“Being human means throwing your whole life on the scales of destiny when need be, all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud.” Rosa Luxemburg
The New York Times has a new feature on their web page called Watching, a twitter-linked read out of all the news stories that are trending around the world at this current moment. The feature is clearly designed for one thing: hits. The Times, like every other news website in the world, wants traffic.
I find Watching completely overwhelming, though that is not surprising. I am overwhelmed by much I see in the world these days. A cross-section of links Watching provides on a recent Monday: Russia continues its proxy war in Eastern Ukraine; a judge in Alabama tries to block gay marriage in his state; new economic data predicts a major downtown in industrial production for China; the Swiss private banking arm of HSBC is accused of helping clients hide billions of dollars in assets from international tax authorities; and at least four people, including a child, are burned alive after opposition activists hurl gasoline bombs into a bus in Bangladesh.
What am I supposed to do with all of these news stories flashing across my laptop? One click of the mouse and a landscape of cruelty appears. You absorb all of this with outrage, sadness, and a flick of your wrist. Is Watching designed to simply stack misery upon misery, so that readers won’t want to even look at the news at all? And of course all around the webpages you navigate are the endless adds…new cars, new watches, new clothes, new digital toys for us to play with. When placed against the news stories themselves, it makes for a macabre unevenness: the world may be terrible, but at least we can all consume our way to happiness.
For those Canadian readers who think that our own country has figured things out, that while the world beyond us may be chaotic and miserable, at least we have created a functional social democracy, I would only ask you to look again at the social trends that are defining Canadian life. Income inequality has grown; real estate has become unaffordable in our major cities for all but the upper classes; students are sliding into torrential debt just to pay for university (which was once free, but now treated as a commodity like anything else); access to health care remains inconsistent from region to region; and public education faces more budget constraints than ever before.
So domestically and internationally, we are in trouble. How can we possibly bring about a world where violence will cease, where care for the self and other, for every Other, will be the dominant logic by which we live our lives?
Spaces of Comfort
The everyday is, of course, still a space that is open to us: getting up out of bed, going to work, saying hello to the people around us. There are still some areas of human life that are ours. And within our everyday routines, if we can’t make empathy a basic logic by which we live our lives, than it will be impossible to create change on even larger scales of action.
This is not to abandon the need for political parties, social organization, or state-oriented activism. It is merely to state that the first line of human life is the everyday world we inhabit, and the concrete relationships that we can either nurture or destroy, develop or abandon, as we see fit.
This brings me to Archive Wine Bar, a small storefront establishment along a once quiet, now ever more lively, stretch of Dundas Street West in Toronto. The bar first caught my eye as I was walking in the neighborhood on a bruisingly cold night. A warm glow seeped across its fogged windows, creating a most inviting facade.
What was going on inside? What was behind the gold-smoked glass? In the frigidity of a Toronto winter, the humility of the storefront called to me.
The interior was simple: red brick, schoolhouse tables, industrial stools, amber wood all over, including the L-shaped bar at the back of the room. Ten tables in all, including alcoves, shoulder nooks, and quiet, tucked away corners. Behind the bar stood dozens of bottles of wine, along with a large hanging chalk board informing one of the nightly food specials. And when the menu was placed in front of one, it came bound in that most Canadian of all schoolhouse objects: the dougitaine [sic].
It is difficult to describe the sense of comfort one feels in this tiny bar. Sitting on the raised stools with a partner, you may be engaged in the first, delicate dance of human intimacy with her. Lounging in the alcoved tables with old friends, you may be discussing the chaos of the world around you, or more likely the sadness of days past. Chatting with the barmen, you learn of their modest beginnings: two brothers who grew up in the neighborhood, wanting to open their own place along the streets they know so well. The bar fosters a conversational back-and-forth: there are no distracting flat screen TVs, no gimmicky side shows to keep customer interest. Only good wine and diverse, low-fi music.
On a recent Saturday night, you could find a cross-section of downtown Toronto life: lawyer liberal-wonks cheque surfing with their bar-exam girlfriends; two college students on an early date, both pretending to know more about wine and fashion than they really do; a literary loner with Richard Ford and a glass of deep red in front of him; late 50s baby boomers sharing a bottle of wine, all respectable sweater-vests and pearls, excited to be out for one night of the week.
Later in the evening, near closing time, a group of true downtown scenesters arrive: achingly beautiful women, all rolling curls and lacy skirts (a trembling fuck you to the winter cold outside), and their brooding men, all plaid button ups and heavy beards, dirty chic toques rounding out the look. They order two or three bottles, rush off to a corner to gossip and text, the drama of an entire generation captured in their pristine, youthful jocularity.
I know what you’re thinking: bourgeois intellectual despairs at the state of the world and finds comfort in his downtown wine bar. And maybe there is truth in that cynicism. After all, the world’s violence is not going to be solved by drinking wine in urban jewel boxes.
And yet, let me indulge in bourgeois lassitude for just a moment. Spaces like Archive are important, for they help keep us human in a world that is standing up to its neck in blood. They are also themselves eloquent arguments against individualist malaise. In Canada, most of us have made the unfortunate decision to live in suburbs, cut off in big, energy-draining houses. Netflix, Sportsnet Hockey, and the shopping channel ensure a kind of cloistered alienation, allowing one to sink into the depths of a life and rarely come out. Given that our suburbs are criss-crossed by freeways, which themselves push communities ever father from one another, it is almost impossible not to be isolated in their vast coldness.
Archive is the antidote to our 21st century’s particular form electronified disconnection. It is a space for discussion, fellowship, drinking, jokes, for the echoing debates of politics and the blood-in-the-mouth pains of love. These are the rhythms that seeps across the tinted warmth of its storefront windows, beckoning others to come inside.
Certainly, a night with friends at Archive, or an hour spent there after work sipping a glass of wine, is not going to solve the miseries brought to us by Watching, by a world gone mad with inequality and suffering. Yet Archive, as a space of refuge, can provide us the pleasure of the tongue and the mind, promising that maybe some different mode of being is possible.
Does this all sound terribly depressing? The fact that the only horizon of comfort we can find is a bar in a trendy neighborhood, where we can do nothing but complain about the world and drink to its demise?
Yes. It is. But try as we do, crisis finds us, and will outlive us. As we navigate its miseries, we still must care for ourselves. What good is this life if there can be no pleasure and connection within it?
So I for one salute what the owners of Archive have accomplished. They have created a space of intimate care, nestled in a city, a country, and a world whose darkness we can barely look at, its puncturing force lacerating us day after day.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.
Images From Karolyne Ellacott, Toronto Life.