Once upon a time, Robert Holm got an idea. He experienced an enlightenment, from which point on, guided by a ray of this light—and protected from the utter darkness on every side—he sallied forth to remake the entire world from the ground up.
This was in the era of big peck. (Not big tech, as people in those days mistakenly dubbed it.) The era that earned its nickname as a result of the human activity that typified the times: the degrading tapping of letters on slippery display screens. Everybody pecked everywhere in those days.
The era of big peck and its manners. To be clear, Robert Holm held these manners in contempt, and was overjoyed whenever a pecker banged his head into a pole. Walking is for walking, not pecking, you pecking moron!
Robert saw the tediousness of pecking—including his own—as being in contradiction with the joy of enlightenment that he had experienced in Shanghai. And yet . . .
Robert was a skilled iPhone pecker. Such slender little fingers, and yet how they pounded away! His tweets, with which he ultimately reshaped the world, were wrought of steel. He had both a plan and a design. A European from the European Union, yes, from birth. But his refusal to turn in circles and shuffle his feet, his upright, straightforward way of walking, running, flying, so uncharacteristic of the European temperament in those days . . . People were flabbergasted.
Now it is shortly after his death. He was an even eighty when it happened. Eighty with an exclamation point as he would have said, for he spent a large part of his life insisting, “Everything is with an exclamation point! Everything should be with an exclamation point, since every second is a miracle!”
Every second is a miracle. Therefore we must spark the élan vital within us, and a lot of it, which Robert in his case achieved by slapping an exclamation point on the end of every sentence, including questions. In fact he did it so tirelessly that in the last years, before his end, it got to be annoying.
Robert Holm’s life journey! I am convinced I have something to say about his story, on which our story is loosely based. I counted Robert Holm among my friends. We spent many a night together in conversation in New Berlin. Not to mention that we spent more than a decade and a half together “managing the environment.”
Despite my being forty years younger, on many issues we saw eye to eye. He had trust in me. Six months ago, as he lay on his unconventional deathbed—hard! (“Intentionally hard!” he emphasized, even though it was an obvious lie)—it was me he confided his memoirs to. His instructions on the matter were clear:
“When you publish this, you are not to change a thing! Not a letter, not a line, not a space, nothing. I am Robert Holm. I am a star. A mover par excellence. A butterfly whose wing forty years ago moved the universe! So I know what and how to write! And for the publication date, put down ‘forty a i’! Don’t forget!”
40 A.I. By which Robert meant “forty years after me—that is, I, who had the Idea.” But more important, forty years after the Idea itself.
“You know what the idea was, right?” he asked, handing me a two-centimeter-thick notebook bound in brown cloth, with more than two-thirds of its pages covered in beautiful handwriting. He rolled over onto his other side, lifted himself up, and took a sip of green tea from a ceramic bowl. The thinness of his hand reminded me of the chopsticks that many of us had tried to use while eating in New Berlin in order to make Robert happy.
You know what the idea was, right? The question could not have been any more cunning. The question could not have been any more Robert Holm—old (“intentionally old!”) and annoying.
“Of course I know,” I said.
I stretched my arm as far as I could into his little cage and tried to prop up his back with a pillow. It was no use, I couldn’t reach far enough.
“Without you, we wouldn’t be here,” I added quickly to try to cheer him up. “Without you, we wouldn’t be here . . . or anywhere else, for that matter. We wouldn’t exist at all.”
That day, as he handed me his written bequest, even Robert assumed he had only weeks left, at best a couple months. He wasn’t afraid of death. He mentioned something about Socrates and his coming to terms with the last judgment. But I’ll get to all that later. To life, the process, the life process . . . the magnificence, which in Robert’s case hung the entire time from the slenderest little stem.
The reason I too decided to sit down and write is so simple it shouldn’t be hard to guess. I want to write for the sake of the truth. Not so I can play at being Robert’s Plato!
But there is also one other reason. The long and shall we say dizzying journey from which I returned a few months ago. I still have pain in my ankle, which I sprained along the way, and the way the broken index finger on my right hand healed is nothing to boast about. But I can’t complain. I’m back on the ground with all of you. Now I know exactly how our earth is doing and how many of us walk its surface. Mr. Dumitrescu, Mr. Lewandowski, Mr. Fu, Mr. Bystrický, Mr. Ferencz . . . I know there are secret and highly efficient water filters on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Top-notch technology, of the kind you won’t find in our country. I know something that most likely even Robert didn’t know.
But I have to start somewhere else.
I will start, logically, from that decisive day in Shanghai.
That spring day, a citizen of the European Union and the Danish kingdom by the name of Robert Holm had a pair of black Prada-brand prescription glasses resting on his nose.
The European Union was an attempt to unite what were then the world’s most economically developed countries, and within that group the Danish kingdom was the icing on the cake; a place whose frosted layers were slowly abandoning the earthly sphere and, like an airplane having risen to the level of its planned cruising altitude, now looked down on the world from above the clouds. And Robert Holm was no disgrace to his country or the Union. In fact in every substantial regard he was wholly up to par.
The frames of his glasses were made of a very special patented material called Optyl. For Optyl you had to pay extra. However, as I discovered after an hour of digging through the archive, the rights for its production, along with the resultant profits, belonged not to Prada Group S.p.A., but to Safilo Group, which was somehow tied to another manufacturer of eyewear and other products called Carrera. So Carrera owned (co-owned?) Safilo, which held the trademark to Optyl. Or something like that. We won’t even talk about the extra-thin anti-reflective Zeiss lenses and the patents for their various coatings, since that would only further snarl the whole tangled knot of relationships and rights, which moreover ceaselessly changed shape as the above-named companies’ shares were bought and sold on the world’s stock exchanges.
That was life in those days. It was a complicated, complex, dreamlike world. Twelve hours a day Robert wore on his face a clumsy-looking castle in the air, a ceaselessly shape-changing kaleidoscope of dozens of foreign “intellectual properties.”
From my retrospective viewpoint it was a tasteless goulash. The pride and insolence of corporations, the arrogant exceeding of limits, nothing less. And, on the other hand, human stupidity. Consumers felt neither embarrassed nor abused. Robert—and who in those days behaved otherwise?—in fact flaunted his foreign intellectual property. He didn’t tape over a single logo, and not only when it came to glasses. Below the waist he wore legally trademarked Nike sneakers and legally trademarked Levi’s jeans, and the rest of his body he covered in a legally trademarked North Face jacket. Foreign shoes, foreign pants, foreign jacket. It was ridiculous. But everybody showed them off. People shot each other over a pair of the right brand of shoes. Presumably in the belief that they would then live in the Logo forever.
Robert’s unadulteratedly name-brand glasses are now on display in a museum in New Berlin. You will hear a lot more about my beloved children, but I wouldn’t want to pass up this opportunity to mention them briefly now. Especially since Szymon and Zofia and I just recently went to the museum to see Robert’s black Prada glasses. I had a pen and jotted down the description of the exhibit:
A.30 / Robert Holm’s eyeglasses and the maniacal legal protections associated with them
The black synthetic material, its specific composition and the technology of its manufacture, had its own legal protection. Also protected was the Optyl logo, as well as the eyeglasses’ shape, including the line of the frame and stems and their joining by way of a metal hinge.
However, the main protection applied to the five letters that spelled out the name of the Milan fashion brand PRADA. No one was allowed to use these five letters in this combination outside of the clearly defined guidelines.
No one! Not even children!
When I read the children the label, Szymon laughed so hard he choked. Zofia, whose straight blonde bangs were cut to exactly the same level as the upper edge of the display case, and who therefore saw, so to speak, eye to eye with Robert’s glasses, dropped her jaw in amazement.
Once they had recovered, they started in with their questions, talking one over the other:
“So that’s why those glasses . . . Wait . . . No, you wait . . . Went to the Supreme Court?”
I put a finger to my lips and led them out of the museum to the square.
“Let me tell you the whole story.”
Robert Holm in those days had just one habit. Over the course of his dozens of working sessions and presentations, he would frequently remove his glasses. In fact he did it at least several times an hour. One could even say that, while at work, Robert had his spectacles in his hand more than on his nose, even at times when one would expect him to have his gaze directed at the data and tables that he was projecting on screen for his clients.
No sooner did he have his glasses in hand than he would busy himself with exploring the stems’ inner and outer surfaces. He didn’t make the slightest attempt to pretend that it was about ensuring the lenses were clean, which, after all, would have been understandable—a person cleans their glasses with the intent of being able to see better; cleaning one’s glasses is an expression of care and effort—but no, that wasn’t the case here. Robert Holm was in fact quite clearly interested in nothing else except the logo and the lettering, whether printed or engraved. It was indecent. Yet his employers never sent him packing in disgrace. Nor did they ever dock his pay.
For, you see, Robert was an expert. But not only that. In my opinion, the decisive factor was that Robert was also half artist—that is, for a certain type of person. Which is not to say that there was any opposition to him, some group of people who derided him and dismissed him as an artist. No, nothing of the kind. Rather I would say that he was an artist in full and for all. Though even that would be misleading without further explanation. These are difficult questions and take time. Were people like Robert Holm artists, half artists, or creatives? And was there any relevant opposition at all to them in society? To put it another way: Where in God’s name were the anti-capitalists during Robert’s professional lifetime? And if they were there, what they were doing?
“Yes, there is something to that, Zofia. No anti-capitalists. That brings us closer to the nature of the beast,” I said as we left Eleatic School Square and made our way back home again.
Robert could get away with his artistic eccentricities and creative excesses, the arrogant gestures with the glasses, because of the triumph of capitalism. The boards of directors and senior managers saw Robert Holm as a brilliant idiot. A Beethoven of marketing. A van Gogh of public relations.
“Now let’s go back to that decisive day, shall we? And don’t forget the frames, all right? With the word PRADA on them, yes? And this same name, in gold letters over half a meter high, was also on the sign for the building through whose revolving door Robert Holm was soon to enter.”
That day Robert Holm, along with three other participants in the China Brand Day conference, was on his way to a late lunch. The fact that the logo on Robert’s glasses was identical to the half-meter-tall version on the shopping gallery sign, where the group was heading to the seventh floor to eat, cannot, however, be dismissed as sheer coincidence.
It was a natural inclination. The universe was perpetually pushing Robert toward precisely these sorts of esthetically . . . piss-stained places. Regular contact with the starry vault, in which a panoply of constellations sparkled—from a small Montblanc fountain pen to a large Mercedes sedan—was the essence of his work.
Robert Holm was, as many of you know, an expert in brands. An expert in building brands and trademarks, in strengthening, transforming, and maintaining them. He was never ashamed of his profession, but for nearly his whole career he was afraid that people might begin to despise his profession. He was afraid of stigma and rejection, or worse. The reason why condemnation never came, no gobs of spit in the face, let alone the guillotine, must be sought somewhere amid the bushes that up to now we have only barely spread apart. In those first decades of the third millennium, people like Robert Holm had no natural enemies.
The shopping mall was Robert’s daily bread. Just as the pruner walks through an orchard with his shears, so brand expert Robert Holm walked through the shopping mall. That was his laboratory. An observatory from whose climate-controlled ground floor he could observe the entire oh-so-familiar celestial system, stacked in floors one on top of the other; some of the stars were in fact his work, so Robert could see his children thriving in any shopping mall in the world. Every so often, he would pause amid the perpetually beautiful shopping mall weather to pull his shears from his waistband and trim off a branch laden with juicy peaches. It wasn’t a perfect world, but the artificial celestial system wasn’t far from perfection. Let us imagine that world as a world beneath a dome.
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, just a few years prior to Robert’s above-mentioned trip to Shanghai, published the theoretical work Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals: Für eine philosophische Theorie der Globalisierung.
In his book, Sloterdijk describes how globalization reached the end point of its development and this new form of capitalism became the determining factor in conditions of life for people all over the planet. For Sloterdijk the key symbol of this process was the Crystal Palace in London, a structure of glass and cast iron erected in Hyde Park in 1851 for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations by architect Joseph Paxton. Visitors must have been awestruck by its grandness and transparency. The mid-nineteenth-century world had never seen anything like it; with so much grace, airiness, and natural light it was easily identified with honesty and openness.
Sloterdijk saw the Crystal Palace as an apt architectural metaphor for the globalized world. Globalization, in his view, had divided the planet into one and a half billion winners, who lived in an air-conditioned world, beneath a transparent but impenetrable dome, while twice as many people again were left outside, at the mercy of uncontrollable natural and other disasters. A human greenhouse. And, in contrast, a Syrian refugee, drowning at sea in sight of the transparent dome, in a desperate attempt to escape his war-torn home and reach Europe.
Sloterdijk was a great poet of his day, and his image of the dome and the lives of those beneath it seems fitting for my story too. The shopping gallery where Robert Holm went that day represented the same kind of ideal space. A space of artificially created fresh air, serenity, and feather-light elevator music.
This was the world beneath the dome. In this world, everything hovers at eye level and up.
It was four p.m. Vertically hung rectangular banners, measuring 150 x 30 centimeters, declaring in black letters on a red background in English: China Brand Day: International Forum on China Indigenous Brand and Brand Development, Shanghai, May 5–8, flapped from public light poles along all of Shanghai’s major traffic arteries, guaranteed to catch the eye of every visitor from the West making the trip that day from the airport to the hotel, or any other route. Every marketing expert had to appreciate the effortlessness with which the banners achieved their goal. China at the time was a country where everything was going their way. Successfully combining communism and capitalism? Yes, right here! Hypnotizing Western guests with banners? Yes, right here! You just have to pick the right colors!
This red never failed to capture the attention of visitors from the West. Dozens and hundreds of meters of it poured like milk into the Occidentals’ heads, and with it the most important information: name, place, and dates of the event. The organizers of the China Brand Day conference must have been rubbing their hands with glee. Robert would have bet money the Westerners’ eyes caught sight of the first red banner on the drive in from the airport. After all, that was one of the reasons why people from the West came here—to see red and the other remainders of communism. What a sorry state the Western stomach must have been in for a capitalist hamburger in a dry communist bun to taste like a delicacy!
China’s paw was toying with the entire little punch-drunk world. The title of World’s Strongest Economy was on the verge of passing into Chinese hands. Ten Chinese firms ranked in the world’s Top 20 Make a Fortune 500 companies. The country was expanding in every direction. Below ground, subways were being built in dozens of cities at such a feverish pace the mapmakers couldn’t keep up. Above ground, skyscrapers, solar panels, transmitter towers were springing up. Highways and high-speed railroads descended to earth on golden wings. Billions of yuan were being invested in science and research. The EU may have been most developed, but China had the most energy. No goal was too big for the Chinese. When they made up their minds to erect a statue five meters tall to communism’s grandfather, Karl Marx, in his birthplace in Germany, they did it. Like moving their king onto the European chessboard.
Yet not everything was what it seemed at first glance. There were at least a few dozen experts living in Shanghai who knew that those red banners, confined by aluminum slats above and below, fluttered out of terror and uneasiness more than anything else. Contrary to appearances, a heaviness weighed on the city. China tensely awaited what the Shanghai meeting would bring. Advance news appeared on CCTV, the state broadcasting behemoth. In Beijing’s hutongs, old men in worn leather slippers bemoaned the “fucking world of brands.”
Those were the years when China prospered in every area. Except one. While Denmark, with a population of four million, boasted brands like Bang & Olufsen, Maersk, Lego, Carlsberg, Jysk, and Ecco, the only brand that China had, unless you counted Karl Marx, was Tencent. No question Tencent made billions of dollars, in China and elsewhere, but the human brain didn’t react to Tencent, didn’t desire it, the way it did other brands. Then there were Baidu, Alibaba, Huawei, Lenovo—that rounded out the list of the most valuable Chinese brands.
Pretty sad. Huawei was a phone for losers. Perfectly equipped and fast. But did anybody riding the subway escalator deliberately hold their Huawei so people going the other direction could see it? The Americans’ iPhone represented logos, and anything else people had, they were embarrassed of. American logos made in China. Therein lay China’s tragedy. The American brand Dr. Scholl’s, specializing in products that helped remove calluses, had greater global impact than the crown jewel of any Chinese company. Nobody in the world dreamed about Alibaba.com. As for Lenovo, no doubt it was a star Chinese brand, maybe the only one. But still, as Robert noted, “If anyone ever dreamed of having a Lenovo, they were probably dreaming about the original American IBM before the Chinese bought it.” Chinese companies and advertising agencies could arouse interest. But create desire for something intangible, ephemeral? No.
You wouldn’t have known it to read the conference materials, but the Chinese tiger was furious. It praised Chinese film, proclaimed the Chinese century. The only thing that stood in its way was the “fucking world of brands”! The tiger dominated every field, meadow, forest, and desert in the world; science, research, artificial intelligence. When it came to brands, however, the Chinese tiger got knocked flat by the tiniest needle falling off of any Euro-American pine.
This reality allowed Robert to feel good about being in China, useful, even a tad superior. Yet, for the most part, Europeans in China at that time who felt that way were a rarity. They were the last Mohicans, manufacturers of desire. Those fortunate few employed in a line of work that served as the last protective dome, a blemish on the Chinese miracle. Like a swimming pool after closing time, it was a place to hide for people who otherwise would have been condemned to living off the unconditional basic income, the term in those days for what was de facto support for the unemployable.
Robert Holm’s stomach was growling, and he was a bit worried about growing old, as well as a few other concerns, but they were all things he could survive. The truth was, in those moments before he entered the revolving door of the upscale iAPM Mall in the Puxi business district, he lacked for almost nothing. He had a job that earned him a living, despite being neither Chinese nor artificial intelligence. And inside, in the gallery on the shopping center’s seventh floor, he had a solid duck confit waiting for him.
The strong Western influence is visible everywhere in Shanghai, mainly due to the city’s colonial past, and Puxi district is one of the most European. The smaller streets around the transportation and business hub of the Shaanxi South Road subway station are lined with two-story buildings, many of which were designed by European architects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Plane tree alleys offer shade to the display windows of boutiques and cafes, with their vacuous OSB boards, each one featuring a single glass vase of minimalist design containing flowers on long bare stalks, in an accurate imitation of Western hopelessness. The plane trees, empathetic, chaste.
The hustle and bustle around Shaanxi South Road station is the same as in any other world metropolis. You can see the seven-story mall from here. While its minimalist interiors dream their deceitful dream of uniqueness just a few hundred meters distant, their only influence on this bustling spot is to amplify the feeling of life. Only someone who has heard the deathly whistle of an espresso maker in that desert a few streets away can appreciate the integrity and persuasiveness of a mass honking of horns.
Robert stands at a red light waiting to cross the street. His brain, as ever, is busy, active. When Robert wants to experience something exceptional, he imagines it. He is happy to wait. In the past twenty years he has traveled half the globe. He has been in cities where they have no pedestrian signals. He has experienced it many times and has no need to repeat it. He has known that exhilarating, childlike feeling of being amid a cluster of locals attempting to step into a heavily trafficked four-lane road as if it were the stormy sea on Cape St. Vincent. For a European it verged on the ecstatic. Part of it was the touch of danger. The size of the wave. Robert knows the value of these experiences. Knowledge of the human soul is one of the requirements for him to perform his work well. Big waves for big children. Has anyone ever come up with a better definition of a shopping mall?
Robert, the author of this definition, thinks about himself a lot. He doesn’t pay much attention to the three colleagues waiting at his side. He didn’t ask them to come with him. What they say is of no interest to him, and in fact neither is the conference in Shanghai. His main interest at this point is no longer brands, but poetry. Advertising slogans, the poetry of the era, poetry . . . The two worlds have never been that far apart, and by then Robert had crossed the bridge between them. This is what separates him from his companions. He doesn’t look down on his colleagues, it’s just a question of time. Robert is a step ahead.
He writes rhymes, puns, epigrams solely for his own pleasure. No expectation of any financial reward. Gratis. That is his killer wave, his unforgettable experience.
Irony is a burden he can’t seem to be rid of. His texts are fairly teeming with it. Could his strength be his weak point?
When he reads the Tao Te Ching, he is seeking more than just inspiration for advertising slogans. He publishes the texts he writes for free on Facebook and Twitter. Could this be the Way?
For the past few months he has been toying with the thought that he might stop and unhitch. Take a break to think things over. Soon he would be forty, and all of a sudden, for the first time in his life, another path was showing itself. If up to this point he had been sitting by the window, staring out at an empty landscape, now he could see another track alongside the one he was on, running in parallel. Where did it lead? Should he uncouple and continue forward, but in a different direction? Or did the other track lead backward? Was that even possible? A Way backward to a better life at the end? Robert would have welcomed the bonuses it would theoretically bring. Rejuvenation. Like a loyalty card for riding the railways of life. Anyone who is loyal to life and seeks tirelessly gets free miles.
He doesn’t appreciate how good he has it. He is spoiled and blows things out of proportion. But what really weighs on his mind is the fact that his body is drying out. When, dressed in only an undershirt, he raises his arms before he goes to bed and examines them, he doesn’t recognize himself.
“This isn’t my hand. It’s a thing. Rubber, wood, felt . . . It makes me sick to my stomach.” This is what he has been telling himself every evening the past few weeks when he looks at his upraised hand.
But that won’t help him triumph over the march of time. With each passing day, his quiet, haughty words—snobbish, arrogant, and familiar to everyone in his family—grew quieter, more humble as he lay down to sleep at night. The skin he cast at the center of his absurd nightly drama at first, without giving it too much thought, had moved farther away from the stage and closer to the seats each month. The greater the number of wrinkles, creases, folds, the more the rippling advanced across his arm, the more it looked like a pleated curtain, changing what had been distance and estrangement into a closeness that violated the boundaries of respect. The hand, Robert felt, had come to get him. He saw it hanging from his shoulder. His first hand. At thirty-nine.
Only this second birth was Robert’s true body. Only when, bit by bit, he began to see himself as made up of deteriorating parts, only then did it truly begin to be him. The desire to stop and unhitch was born along with this process of coming to full consciousness.
Gradually Robert’s hand became the weakest link in the chain between his highly valued head and his smooth silver MacBook. When he wrote emails home from China, he would talk about his hand as if it were smog, or the devastated environment in general:
“Remember when your Kindle arrived, Christian? The way it came so immaculately wrapped in cellophane? The purity of the lines, the feel of the paper, the form-fitting box? Flawless. That comes from here, from China. An unpackaged product is a miracle, a thing in a state of pre-being, as yet untouched by existence. It’s a shame Heidegger didn’t live long enough to unbox a Kindle. Existing side by side with this thing of beauty is the other side of the coin: the 3M filter mask that you have to buy the moment you step off the plane here. The poisoned water in the Yangtze River Delta, the filth, the chaos, the randomness, the acid foam . . . Is this Yin and Yang, Christian? I refuse to believe it. I can’t accept that there is any Way that leads between the perfectly conceived Kindle box and dead fish littering the shores. I don’t believe the Kindle and the fish fit together. And my hand on the MacBook is the same. I am your pollution, Christian “Kindle” Mikkelsen.
Excerpt translated by Alex Zucker