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The Abyss

‘Developing mass gymnastics is important in training children to be fully developed communist people, to be fully developed communist man, one must acquire a revolutionary ideology, the knowledge of many fields, rich cultural attainments and a healthy and strong physique. These are the basic qualities required of a man of the communist type. Mass gymnastics play an important role in training schoolchildren to acquire these communist qualities. Mass gymnastics foster particularly healthy and strong physiques, a high degree of organization, discipline and collectivism in schoolchildren. The schoolchildren, conscious that a single slip in their action may spoil their mass gymnastic performance, make every effort to subordinate all their thoughts and actions to the collective.’

On Further Developing Mass Gymnastics. Talk to mass Gymnastics Producers. April 11th 1987 Kim Jong Il

I have seriously been considering a trip to North Korea. Sometimes it is good to stare evil in the eye. But I can’t. I am a blogger, a freedom lover and an inveterate photographer. Do you, dear reader, think I could abide by these rules? I like going different places, seeing different things and I am not a “Brit Abroad”. I never use flash inside religious buildings let alone diss national monuments yet the imp of the perverse that would like to take me to Norkland is the same imp that means I extend this courtesy to my hosts entirely because it is polite and not down to “rules”. In short it is because I am not a twat. You start sticking rules on me over things that are the common intercourse of the civilized and I rebel because I don’t need to be told not to whistle in church or not to piss on war memorials. Indeed I resent it. True civilization operates to a very large degree on the unwritten almost by definition.

Moreover, if I lost it North of the DMZ, the real pain would be visited upon my “guide”. That I could not stand. More to the purpose they really couldn’t. I would be being petulantly unfair to the most appallingly oppressed people on this planet. And yes I do mean “petulant”. I’d only have to stand it for a few days but they have it from cradle to grave with virtually no chance of escape.

I can’t trust myself to do it. I guess that is not my fault – that is what totalitarianism does to people. Irrational, arbitrary persecution causes irrational, arbitrary fear. Yes, I would like to see into the abyss and whilst I do not fear it seeing into me I fear my rational reaction to arbitrary evil. My reaction to what is the absolute antithesis of civilization.

Photography when being driven around is also restricted. Even what we would interpret as ‘day to day’ harmless scenes may cause problems. It is too easy to get carried away and think that it is not causing offence or would not put the guides in danger. This is not the case and therefore we ask our tourists to take a very responsible attitude even though it may mean missing the photographic opportunity.

I am way too responsible a shutterbug to feel confident around such arbitrary rules. I took quite a few photos of the Vietnam (and indeed the Korean) War memorials in Washington DC. The Vietnam memorial I felt particularly odd about. Some of the people there were there to see the name of a son, a brother or a father. I wasn’t. I understood that. That unwritten code, that subtlety in photography, that civilization is something I can do. Bizarre and arbitrary rules I can’t do. At a deep level they are antithetical to me because they are the fundamental tool of a totalitarian state. Don’t take my word for it. Read Kafka, Borges, Orwell… All three understood that an eternally mutable, utterly opaque and quite dementedly petty legal canon is the most potent weapon of the despot. Laws on criticising the Dear Leader are one thing but ones against photographing, “Even what we would interpret as ‘day to day’ harmless scenes” are quite another. That is straight from “The Trial”, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” or “1984”.

Do you see why? Do you see why 2+2=5 is so powerful? I am by training an astrophysicist. By inclination my view on mathematics tends towards a form of Platonism – the belief that mathematical truth is true because it is real and not a convention. 2+2=4 whether one likes it or not. Like the burning bush, “It is“. Totalitarianism is the invention (by which I mean the betrayal) of reality. True evil, utter evil isn’t just moral evil but ontological evil. That is why it was not enough for Winston Smith to love Big Brother but to genuinely believe false arithmetic. That is why K was never told his alleged crime, that is why the languages of Tlön don’t have nouns. Only without reality is anything possible. The ultimate evil is not Sauron’s orcs -they are trivial, cartoon evil, obvious evil. They are palpable evil because they are even ugly and all that. Utter evil isn’t like that and doesn’t twirl a moustache or have a Persian cat. Some people executed in Stalin’s purges thanked those who ruled them as being deserving of death. They did this genuinely. That is the quintessence of evil. That is 2+2=5. That is the evil of North Korea. That is six impossible things before breakfast time. It is not the mere prosaic evil of rape, pillage and murder (though they follow in it’s wake) but a crime against civilization, common decency and ultimately reality itself.

And that is why I can’t go to North Korea. Because Juche is not just something I disagree with but an assault on rationality and reality themselves. That is the abyss because it isn’t even something I could call wrong in mutually understandable terms with a believer. It is fantasy made real, a semi-consensual hallucination writ in steel, concrete, blood and bone. It is evil beyond the scope of moral philosophy. Bad people do bad things all the time. That is simple evil. Utter evil is beyond that. I guess most criminals know at some level they do bad things. They might try and excuse themselves but they at least have a moral compass. Absolute evil does not. Absolute evil doesn’t just not know or care but is a redefinition of morality. The victory of absolute evil is not to be found in heaps of skulls but in little things. The skulls are the triumph and that comes later. 2+2=5 remember? Because if you can convince enough people to believe the petty lies then… Seriously. If you can convince the population of Nebraska that Wyoming is in Africa then you are well on your way to a heap of skulls to make Ghengis Khan doff his furry hat. Note here I really mean convince. Not parrot the party line but really believe it.

Real evil is not, can not, be just the invention of politics, economics or morality but of reality itself. That is the true abyss. Hell can be built on Earth but only by denying reality. Hell is not just a moral lapse but an ontological one. Hell is 2+2=5. Hell is the absence of the real. Don’t get me wrong. Getting your teeth knocked out with a rubber truncheon in a state re-education camp is real as Hell but it follows exactly from false logic. You might think bad primary school arithmetic doesn’t lead to evil but it does – it is the absolute requirement for the most foul evils. Lucifer fell because he defied God. Lucifer was smart enough to know God was… well, God but he defied that reality. I don’t believe the historical reality of that tale but I believe it’s essential truth. That mythic truth is the reason why Satan is to this day seen as the utter personification of evil. Lucifer’s sin was as much ontological as moral. Indeed I would say the ontological sin logically came before the moral one and that the latter followed from the former.

The wilful invention of reality is not the root of all evil – just of the most pernicious forms.


  1. Ian F4 says:

    For some reason, reading that gymnastics dialogue, reminded me of recycling.

  2. dfwmtx says:

    Oh, don’t worry. While the West has not caught up to the advances of North Korea, many fellow travelers have for generations been teaching Western children the importance of mass gymnastics and 2=2+5. We currently have many people in America teaching children that the healthcare they insist upon should not cost any money, either in the production of medicines and medical equipment, nor in the labor of healthcare staff from the lowly hospital janitor to the most acomplished and well-trained surgeon. This is why you hear things from the average American leftist like “the healthcare industry should be non-profit”. We also have many young leftists around the world ignoring the cyclical changes in the sun and how it affects Earth’s climate while putting too much emphasis on the pollutants of civilization (specifically Western civilization, mind you; any polluting of say the South China Sea by North Korea in the form of broken missile parts is Western propaganda).

  3. Paul H says:

    You’re right Nick, the definition of evil is forcing people to repeat as mantra the utterly illogical. We saw this in Eastern Europe a few decades ago, where (to quote a comment from a Hungarian in a blog comment I read the other day) they were told by the party faithful that the empty shelves were a preperation for complete abundance. At some point something has to snap, and boy did things snap in 1990.

    Unfortunately, we still have a handful of holdouts from that mass delusion that will be the legacy and shame of the 20th century. I completely understand your reluctance to put your poor schmuk minder in mortal danger for your wayward rule-breaking.

    Can I make another suggestion though? There is another poor benighted country where they follow that perverted (i)logic. However it is a place where you can photograph more or less what you want and where the rigid party rules are tempered by the lax culture of the native people. I really could never figure out how such an exuberent Hispanic culture could submit to the rigidity of the one party control that has dominated Cuba for the last fifty years.

    You can even do a little good and help set the stage for the inevitable change when that wiley old fox Fidel pops his clogs in the next couple of years. Check out this brave rebel and how you could help her by bringing a few old phones, an old decrepit laptop and maybe a few internet access cards…

    I know this is definately on my list of holidays to take as soon as I can get there. Avoid the package holidays and go meet the real Cubans on a language course or a salsa course.

    Paul H

  4. Mr Eugenides says:

    I went to North Korea earlier this year, though I didn’t blog about it. I think you could abide by the rules, and here’s why.

    Because after even a day in the country, you begin to get paranoid. You are taken to see the mummified corpse of Kim Il Sung and, I promise you, when you are instructed to bow to the waist three times in the company of sobbing DPRK officers and officials, you fucking do it. I stayed in a hotel straight out of The Shining, and as soon as I wandered towards the front door the receptionist bolted out from behind the counter and ever-so-apologetically told me I couldn’t leave unaccompanied. A friend had told me a story of a diplomat – a diplomat! – who was held in Pyongyang Airport because he had thrown his copy of the local English-language propaganda rag in the bin in his hotel room, thus desecrating the photo of KJI on the front page. I made very sure not to do the same.

    Even though you’re only experiencing the tiniest fraction of the restrictions under which real people there have to live, like standing in Mandela’s cell in Robben Island for a minute or two and looking out through the bars, a trip to North Korea is a sobering reminder of what it’s like not to be free. Everyone who has the opportunity (and the money) should do this.

    (Also, you’ll have a fucking blast, it’s great fun. You’ll probably be drunk every night.)

  5. Lynne says:

    Aw lighten up Nick. Every cloud has a silver lining you know.

    There’s stuff like…er.

    Oh and there’s that spectacular site at…um.

    And what about…you know…other tourist stuff like a real Izal roll hanging from string in the hotel latrine.

  6. NickM says:

    C’mon Lynne… I do the funnies here a lot.

    Cuba… I’ve been near to Cuba. I’ve been to the Florida Keys and Miami. Somehow I expect that’s the closest to un-trammelled real Cuba you can get. Certainly the area isn’t short of Cubans. And one of the most sobering sites I ever saw was the collection of “boats” the Florida State Park Service kept on the Dry Tortugas. Anyone who risks 90 miles of open sea in those dreadful cobbled together tubs is not going to Florida because they quite fancy going to Sea World. Did you know “Sicko” was banned in Cuba? Michael Moore so utterly distorted the healthcare system there that they feared showing it. It showed essentially the healthcare the ruling class got and not the peasants.

    Yeah, maybe Cuba. Definitely Cuba when the wheel comes off. That’s a real holiday island.

    Mr E. Me drunk in North Korea – now that’s risky. I’d end-up leading a conga line singing, “I’m so ronery” wearing my Doug McArthur T-shirt. I do though get your point. It is very easy to “get into” a place. My wife saw the mummy of Lenin. She’d been on the swally the night before. She nearly puked on the dapper little fucker. This was post Communism and Lenin was still worshipped – any dissing of the Len-meister is dealt with strictly by guards with AK-47s. If she had puked on Lenin, well forget about her Russian degree… She would have had many years in Siberia to master that tongue. Apparently, Lenin was closed for restoration the first time she enquired. Apparently every year they plump him up, stick formaldehyde up his arse and give him a nice new three piece suit and a spotty tie. To give Lenin his due he wanted to be buried in a country churchyard with his mum and would be horrified at being mummified. I think that was Stalin’s idea.

    As to tourist sites… Museum of Communism, Prague, just off Wenceslas Square. It revels in being a free-market enterprise. It gives it’s address as “opposite Benetton and above McDonalds”. It’s advertising image (when I went) was a Russian doll with vampire teeth. I really like Prague. The Czechs are quite brilliantly mad. They were given the biggest statue of Stalin in the world as a prezzie. They dynamited it. Go up to the meteronome as well. The views are spectacular and that relic of Communism is now frequented by Czech kids on skateboards.

  7. That point is made (exhaustively) in Atlas Shrugged. An entire chapter is dedicated to John Galt’s speech in which he decries those “mystics” who are out to persuade you to ignore your own convictions, substituting them with theirs. And that the only rational end point of such a substitution is death.

    I can’t say it’s a fun read; but it’s not wrong.

  8. An interesting case of doublethink: Venezuela right now.

    As you may know, Chavez is currently pushing through a batch of new laws that will (a) have him “ruling by decree” up to the next election in 2012, (b) make it a criminal offence to be “anonymous” on the Internet, (c) make Internet Service Providers responsible for whatever their customers publish on the Web, and (d) make it an offence to publish anything that “challenges legitimately constituted authority”. There’s other stuff too: it’s a delightful read. You may also know that he recently promoted an army officer who stated that an unwelcome election result next time round would result in a military coup “to safeguard the Revolution” (against the wishes of voters). IOW, he’s running scared. But what really caught my attention today is that one of the new laws prohibits funding of political parties and ONGs by foreigners. Not just by foreign states, but by anyone outside the country. That is quite remarkable given that Chavez has, over the years, funnelled substantial amounts of his oil windfalls into political movements in other countries. So what is OK for Venezuela to do is not OK for the Evil Yankee Empire, or for that matter anyone else. Truly, 2+2=5.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the Left in other countries square their support for Chavez with the laments of e.g. Amnesty International, who are now saying they will have to run down their Venezuela operation given that most of the cash it uses comes from outside the country.

  9. Paul Marks says:

    A very good post Nick – one of the best I have read (by you – or anyone else).

  10. Woman on a Raft says:

    What Paul Marks said.

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