How did I end up living in Los Angeles? I always get asked that question, and I never have a good answer. For me, LA is freedom: being under palm trees, watching skateboarders and being away from everything I have previously known. Living in Los Angeles makes me feel as though I can expand my mind, be creative. I feel as if a narrowness of life is taken away. I have never lived by the sea before and didn’t realise how much I would love it. Nearly every evening, I walk a few blocks to watch the sun set over the ocean.
Los Angeles has become a place where I can explore a connection with spirituality and the sacred. I wasn’t raised as a churchgoer but I consider myself a spiritual person with a big longing for the numinous. In some strange, “post-religious” sense, Los Angeles has become a centre for a certain type of seeker and soul-searcher. With its peculiar lack of structure it ends up being exactly the right kind of place for free and deep searching.
LA has no clear historical narrative and is missing a central story. The place is effectively a product of the car industry: it is really just five or six small towns that grew together through motorways, and it is both incredibly ugly and incredibly beautiful. Without a cohesive narrative, every house on every street has had to create its own identity.
A sceptic in the synagogue
When I moved to Los Angeles I met a wise Jewish woman who took me along to synagogue. The first thing I heard was a lecture by a rabbi who was incredibly philosophical. He was also a truly unusual mix of the highly spiritual and the highly sceptical. The first thing he said was: “When I woke up this morning I didn’t believe in anything.” I had never heard such a thing said by a church authority before. It felt so real and so true. So I couldn’t stop myself from returning to study the Torah and the Zohar with him, and read philosophy texts and Rilke’s Book of Hours together.
I went into philosophy to ask the big questions and to discuss them with people who are passionate about ideas. I didn’t find that questioning to be the day-to-day reality of academia. What I was really missing was engagement: having passion received and receiving other peoples’ passion; feeling heard and hearing someone else. That makes such a difference, especially in the realm of ideas, where it is so easy to get lost in your own head.
A few years ago a friend and I started an annual meeting of artists, writers and musicians. We wanted to create something that had intimacy. To be intimate with thought is a beautiful thing, but it is hard because the academy can too easily become a place for posturing. The Alpine Fellowship is rooted in the intimacy that I was missing in my education.
We tried to conjure up a vision for what a modern-day academy might look like: every year we pick a theme for discussion (we have talked about “landscape”, “childhood” and “self-representation”) and invite lectures on the topic – pitched at an accessible level, no longer than 30 minutes, followed by a lot of time for discussion. Young people (“the Fellows”) can attend the symposium by competing in one of the different prize categories: drama, writing and visual arts.
Every year we assemble a diverse group of people to avoid the ideological pigeonholing that is happening all around us. This year we are meeting in a remote venue in Sweden to discuss “identity”. What guides us most is the conviction that all knowledge ultimately stems from curiosity, and that behind every position or point of view there is a human being with feelings and a story. Often the most important part is for people from seemingly opposing ends of the spectrum to feel that they are heard by the other side.
Out of Merkel’s shadow
In Germany, the new leader of the Christian Democratic party, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (known as AKK), is slowly making her way out of Merkel’s shadow with some unconventional moves. At first she stirred a huge public debate with a series of comments made during a carnival event. As she saw it, the obsession with transgender bathrooms had gone so far that the common man was by now confused whether he had to sit down on the toilet when relieving himself. Even allowing for the drunken haze of carnival, some thought her comments lacked a sense for the complexity involved. AKK followed this with a reply to Macron’s proposed plan for Europe, which Merkel had chosen to ignore last autumn. AKK’s “vision” for Europe has a slightly pale bureaucratic taste to it. She reined in Macron’s idealism with proposals such as moving the EU’s seat out of Strasbourg and changing tax regulations for EU officials.
At this point AKK remains an enigma to most Germans. She might still provide some much-needed new ideas, but could also turn out to be an uninspiring caretaker at a time when we really need more.
The underdogs’ day
Watching Champions League football in Los Angeles is difficult because there is an eight-hour time difference. So at midday, when it’s sunny outside, I am watching a game over a live stream with an American commentator who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about. But, boy, were last week’s games satisfying. When Manchester United knocked out Paris Saint-Germain it signalled that foreign countries loading tons of money into clubs doesn’t guarantee a road to the trophy. And as a Bayern Munich supporter, seeing Real Madrid crash out to a hungry and young Ajax Amsterdam side was pure bliss.
Not only was it exciting to see the underdogs go through but it was also a victory for those who place their hope in what exists beyond arrogance and the sad idea that everything in this world has a price. l
Jacob Burda lectures on literature and philosophy at UCLA and is a research fellow at the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion
This article appears in the 13 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control