Living in large metropolitan cities is not just a difference in size, compared to villages and towns that are still to be found at the countryside. There are more people.
More people means more houses, more suffering, more joy, more making love, more fighting over jobs, more food, more sewers. (It also means more books, more theatres, more pie, more languages, more colours, more… life.)
But is also means more alienation. For me it means also the need to get away, to be alone. Which is sometimes easier in a city full of strangers, than in a forest in which you’re the only person alive. (Something to do with being confronted with oneself, hearing one’s own thoughts, etc. See also this article on why people prefer electric shocks over being alone with their own thoughts…)
But even in cities, one is being confronted with oneself, precisely because of the alteriority of the people one is surrounded with. There are moments, where the Other Faces you. And this leaves one utterly vulnerable, and destitute of understanding. There is one group of people who knows this very well, and who are making a living out of it. By facing the people around them, approaching them, and consciously crossing the border of anonymity, they touch their victim and mirror their estrangement from themselves. And they know this is not a pleasant situation for the one who is running away from all authenticity that could perhaps be. So they offer an easy resolution. One is able to buy off this uneasiness. In return, one gets nothing. One is left alone, or in an extreme case, one ends up with some newspaper.
Of course, I talk about a specific subgroup of homeless people.
One encountered me this morning. Of course, he didn’t know I wasn’t impressed by him sitting in a wheelchair. He didn’t know, that the sense “can I ask you something”, has a very specific meaning for a philosopher. I thought about his question, asking me whether he could ask me something. I was tempted. I like questions, I find them an important means to come to a new understanding of the world and the life we live. But this was already a question he was asking me. Why postpone the asking of a question, by positing the question whether it is okay to ask something.
There are of course reasons why one can postpone or prolong human interaction. Most probable reason in this case is the bonding of us, two people bound by interaction. By choosing to giving him permission to ask me something, I already had to acknowledge him as a person, as a fellow other, one whose face I couldn’t say ‘no’ to. This pre-question is some kind of trick, to make me feel connected and to have to answer the following question positively. Or negatively, but that would mean that I would break off the human connection just established.
Of course, I wasn’t sure what he was going to ask. He could ask for directions, he could ask to marry me, he could ask me for a smile. (He could have just read Blanchot, and ask “I’m afraid; would you accompany me for a moment?” (The Step Not Beyond, p.60)) But being primed by being asked this question hundreds of times before, knowing the humiliation that follows – for I would not only refuse to give money, I will also have taken up his time by allowing him to connect to me – I said: “No.”
Of course, I had already stopped walking at this point, pondering over the meaning of the pre-question and the best response. While looking at him – for where else to look, but to the one who questions? My “no” made him respond: “But you don’t even know what I was going to ask, you Sau.” ‘Sau’ being a very rude thing to say, something like ‘bitch’, although literally related to the word ‘sour’.
I walked on. Happy I had limited my human connection to a minimum, for this offensive word to not touch me (at least, not too much). And sad, because another instance, another possibility of meeting the other, was forever lost.
ps. It’s good to note that asking for money, is not a question but a request. Just saying.