The Tough Questions: Z, KZ: Is this Where we are At? Where we are Going?

By Orde Levinson, Artist and Writer, Magdalen College, Oxford University, United Kingdom

May 23, 2022

While on her death bed Gertrude Stein kept on repeating “What is the answer? What is the answer?” At a point she sat bolt up right and cried: “What is the question?” And fell back and died.  The Tough questions must today include the Big Question and not just answers.

Where are we At?  Humankind as machine. Unkind. Unfeeling. Self-obsessed. Progressively one-dimensional. Like the men of Picasso’s masterpiece on the nature of the perpetrators and vision of war – his Massacre in Korea.

Ukraine has highlighted  a blemished world, a world of unkindness. Putin’s Z troops. Z coined from KZ. Hateful. But not only Putin’s Z troops. China’s approach to the Uighurs. Modi and the Moslems. The Tatmadaw in Burma.  Authorities in Hong Kong. Summary executions/detention/rape (woman and men), displacement, on every continent. And children scarred. No certainty but Hunger. Hunger. Hunger. On another plane of unkindness we have the abortion war erupting in the USA, Brexit’s unkindness in the UK – and its Northern Island, the return of the Marcos family, Turkey and the Kurds.  And so on, so on. An external mentality pushing intolerance rigorously. Families Split. Countries split. And let’s not forget the climate. That catastrophe needs no human to push the button anymore. Disarm today has become Datarm tomorrow. Re-armament is everywhere.

Where we are Going? Everyone believes they have, the way forward. Theirs are the right way. But based on what? Has it not always been so? The Roman times were also times of religious/philosophical prostitution, brutality and pragmatism – only today we live longer.

And the world muddles along with a solution. Now up, now down. Like the swinging Sorghum pots over open fires. But a direction of unkindness. Somehow muddling along feels different now. Now we have bigger sticks – nuclear. Retaliatory international trade sticks. Debt sticks Corruption sticks. The continuous war via the internet, to infiltrate, sow disruption against the other or, gain power. A power to cement my position. Social network has generated major political changes – the post truth parallel world is here to stay. And climate changes are no small matter. What appears to be certain only is human unkindness is certainly not just to humans, or even animals but certainly to nature and the environment. When birds in India fall dead from out of the sky due to heat and dehydration we really should conceptualise.

So, it seems that is the way we have been going.  Nothing is certain but uncertainty and disruption. We plan. Things change. We adapt. But this is stop gap stuff, we try and solve it, and so far, – other than the many many millions that suffer –  suffer inconsolably we muddle along.  Remember the Millennium Bug to end it all. The end of the EU with Brexit? No one now talks of Frexit, Grexit. And Sweden and Finland application to Nato no longer just a far distant thought reality.  I am against war and arms races but I am saying this is where we are going.  But is it all bad? After all the unity in the EU has never been so strong. Britain is no longer Brexiting on its own but strutting the stage – to be a player – playing to be or even a part of Europe in signing defence treaties with Sweden and Finland.

Where are we at has it seems always found on the surface solutions to the exterior events like Covid, Putin’s Z troops. It is not a new way of looking at the world or an uncertainty. It is path well-trodden, one based on an exterior mentality. Solving problems. Not a philosophical solution at all. The time old exterior human condition repeats – prostitution, brutality and, and one-eyed pragmatism.

What is the best solution to deal with choke points? To change our mentality? Or to ask: What risks do we need to take to find a solution? What can we do to minimise costs to solve the problem confronting us?

The latter seems to be where we are and where we are going, headlong with gathering speed. Like the train in Snowpiecer. And solutions within this ambit will be found to issues such as price fluctuations, new supply chains (China’s time as the old supply chain is probably over). And Russia as EU’s provider of energy is over. But these solutions are not one of international co-operation or kindness. Or a reverting to an internal mentality. Will it end in war is a non-starter question? It has. Brutal, brutal war in Ukraine. Wounding to all. Even to those not there. And soon water wars, food wars, climate wars. Surviving wars. That is the result of pragmatic external solutions. It is not conceptualising. Its solutioning. And we have not seen with any clear certainty the future with North Korea, or Taiwan/China, or Middle East or Africa’s wars or Latin America. Unkindness predominates.

But something is different here too with events – are we seeing the building of the Third Temple? Is Vadim Shishimarin one of the emerging signs for a new mentality? Aside from the 11 million plus suffering in Ukraine alone (many elsewhere) – and we suffer with them – there is a vision that is giving a direction.  With Vadim is not a Bigger question the need to understand the interior mentality – which finds solutions to where we at, where we are going on more fundamental and lasting basis. It is to me is where the human spirit is and has been for some 100 years since Cubism in the arts but the WW1 choked it. And politics too have choked it with the existing (older) generation.  I see it in the political game as the people trying to change this current power game or the game masters.  Neither of which seem capable of change or want to change. The break point for the vision of the general public is so much simpler, more revolutionary and a different one. Basics. Food, housing, freedom, freedom to authenticity, earn a living. And Peace. Our individual internal reality. Vadim expressed it I felt.

This is not Parisian café talk, cigarette in hand. The reality is also seen with the characteristics of the artist and President Zelensky. His is an internal moral sense of justice and the courage to carry it out. Daily. We feel it. And he has held his people, and the world. The attempt to break the choke point flutters communally everywhere. The current firebombing of the ruling corrupt class in Sri Lanka. The Arab Spring. The struggle for basic freedoms in Syria, before Russian air power intervened, as it did Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, Libya, Mali and now thrice in Ukraine.  It’s not the bullies chant of unkindness the adapt to us or die. Its an internal vision. And its Janus faced – we have to adapt away from it too and make those sacrifices but internally – that is for example from Russian energy supply or we will die. And hats off to the de-arching of the McDonald’s Corporation from the Russian market – This was at a heavy external cost price and loss but its internal vision was clear.

What do I mean? Let’s take another painting. Rembrandts Oath of the Batavians. An extra-ordinary masterpiece of internal vision and depth. The oath is but a blurred vision – one eyed, like Civilis of externals. A single vision of the truth is just of appearance, of a single reality, not a conceptual reality, one of a type of pragmatic one-eyed realism. The painting however is conceptual and realistic. To be less arty it’s a vision or philosophy I call conceptual realism. The search for the essence of what is known about something, from all angles, above, below sides, and not what is seen, the appearance, the transitory but not all-encompassing conceptual realism. This painting tells us the essence about oaths, blind oaths, who supports, how they are, as much as Massacre in Korea tells its story. They give us understanding of what both mean, and help us internally navigate similar situations and if should we find ourselves in such places.

There is an undercurrent existing to frame things, not by the exterior world, by pragmatic one sided facts, but personal observation, thought, to feeling, to understanding so that a new vision can be worked out.  In artistic terms it is the search for beauty not for knowledge. Beauty as truth, care, kindness, essence. One of the benefits of good art like these two masterpieces are their ability to recreated events for us to feel, to experience. But we have to work at it to do so.

What is our essence?  The Cubist approaches. That revolution of 1907-1914 which prefigured a different way of looking at things. Not what you saw, but what you knew. Knowledge is key to conceptual realism. And it occurred in all fields of human thought at that time. In music, In writing, In science. The ability to think and base it on what is also around one. Knowing not seeing. But not a pragmatic knowledge that is still an external appearance. And Art as the ultimate communicator. That is good art, that is to show us a way. Zelensky knows and told the audience of the Cannes Film what art can and must do.

But back to unkindness and its practical vision – take Debt: There was the debt crisis of the 1990’s where the western countries released debtors in part or in whole. A kindness. Today countries are in debt to amongst others China, for example Sri Lanka – and China has given no such indication of release and on the contrary moves to take over collateral guarantees. Why? This is not an practical surface decision on debt but the vision of one man who has a clear philosophy for China -the former general secretary of the communist party and now president of China,  Xi Jinping. His world view will govern what happens no matter what practical issues arise. His mentality is all that counts. But it’s not a conceptual realism. It’s China First. His vision of China based on externals So, so like Putin. On 11 November 2021, the CCP declared Xi’s ideology the “essence of Chinese culture”. And those of us who have been in debt or can conceptualise it individually can expand to a realism of the destruction debt causes. Conceptual realism can move from the particular to the general. Not the other way as with the pragmatic vision.

Perhaps I can give another example of the youth v old age, of the pragmatic vision versus Conceptual realism. I mentioned him earlier. A recent photos of a 21-year-old. For photos of the 69-year-old just go to the internet. He is well known. Both Russian. Vadim Shishimarin and Vladimir Putin. Putin is Putin. No change. But Vadim in court has a different vision. Not for him to not think and feel. He acknowledged what he has done – even though he was obeying orders and fleeing in a stolen car when his tank was ruined. And when the widow of the civilian he killed in cold blood, on orders, Kateryna Shelipova asked him what he felt he replied “I feel Shame”. And when she asked him who will protect her now. He said he was sorry and asked for forgiveness although he understood it may not be possible. His attempt to break the choke points of unkindness. His internal mentality. There is hope here. If only he could have said although he felt it – If you will allow me, I will protect you. But Vadim is only 21 and he will probably be punished, jailed perhaps, but that is no solution, but we all can but respect his interior realism, his conceptual realism. He thought, he experienced, he felt, his is a way forward a story to be told. And could be a marker, a break of the choke hold

There are defining moment of the 2020’s and its aftermath – one will be Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – itself based on his external outdated vision of Russia’s role in the world. Not on any practical consequences of the invasion – foreseen or not. And the Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade will be the same. We cannot plan for the aftermath of either. Probably not imagine even. The only real certainty will be to attempt to get to the essence of issues based on an introvert not extrovert mentality.  I hope we can muddle along to a universal change of vision; I fear not. But then perhaps to quote Keats my confusion and uncertainty of the way forward is Negative capability “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” We don’t possess peace, or justice, or stability. Perhaps it will just come in a way we don’t foresee. I am not optimistic as one should not underrate the ingenuity of game players or the certainty of chance.

I began with a writer – as I end, I think of another writer: “In nature there is no blemish but the mind, none can be called deformed but the unkind.”To me that is the tough question. How can kindness replace what we have now?

But that is not an ending no matter how good it looks on paper. How can kindness replace what we have now? A tough question. I have no answer but would like to explore what I have provisionally called UN-Wounding. How to inculcate kindness. It is our only hope and conceptual realism our only way.