I’m pleased to say I have a wonderful neighbour. I wish everyone could have a neighbour like him. Perhaps it will not fill him with elation if he knows I have been writing about him though- which is fine, because he will never know. My neighbour is a German convert to Islam. He has a tremendous strawberry red beard and he wears a skullkcap. On the few occasions I have seen him without it, i’ve felt compelled to avert my gaze, because he looks somehow naked without it. Hair covers his face, a hat covers the hair on his head, and obviously clothes cover the rest of him. He covers himself with items of clothing that make him look like a farmer; and certainly, he has a farmerly geniality that acts as a suitable counterpart to his farmerly appearance. None of these details are superfluous by the way, and I am not engaging in idle talk by describing him. His appearance is an integral part of his identity and so deserves to be acknowledged.
But the main reason he deserves to be acknowledged is because of his capacity to talk pure, unadulterated sense- such that I have moments of startling clarity when I talk to him. He has this ability to un-clutter your mind in the space of one unassuming sentence, and you feel a rush of some realisation that had previously eluded you. Today we had invited him round for an Eid lunch and he said a couple of things that made me feel this way.
The first thing he mentioned was in the context of speaking about his business. He was speaking about how successful his affairs were when he said something like ‘but it’s just a crazy circle. You buy some stuff, you sell it, you eat, you sleep, you sell some more stuff, you buy some more stuff…’ And all of a sudden, I was struck by a (not immediately comprehensible) realisation- a moment of clarity. But now that i’ve thought about it I think I know why. What my neighbour was saying was essentially what Albert Camus had said, half a century before our lunch-time conversation, in the Myth of Sisyphus. The titular subject of the essay is Sisyphus- a tragic character in Greek mythology who is condemned for all eternity to roll a rock up a hill as a punishment from the gods. Upon reaching the top, the rock would roll down again, leaving Sisyphus to repeat the task for eternity. What Camus was arguing was that we’re all like Sisyphus really: absorbed in our meaningless, repetitive tasks, until death seizes us. Camus’ philosophy is a treatise on the futility and absurdity of human existence, where-in vain- we seek meaning.
So that’s one thing that makes my neighbour fascinating: that he can-unknowingly- distil existentialist philosophy to a throw-away remark in the course of an Eid lunch. This is extraordinary because he does not have a formal education and certainly doesn’t read existentialist philosophy in his spare time. (He plays with his children on the Wii).
The second remark goes something like this: ‘the simple people survive. Complicated people, people who think complex, they trip up, they cause harm.’ This remark made me think about simplicity- which is not the same thing as simplification. There are some questions from my days studying philosophy that have stuck with me. Questions like ‘how do you know there is an external world?’ and ‘how do you know other people have minds?’ Whereas before I would have given these questions serious thought, now I would just tell anyone who asked me these questions to go away because it’s not a serious question; it’s just an exercise in futility. It makes no difference at all to me, morally or existentially, to find the answer to quite obviously insoluble questions. It just seems wiser, surely, to live a life dedicated to answering questions of some practical consequence. Simple people tend to do the latter, and so will be engaged in activities that have some prospect of making a positive difference to the realities of human life. Philosophers are frivolous- or, at least, they need not be as long they ask sensible questions.
I’m sure my neighbour said very many other enlightening things during the course of our lunch, but I just can’t remember them… I am tempted to keep a notebook and pen in my possession in future, to take notes. But I will end with something that he mentioned a while ago, and this is something I have written about previously. He said ‘listen, do you know what water is from looking at diagrams? No, you only know what water is when you drink it and splash it on your face.’ He provided me with this analogy in the context of talking about spirituality and meditation. And I realised immediately that some things are known only by experience, and it is easy to be cynical if we do not accept this. It is like describing colour to a blind man (no offence intended to anyone who is blind), who can only have any concept of it by experiencing it. But blind men do not say that colours do not exist.
So my neighbour is a wonderful, jovial, slightly eccentric man who brings me to certain realisations out of the humdrum affairs of everyday life. And more and more, I realise that knowledge is actually quite democratic. What is worth knowing is known by everyone.