I did not know true darkness before coming to Mongolia. Having spent most of my life in northern New Jersey and western Europe, I never managed to conceive of night as anything more than the waltz of blue and orange shadows over the cities and towns where I slept.
Mongolia showed me true obscurity. When the power goes out across my valley, I cannot see anything beyond my window, save for the stars. I may as well be living in a space station, admiring distant galaxies as they float by.
To my great surprise, I find refuge in darkness. It shields me from the demands of my employers and provides an excuse to retreat from human contact. In darkness we can contemplate the world without falling for the relentless, deceptive charms of a civilization always devising new ways to bend us to its will. We can find true solitude in darkness, an opportunity to reflect on our lives, make decisions, refine principles and arrive at judgments.
Darkness can also thrust us into dangerous situations in which we have no recourse but to trust in our wits and the favors of chance. If you find yourself alone and lost in the Mongolian countryside at night, your only hope of returning to civilization before dawn is to walk toward the little lights flickering in the distance. If you’re lucky, you may come upon a village or a campfire; if not, you may find yourself paralyzed by the cold or facing a starving wolf eager to acquaint you with the lower departments of its baying digestive system.
The Dark Side of Artificial Lighting
This brand of true darkness may soon disappear entirely from the North American continent. In her September 2014 article on light pollution in Arizona, AZ Central reporter Megan Finnerty writes, “Scientists estimate that in about 10 years, America will have only three dark patches of land where people will be able to clearly see the Milky Way and where they'll be able to do high-quality astronomy and nocturnal wilderness research.”
These final outposts of obscurity only exist in the western United States, in “Southeastern Oregon and Western Idaho; Northeastern Nevada and Western Utah; and Northern Arizona and Southeastern Utah — the better part of the Colorado Plateau.”
Even these bastions of darkness are under constant siege by the waves of artificial light radiating from America’s urban corridors. “The light sprawls of the greater Las Vegas and Phoenix areas imperil dark skies in both the Colorado Plateau and northeastern Nevada and Western Utah,” Finnerty writes.
The end of darkness parallels the ruthless assaults on sleep perpetrated by our economy. Artificial lights serve two immediate purposes: to improve our security and increase the amount of time we can devote to work. Though an illuminated world may well be a safer one, the obliteration of darkness extends the amount of time we can spend working, reducing our opportunities for idleness and rest.
Sleep, as Marx once wrote, is a “natural barrier” to labor; sleep, as of yet, cannot be monetized. This poses a serious problem in a world governed by a ceaseless, ever-quickening cycle of production and consumption.
“Of course,” writes the art critic and essayist Jonathan Crary in his polemic 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, “no individual can ever be shopping, gaming, working, blogging, downloading or texting 24/7.” However, he continues, “since no moment, place, or situation now exists in which one can not shop, consume, or exploit networked resources, there is a relentless incursion of the non-time of 24/7 into every aspect of social or personal life.”
Sleep, he concludes, remains one of the “very few significant interludes of human existence...that have not been penetrated and taken over as work time, consumption time or marketing time.”
And yet, as Crary’s research demonstrates, we are sleeping less than ever before.
“The average North American adult now sleeps approximately six and a half hours a night,” he writes, which is “an erosion from eight hours a generation ago” and “ten hours in the early 20th century.” This is no accident. The end of the 20th century heralded the victory of a new kind of capitalism, one that celebrated consumption as labor and promoted corporate titans and entrepreneurs as its heroes, men or women entirely devoted to their work, unafraid to go days without sleep, to sacrifice everything in the name of profit and professional glory.
This vision continues to flourish at our expense. According to a study published in the Spring 2012 issue of the International Productivity Monitor, cited in a March 2014 article published in Counterpunch by Pete Dolack, “the real median hourly wage in the United States increased 4.0 percent, yet labor productivity rose 80.4 percent.” Had the real median hourly wage “grown at the same rate as labor productivity, it would have been $27.87 in 2011 (2011 dollars), considerably more than the actual $16.07 (2011 dollars).”
In surrendering most of our waking hours to production and consumption, we gradually lose our potential to forge an identity not entirely centered on an obsession with individual acquisition.
Writing for The Guardian last September, the Belgian psychologist Paul Verhaeghe, depicts the rise of a terrifying new society, one in which ordinary people must develop psychopathic traits to ensure their financial and social survival. “Meritocratic neoliberalism,” he writes, “favors certain personality traits and penalizes others.”
Solidarity, for instance, “becomes an expensive luxury and makes way for temporary alliances, the main preoccupation always being to extract more profit from the situation than your competition.”
The defenders of what Verhaeghe calls “meritocratic neoliberalism” claim that this system provides us with more freedom than ever before. Not so, answers Verhaeghe:
We are indeed freer than before, in the sense that we can criticize religion, take advantage of the new laissez-faire attitude to sex and support any political movement we like. We can do all these things because they no longer have any significance – freedom of this kind is prompted by indifference… Our presumed freedom is tied to one central condition: we must be successful – that is, “make” something of ourselves… A highly skilled individual who puts parenting before their career comes in for criticism. A person with a good job who turns down a promotion to invest more time in other things is seen as crazy – unless those other things ensure success.
Community Continues After Hours
Luckily, there are parts of the world where this ideology has yet to penetrate entirely. Though Mongolia faces rapid integration into the global economy, its people maintain an ethic that remains resolutely — albeit unconsciously — counterproductive.
In his collection of short stories, S’Abandonner à Vivre, the writer Sylvain Tesson coins the term “pofigism” to identify an attitude he considers unique to the Russian soul. Pofigism, he explains, denotes a joyous resignation, a sense that little will come of hope and ambition.
“Those who practice pofigism,” writes Tesson, “ abandon themselves to living.”
Mongolians — especially those in the provinces outside of Ulaanbaatar — would appear to fit this characterization just as well. When Mongolians set up appointments, they do not say they will meet you “at 10:30”; instead, they tell you to expect them starting at 10:30. Meanwhile, they could be distracted by all manner of things: chance encounters on the street, the needs of family members or even the wish to take a long stroll. No one makes much a fuss about tardiness; the appointment will happen soon enough and you may as well enjoy doing something else in the meantime.
As a foreigner, it is easy to find this attitude frustrating. Mongolians take phone calls from friends and family members at any time of the day or night regardless of whether or not they are in meetings, at work, or in class; they skip appointments when the mood takes them and change plans without warning.
Mongolians can also vex foreigners by not respecting the boundaries normally set for strangers and new friends in the West. My coworkers routinely stop by my apartment at eight or nine o’clock on Saturday and Sunday mornings, or late at night during the week, only to leave hours later having exhausted my provisions of meat, beer and vodka.
I am overjoyed. Having recently moved to western Mongolia, I am now making friends. I quickly learned that Mongolians reciprocate hospitality. After sharing a meal with me in my apartment, my Mongolian friends begin texting me almost everyday to ask if I need anything, if I was not too lonely, if I might want to join them for a dinner with their friends. They open their homes and always offer more than I could ever hope to repay.
I most admire their complete lack of pretense. If they ask questions about my home and my culture, it’s because they really want to hear the answers, in all their complexity. They encourage me to question them about Mongolia and the places they grew up in; they always answer honestly and at length.
This lack of pretense also manifests itself in the form of a lucidity that might appear to most career-driven, success-obsessed Westerners as difficult to bear. My Mongolian friends know they will never leave their hometowns; they have come to terms with the fact that financial stability or professional success will only come at a very high price: giving up their time.
Instead, they choose to live lives similar to those of their parents, following the same patterns of youth, middle and old age, never becoming rich and never becoming so poor as to be truly deprived. They are bad capitalists who want nothing more than to pass the time in good company.
One night I joined a colleague named Pujee for dinner. Pujee graduated from college as an English language major at the top of his class. Although he wanted to work for a tour company, he began teaching English in Khovd City — the capital of Khovd province in western Mongolia — where he now lives with his wife and two young children.
“I could have gotten work in Ulaanbaatar,” he told me, “but I didn’t want to… The pay is better, but life there is more expensive and the commute is too long… At least in Khovd, I can go home at lunch and drink beer with my friends.”
The next day, Pujee introduced me to one of his former classmates, a young man named Galaa. Galaa once worked as an English teacher, but lost his job more than a year ago. He makes ends meet with odd jobs, supplemented with help from family and friends. Instead of buying food, he hunts and fishes. In his spare time, Galaa advises a local politician; this position is unremunerated, but Galaa says this arrangement does not bother him, as he shares the convictions of the politician in question.
“All I want is to do a little bit of good and see my friends in evenings,” he told me as we sipped vodka on the banks of the Buyant River.
At some point during our conversation, Galaa’s cellphone rang. He silenced the phone and tucked it into his jacket pocket.
“Not important,” he assured me, “just someone I work with... I'll see him tomorrow.”
After a few minutes of silence, Galaa turned to me and announced a change of plans. “Actually, if you’re free in morning, why don’t we go for fish?”
I nodded in agreement. Galaa pointed to the sunset and I smiled. It was getting dark.