings, eating more and more food. Without continuous expansion, all manufacturing economies will collapse. And in order to continue this expansion, people must be convinced that their happiness lies in buying new stuff. So what makes us human right now in the industrial economies is to be permanently dissatisfied, because, for our economies to grow, we must believe that it is not any of the things we own but the very next thing we buy, the very next holiday we take, that will finally push us over the top into serenity.

Of course, as soon as we buy the thing or finish the holiday, that sense of dissatisfaction returns. The happiness doesn’t last but what is continuous and increasing is the brutal excavation of the earth’s finite resources.

Millennia ago, in pre-agrarian societies, one day was much like another and people lived together in harmony with each other and with nature. There existed a primitive form of communism: since there were no surpluses, nobody could accumulate more possessions than anybody else. And without more possessions there was no incentive to grab more power; decisions were reached more or less by consensus.

We are never going to get back to this Garden of Eden but surely it should be possible to live more in harmony with both our planet and our better, truer selves? The thousand-year experiment to see if happiness can be bought, if possession of more and more stuff can give life meaning, has failed. We need to realise that the best things in life are not things. Perhaps we need to look at and learn from the animal world: few animals living in freedom fail to reach their full potential. To quote D H Lawrence: “If men were as much men as lizards are lizards/they’d be worth looking at.”

Alexei Sayle is a comedian

This article is the tenth in our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show

A dump for rubbish from across the world in Accra, Ghana

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era