There was a time at the beginning of the Millennium in Switzerland when the word “Wachstumsschwäche” was all around. The 1990s were dubbed the lost decade. It seemed that everybody except the little island of wealth in the heart of Europe moved on. An American style think tank with a French name, Avenir Suisse, came into existence. Avenir Suisse was all about the successful future of the “small and open economy” Switzerland. However, there were contradictions (as always in Switzerland). A few big Swiss companies financed it. What made people doubtful about its independency. It delivered “the market is efficient, the state is bad” solutions to every problem. If you worked there people considered you a devil-like neo-liberal fundamentalist with no heart. Simon was one of the young heartless demons, and I was another. Since then the years passed. The Swiss economy has been doing rather well compared to the rest of Europe. Avenir Suisse has lost its devilish image (somehow boringly). Simon moved into finance. We lived happily ever after, met sometimes. In Locarno, at Art Basel, in Weggis. You are missing something? The frictions, the contradictions? Here they come. You do a living but you would rather prefer to do another. Simon is the financial demon with a literate soul, a soft version of Adrien Brody playing a gangster in Happiness Is a Warm Gun who clandestinely writes. Simon’s life imagined would be one of a writer living in Berlin, New York, Moscow, Val Bregalia, somewhere, anywhere. The life lived is one of an investment banker downtown Zurich. Driving a very nice car, wearing a nice watch. How do I know? I don’t. I don’t even know if Simon really wears a watch. Simon has a Fritz Zorn (from the book Mars) kind of anger against finance, against wannabes, against everybody. And at the same time he has this funny way to imitate people out of the blue. It comes all together. Life is one big grey in-between. So it is very possible that I got it all wrong as Simon actually comes from a literati environment and finance is the rebellion. How do I know? I don’t.
You have to cast the iron while it’s hot, they say. Supposedly that also applies to memories: write them down or crystallize them in some other form while they’re still fresh. Well, I beg to differ. In most cases, it actually makes more sense to pause and let the retrospective dust settle (provided you take your ginkgo regularly) before making any judgments. Because from a distance, you will see much more clearly what stands out and deserves to be remembered and what is just white noise sloshing through your brain. The issue is particularly relevant when it comes to so called “events”. By that I mean all things that lend themselves to a narrative format – weddings, accidents, conflicts at work, shopping sprees, fist fights, nights out, romantic encounters and, finally, vacations. The latter are the worst because in most cases nobody cares about them anyway. Which is not surprising considering that most narratives of a vacation start with A (“I really wasn’t sure what to pack, so I took everything”) and end with Z (“When we got home, the letterbox was full with birth announcements”). What happens in between is usually told in excruciating, unfiltered detail that makes you want to jump out of the window. Incidentally, I went on a trip to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro back in July and have been torn ever since about what to make of my experiences there. On the one hand, quite a few people were genuinely interested to read about them and probably consider me a chronic procrastinator by now. On the other hand, I wanted to spare them the aggravation of a proper travelogue. Hence I decided to do what’s most appropriate, considering the circumstances: wait, let the dust settle, have things take shape and share a few select observations that really stuck with me. Walking the walk – Needless to say, it takes a lot of walking to get to the peak: through rain forest, marshlands and vast expanses of alpine stone desert, on trails and barely recognizable paths, over roots, boulders and ice. I was with my friend N., so we talked a lot, especially in the beginning, in order to get to know our guides and the other helpers. That’s fun. But there’s only that much to say when you walk eight to fourteen hours a day. So you have a lot of time to think. Strangely, that didn’t occur to me right away. In fact, it took a conscious effort to realize that my mind was engaged in thoughts. But once you realize you’re thinking, the question becomes: what are you actually thinking about? It’s an odd question in a way, and yet it’s not. Because this is not the focused, problem-solving type of thinking. It’s the random and incoherent type that resembles a thunderstorm of neurons firing ideas, pictures and faces with breathtaking speed. That’s why I have a hard time reconstructing what went through my head during the days of the ascent. There might have been things like: what do you want to change in your life and how? What’s important? What are you capable of? When are you going to wear that snazzy new suit that’s hanging in your closet unused? How have you failed yourself and others? Hell, aren’t you a great guy anyway? Who and what do you care about? Who do you want to be? The long stretches of silence when climbing a mountain seem perfect for pondering these big philosophical questions, but they don’t seem to produce anything tangible. The mind flies off on one tangent and then another and then the next one – they’re loosely related in the sense that they’re the result of all the eclectic information that has been accumulating in your head over time, but ultimately disconnected. You think, but sub-consciously rather than actively, and that’s a distraction. The guides are keenly aware of the volatile nature of the mind, because what they advise you to do is the opposite of thinking. They make you follow a rigorous daily routine and focus on the immediately following activity, the upcoming steep ascent, the next meal. It’s a difficult challenge for the mentally restless but useful and necessary. The further you progress, the greater the effects of the altitude and the less connected you feel to what’s below. Hence the mind tends to wander even more. Above 3500 meters, you look down at the immense cloud blanket and get an intense sense of remoteness. However, the “escape” that one hopes for is an illusion – it’s a transitory phenomenon and it takes a lot of effort to maintain it for more than a few hours at a time. It disappears as soon as you catch yourself – thinking. Hemingway – I always wanted to read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” on Mount Kilimanjaro. Ok, that’s a lie. But I did it anyway. Bundled up in my all seasons sleeping bag and equipped with a headlight, it took me about half an hour to breeze through the 25 pages of Hemingway’s short story. It always struck me as odd that two dozen pages can be considered a famous author’s finest work. Reading them on the exact mountain that so prominently features in the title, disappointingly, didn’t help to prove that point, because the mountain doesn’t matter. It is one of many ways in which the story defies expectations – that is actually one of its greatest and most disturbing qualities. Kilimanjaro is a supporting act in the plot at best, an extra at worst. It is a looming, mysterious presence that acts as a gateway to the afterlife. Except for its whiteness, the physical properties of the mountain aren’t even mentioned. What makes is difficult to appreciate “The Snows” is its desolate and dark tone. Here we are, witnessing a cynical, alcoholic writer die from a rotting leg, raving about his swashbuckling yet wasted life and raving at the “rich bitch” wife at his side. And although there is a spark of hope for salvation in the end, it turns out to be he last illusion before the lights go out. That said, it’s remarkable what depth or character Hemingway manages to achieve in the space of a short story. Not only do we learn about a destructive relationship and the inner life of a jaded character, but that character takes us on a ride through the Austrian Alps, the Hotel Crillon in Paris, the shores of Palm Beach, Constantinople, where “he had whored the whole time”, and to the front lines of World War I. Interestingly, he also proves my earlier point: “You kept from thinking and it was all marvelous.” Summit – You have to earn the summit attempt on the four preceding days. What you get in return is a surreal experience enhanced by some pain. We left base camp at 4700 meters around midnight to make the steep ascent to the crater rim 1000 meters higher up in complete darkness. What we’ve been told over and over again would now be put to the test: “pole, pole” (take it slow) and full focus on the here and now. In fact, the lack of oxygen, the cold and the darkness leave you no other choice: you are essentially in a vacuum. Not only can’t you see beyond the cone of light of your head torch and have a hard time breathing, you also maneuver in an environment devoid of purpose. Sure, you want to make it to the top, but you mustn’t think about it. Because the mind will play games with you. Many people fail because they are mentally on the summit already without having done the physical work. It’s a recipe for disaster. To avoid it, you have to force yourself into a self-imposed mental exile and block out any distractions. And all will be marvelous. Once you’re in this zone, a number of strange things happen. Suddenly, time is condensed into infinitesimally small increments: the next step, the next breath, the next rock you tread on. The mind adapts to the physical necessities and limitations and lets go of any dead weight. It focuses on the task at hand, getting your ass to the peak, and nothing else. So there’s not only a temporal dimension to this but also a spatial one: the direction is unambiguously upward. This mental reduction of the effort into basic units of time and space is incredibly powerful. In fact, it is all you need. Thinking about eventualities has no value in this context – it is only the next increment that counts. If all human endeavors were as easy as climbing a mountain, the approach of breaking down reality into manageable pieces would be the panacea to much confusion and wasted energy. Well, they aren’t. That’s the beauty of mountaineering, I guess: while the body is engaged, the mind is at ease – relieved of a constant pressure to imagine, invent and analyze.
Out of all the big, abstract concepts out there, freedom has the most practical, existential implications. Hence the vast array of definitions, debates and controversies that have been attached to it since antiquity. If we add the body of liberal thought to the mix, things become rather unwieldy rather quickly. So, in the interest of simplicity, I propose an alternative definition: in democratic societies, money is freedom. Or more specifically: in the absence of political repression and threats of bodily harm, money is the primary means to self-actualization and personal freedom. Not a very popular thing to say, for sure, and yet everybody knows what I’m talking about. Money reduces dependence and gives us an opportunity to change our life in a positive way: build a business, do something socially meaningful (which usually doesn’t pay well), write a book, make a movie, support a charity, find yourself, find someone else, go fishing, sleep in every day, etc. In contrast, lack of money limits our options to those of subsistence and endangers our ability to reach our full potential. To be clear: this is not to say that money will have an equally salutary effect on everybody who has it, let alone that money makes one a better person. But it gives us the freedom to choose and therefore the freedom of will. There will always be the heroic, stubborn ones who disagree. But scraping by, even when those heroes do the right thing, is a rocky road to happiness and fulfillment. Often, it breeds resentment and frustration instead. In some jurisdictions, like Switzerland and Germany, civil law is based on the legalistic fiction “Geld hat man zu haben”, which more or less translates into the explicit assumption that every citizen has got to have money in order to honor his financial obligations. That is essential for a capitalist economy, the smooth exchange of goods and services and a functioning society. As a result, and in spite of protests to the contrary, money is actually in ample supply. And I’m not talking about Helicopter Ben’s bonanza of floating benjamins here. Even in popular culture, the “Geld hat man zu haben” principle is deeply entrenched wherever you look. Money is either glorified or treated as a given, a non-issue. While the money-centeredness of hip hop, pro sports and Hollywood is brash, in-your-face and has a surreal, almost comical quality, the treatment of money as a non-issue is much more interesting. Think about it: in most TV shows, the main characters are doing pretty well or are at least getting by just fine (all right, “Two Broke Girls” might be an exception in this regard). Charlie Harper in “Two an a Half Men” forever lives off the royalties for jingles he composes God knows when and lives in a swanky villa overlooking Malibu beach. The ladies in “Sex in the City” are all high-flying members of New York’s glitterati. A career in law enforcement looks like a great deal when judging by the living standards displayed in cop series like “Tatort”: inspectors drive classic cars, live in art nouveau apartments and collect single malts. Even the Simpsons live a comfortable suburban existence and the Griffins in “Family Guy” have Carter Pewterschmidt, Lois’ disgruntled billionaire dad, to fall back on. It’s all very middle-class and life’s a breeze. It’s also a reflection of the “Geld hat man zu haben” mantra. But if the fiction is true, then people must also automatically be free. The real world presents a surprising conundrum in this regard, however: societies that value freedom the most have the lowest savings rates globally, while unfree societies tend to save much more. In the US, the average household saves a puny 4% of its income, in Switzerland it’s 13%. The story’s completely different in Asia, where savings rates are anywhere between 20% and 50% but societies are, on average, much less free. It appears that there’s some sort of tradeoff between money and freedom as people compensate for a lack of freedom by building wealth, knowing that it will bring them opportunity. On the flip side, one could ask whether people in western democracies save so little because they take freedom for granted. That’s the main concern with money as freedom: it serves hedonistic rather than socially beneficial purposes. If we’re dead honest, though, we have to accept that as a reality. Freedom to us is not what freedom is to the people of Sudan, North Korea or Venezuela. Freedom to us, above all, is about self-actualization, about being able to do the stuff we desire to do. It’s the “pursuit of Happiness” part in the Declaration of Independence. It’s the infinitely multi-faceted, complicated and messy attempt at reaching personal freedom that Jonathan Franzen describes in his namesake novel. Its characters don’t struggle for survival, they struggle to find their destination in a free world that is full of opportunities, dead ends and contradictions. There’s nothing controversial about that. It’s just a different, more evolved, level of thinking about freedom. If you’re unhappy with your job but can’t quit because you can’t afford to, then you are, face it, unfree. So, yes, money has a lot to do with freedom. It’s no substitute but it’s the currency with which we pay for self-actualization in a society, in which the boxes for “Life” and “Liberty”, to complete the Founding Fathers’ phrase, have already been ticked. There is an unpleasant aftertaste to this because we know from experience that things can go into reverse quite suddenly. But like most other things, freedom is not absolute. Its meaning differs according to time and context. As we move up from the basic needs to the top of Maslow’s pyramid, freedom becomes an increasingly private concern, rather than a public one. It’s a much narrower type of freedom – and it’s one that can in fact be bought, in increments, with hard cash.