Nietzsche, Koestler and the Power of Firsts
“We have art that we may not perish from truth” Nietzsche
I encountered the work of Arthur Koestler in 1983. For him, it was the time of his suicide. For me, aged 18, it was that key time in the development of the mind when it is expanding most rapidly and is at its most plastic.
As a result, when he told me his favourite joke, it went in deep:
“A masochist is someone who likes a cold shower in the morning; and, so, takes a hot one.”
This still makes me laugh; but I have recently come to understand it in a new way.
A man walks into a bar. This is not a joke. The man is me. I am walking the early evening streets of a lovely though unfamiliar town, looking for my dinner. Where to eat?
At one level it’s straightforward: I look at the exterior, try to judge the place. I look at the menu, the prices. I peer inside to see the interior décor and my prospective fellow diners.
At another level it’s complicated: what sort of choice is this? What am I really looking for?
I think that the most important thing I’m looking for is comfort. As I eat my meal, have a drink, read the paper, check my emails and so on, I want to feel comfortable. I want to feel at ease.
And so the pub I choose is not the ‘nicest’ one or the cheapest one or the one with the freshest locally-sourced organic wholemeal ingredients. The pub I choose is the one in which I will feel most comfortable.
When I probe this feeling – the primary basis for this simple choice – I am cast back to my early experiences of drinking in small town Essex pubs. I didn’t drink in The White Horse or The Warwick Arms: too scary. I didn’t drink in The Rose & Crown or The Jolly Sailor: too old. I didn’t drink in The Ship & Anchor or The Queen Vic – too quiet. No. I drank in The Carpenters Arms and The Queen’s Head because – well, because that’s where all the people I wanted to be with were. These pubs were rough and ready, a bit untidy. The people in them were an eclectic mix of sailors, farmhands, criminals, rockers, stoners, kids, students and middle-class drop-outs.
And I realise that, in those pubs, I actually felt uncomfortable. I felt ill-at-ease, on edge, not quite sure what might happen or even quite why I was there.
Now, thirty years later, I seek comfort by replicating my discomfort. I am inside Koestler’s joke.
We are accustomed, in this age of therapy and self-help, to believe that we are shaped by our childhood.
And it’s probably true. Our relationships with our mother and father, the number and nature of our siblings, whether we lived in conditions of bountiful love or sterile absence, it’s easy to be persuaded that these things will have a significant impact on us. Irrespective of whether we know or not what we want, or need, childhood is the time where we learn the basics of how to get what we want, or need. It seems obvious that those lessons learned will inform our future methods.
But sometimes it seems overplayed. You can’t always blame your mum/dad/brother. (And even if you don’t ‘blame’ them – they, after all, were just being human, like the rest of us – then they’ll probably still have a big role in your self-story.)
I find myself wondering more generally about ‘firsts’, and how it may be those ‘firsts’ that are generically important. So, yes, the first childhood you get is pretty significant in shaping the rest of your life. But what about all those other firsts? The first time you pass an exam? The first time you get pissed? The first time you score a goal, kiss someone, miss a penalty, have sex, crash a car, jump from the aeroplane with a parachute strapped to your back just for fun?
What were those feelings like? Did it veer you towards or away? Do you know why? (Does it even matter 'why'?)
Chances are – I hypothesise – whatever that first was like, it had a big impact on the second, which affected the third, and thence forever, along the entire path of your journey to the here and now.
My first pub? I like a cold shower; so I drink in a hot one.