The Whole World Bad
Text for Steve Klee exhibition
The Whole World Bad
Of this much we can be sure: we were being punished. The Gods have many ways of punishing us. Often their retribution is swift and deadly. Our homes are torn asunder; our food kills us; we are hunted down by terrible beasts; we are flooded by foul and stinking water. And then there are the plagues: the large animals that destroy the places in which we live; the small animals that bite and scratch us; the diseases. There are diseases that make us choke and cough; diseases that make us wheeze and shiver; diseases that make lame; diseases that make us weak; diseases that make us vomit. The Gods are cruel and powerful; they remind us constantly of their indifference to our fate. We try to please and appease the Gods but we have become accustomed to this uncertainty. The only thing that is certain is the brutal and sudden end of life that awaits us all.
Nevertheless, we watch the Gods closely. We have tried to learn what they do not want us to do, where they do not want us to go. We have learnt that our presence before them angers them; that we must keep out of their way. But the Gods are mysterious; their behaviour is opaque to us. There are those who wonder whether the Gods are capricious with their unpredictability. Just as much as they are angry and vengeful, they provide for us in the most surprising ways. We have to live by our wits both to avoid the Gods’ fearful thunder and to find their unexpected gifts.
Of all the ways in which the Gods chastice us, it is the slow, imperceptible torments that cause us most fear. The swift end to life that comes with the intervention of the Gods is an honourable way to die. But when the Gods want to punish us, they do not act directly: they get to us by other means and they make us die slowly. The monsters they send to hunt us down, to shake our bodies and rip our flesh apart, they sheer away our dignity; but they are nothing to the slow death the Gods send. We can smell the monsters coming; we can hear them. But the slow death the Gods send is odourless and silent.
Nothing had been like this before. The Gods turned the whole world bad. It seemed as though all those things that gave us health and strength brought death. The very ground seemed to leak death. We are familiar enough with bad food and we take our chances – what choice do we have? – knowing that the Gods provide for us with so much good food. But we were all dying. We had eaten many and varied foods and there was not one thing we had all eaten nor one place we had all been. We did not understand. It was relentless. We thought that no-one would be spared. We thought it was the end of the World.
The very worse thing was the paranoia, which stays with us still. We, the elderly, remember. After the Gods intervene in our world, in the world that they created for us but which they do not inhabit, we know to keep out of sight for a while, to be extra vigilant. But we know, too, that these interventions are short lived; that things will return to normal. But this was different. Everything became uncertain. No-one knew how long they had to live; who was next; how long it would take to die; when the punishment would be over. No-one knew. And with the not-knowing came paranoia; and desperation; and despair.
When you cannot trust the ground you walk on; when you are suspicious of the air you breathe; when death is everywhere, it is hard to keep trust with your friends and neighbours. The uncertainty of living beneath the Gods is one thing; but the uncertainty of being stalked by a relentless, odourless, silent death is quite another. We are simple beings, of regular habits and customs; we like each other’s company. But when you begin to be suspicious of everything, as though death might hide under every pebble, it is hard to contain suspicion. You begin by being suspicious of things but soon become suspicious of your friends and family; of everyone you know; of everyone you don’t know. Why are they still alive? – what deals have they done with fate? It is hard not to think these things, even if you don’t believe in fate. Once order and routine begin to break down, it is hard to find them again. It is also hard not to confront what you are doing, your reasons for every action. At least we can say this: fear heightens your sensations; brings an urgency to everything you do.
There were plenty who lost faith, who cast aside the bonds of family and friendship: in short, who gave up. They wandered amongst us as they wandered amongst the beasts and the Gods, paying no attention to whether it was day or night, cold or hot, or anything else. They did not last long, on the whole. But this is strange: at first, we thought that they would spread their hopelessness, that their despair would make others despair. And at first they were shunned. But soon this changed. The hopeless ones were treated with more and more compassion. It was as though we needed to see someone worse than ourselves before we could see how much hope we still had left. We thought we were all going to die but it was the deaths of the hopeless ones that started to cause us most pain. And of course they died very quickly: most often they wandered off and did not return. But there were a few, just a few, whom we managed to bring back: a few who managed to find some kind of reason again.
Another strange thing: for some, the fear led to a kind of freedom. Of course there have always been dissenters, those that refuse to believe in the divinity of the Gods. They are the ones who go out in the light. Them and the insane. Those that come back tell of a different world: there is the heat, which makes you itch and scratch; there is the uncomfortable and unfamiliar dryness; there is the stink of freshness. And everywhere there is the intrusive, blinding light: the light of the Gods, which makes everything white. They say you become accustomed to these things; that you even begin to see colours in the whiteness, colours which are unlike the colours we have. And what if this is true? Are we to risk our way of life, to risk provoking the anger of the Gods, for a few colours? Things are difficult enough as they are. But the freedom that arose at that terrible time, in the face of terrible fear, was quite different from the willful transgressions and blasphomy of dissenters. For some, the hopeless situation, the fear, led them to things they would not have imagined before. We know how to use our fear to intimidate those bigger than us, when we have to. But this was difiance, it was something quite different. With so little life around, some took the opportunity to try new ways of living: to break with our customs, beliefs, habits and established ways of doing things. And those who took the opportunity were not the usual discontents; they were ordinary. They were just trying things out – perhaps they were simple things – but things that had seemed unthinkable before.
So we had been punished. Eventually, those of us left realized that we were not dying any more.
But when it was over, when things eventually and slowly began to return to normal, although for some of us things will never be normal again, we still had to try to make sense of the way we had been punished: of the severity. All that suffering. There were those who said we should not think about such things; that we should be thankful that we were the ones who survived: as though talking about those terrible times might bring them back. Or remind the Gods of why we deserved such punishment. The Gods do seem to forget about us often, which is not the worse thing they do. There were others who picked over every detail of our lives, trying to find out what we had done wrong – perhaps were still doing wrong. The Gods do not let us know the Laws we must live by: we find them out when we do things wrong. Were we not subservient enough?; had we trespassed on the ground of the Gods?; had we been thinking blasphemous thought? There were many theories but no conclusions. The truth is, we cannot understand the Gods and we cannot understand ourselves. It is just another cruelty of this world that we do not have the capacity to understand why we are punished. And there are some who refuse to believe that the Gods had any reason for punishing us, who think the Gods have no thought for us at all. Surely this would be the cruelest thing of all?