Today, at the Mercado San Miguel…

Today, at the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, I nearly paid thirty-five euros for a glass of Vega Sicilia Único. Not long afterward, as we were walking through a nearby plaza, a man whose topaz skin and French accent led me to believe he had immigrated from Mali or Burkina Faso, touched my arm and asked me for change so that he could buy a coffee with milk. Though it is possible to say that I looked at him, because I recollect his shape and expression and the tattered green jacket he wore, it is equally correct that I did not look at him in the sense that, while he was obviously a human being and therefore, as Kant asserts, an end in himself, and though my perceptions in theory exist in part to help me in forming an idea of what are the proper ends of life and of the nature of my responsibilities and obligations, I allowed the act of perception to be disjoined from its proper ends, so that it was impersonal, like the gazing of a camera. It was only after we began to walk away, and I thought again of the comparative prices of the glass of Único and of the coffee with milk that the man had begged me to buy him, that I began to feel the enormity of my negligence. When I spoke of this, my wife suggested that we turn around to find the man, but when we did so, he had left, either someone kinder than I had given him the money he needed or, more likely, he had despaired of meeting with a sympathetic soul in that part of the city and had tried his luck somewhere else. I thought of how often we are allowed only one chance to do the proper thing. More particularly, I thought of my father, who had chosen precisely the moment when the having of a father might have mattered to me to absent himself from my life, and with whom my relations, as a consequence, have been distorted ever since. I will be allowed to perform other acts of kindness in my life, but I will never again be able to show kindness to the man from Mali or Burkina Faso. Although in fact the condition of poverty would justify someone in seizing forcefully a passerby’s arm, perhaps with the thought of shaking them from the frigid-hearted lull into which the initiate into consumer societies is driven by his sense that life consists fundamentally of the exercise of shrewdness through a long series of acts of accumulation and outlay that are only brought to a close by death, and making them realize that each of these acts has not only a consequence for themselves and those close to them, but also for the millions of people who are ejected from these consumer societies and who can find no means of ingress back into them, the touch of this man from Western Africa, a region with which I have a certain degree of acquaintance because my wife writes on its literature and films, was very gentle, and it occurred to me that where he was from, it was probably not unusual to touch a stranger, and that in fact the proscription of physical contact between strangers in the countries I was best acquainted with was a kind of perversion. Not long after this, I walked past a bar called Provenzal that advertised The Cheapest Beer in Spain and offered draft beers for forty European cents. For the price of the glass of Único, I could have purchased eighty-seven of these beers and given them to the countless people like the man from Mali who roam the streets of Madrid asking for change. The beers would not have been very large or of an especially high quality, but I believe these people would have enjoyed them. I recalled the assertion by Fernand Braudel that there is no form of communal life, however impoverished or degraded, that is unacquainted with the notion of luxury, and believed that in consequence, this hypothetical gift, which I suppose I will never actually give, might have a significance as great, from a moral perspective, as another, apparently more useful donation. I thought of how the man from Mali or Burkina Faso had asked for a coffee with milk and not a coffee alone, and how this word, milk, by expressing a preference and hence an individuality of spirit, was an assertion of dignity. And I thought also of how he had tried coffee before, both with a without milk, and wondered what precisely was the character of his nostalgia as he remembered this beverage, more or less sweet, suffusing his esophagus and stomach. Already, in my mind, I had begun to consider how the words I am now writing would take shape. I considered that this entire act of writing in which I am now engaged would consist of the public exposure of my guilty conscience. Many of the writers we esteem most highly make great hay of their guilty conscience. As every week, I recalled these lines of Paul Celan’s: Welches der Worte du sprichst, du dankst dem Verderben. The spoilage or ruin Celan speaks of may be another’s or my own, but in any case, the attitude of literature, at least in my case, at least as regards my manner of writing thusfar — and at least at present, I do not have a better idea of what writing might be — one directed, not toward the eradication of suffering, but rather toward tergiversation in the face of doing so. Writing relates intimately to insecurity as to what should be done, or to an impulse toward symbolic redemption that arises when the possibility of a more concrete form thereof is occluded. I have the sense that writing should not reduce itself to moralistic exhortations. And yet writing must serve for something more than the generation of surrogate selves who live out an ethics for which we are insufficiently brave.

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