My Heroes – Visionary: Francisco Varela

This category could also be labelled “Everything”. What I have in mind is an award for someone who contributed extraordinarily to the “larger picture” we have of the world and mankind’s place in it, both in terms of a scientific understanding and in view of philosophical reflections. Nobody bridged these two domains better and more consistently than the Chilean biologist, cognitive scientist, constructivist and ordained Buddhist Francisco Varela (1946-2001)!

francisco_varela

When he died in 2001 of Hepatitis C, the world lost a brilliant mind and engaged scientist much too early! His legacy included a great deal of insights for contemporary constructivism, a connection between biology, neuroscience and human cognition, and new concepts like autopoiesis and self-referentiality, greatly impacting our modern view of the human mind and its potentials in the world fabric. Among his most recognised and rewarded publications are:

  • 1980 (with Humberto Maturana). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: Reidel.
  • 1987 (with Humberto Maturana). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala Press. ISBN 978-0877736424
  • 1991 (with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-72021-2
  • 1999 (with J. Petitot, B. Pachoud, and J-M. Roy, eds.). Naturalizing Phenomenology: Contemporary Issues in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford University Press.

Especially his works with Humberto Maturana are outstanding in the sense that they pave the way for a new definition of living systems and organisms. Autopoiesis describes the tendency of an organised system like a biological cell to sufficiently maintain itself solely by its own means and drives (but in exchange with its environment, of course), which is in contrast to allopoietic systems (like car factories, for example, that use the input of resources to produce cars but not themselves). Autopoiesis can be defined as the ratio between the complexity of a system and the complexity of its environment, with other words: we can describe autopoietic systems as those producing more of their own complexity than the one produced by their environment. Initially intended by Maturana and Varela to be applied to biological entities, it soon expanded to other fields such as cognition, consciousness, and social system theory as that of Niklas Luhmann. His tree of knowledge combines Heinz von Foerster’s first and second order cybernetics and the developmental and linguistic psychology of Ernst von Glasersfeld with Humberto Maturana’s and his own insights into biological systems. Therefore, he is regarded as a key figure (and his respective book as a key work) in contemporary constructivism.

From my perspective, it is not a co-incidence that he was attracted by the Buddhist worldview and its implications on daily life practice. I agree completely with Varela (and many others who recognise it) that Buddhist philosophy can be characterised as inherently constructivistic. Dependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda) becomes even more clear and convincing in light of Varela’s autopoiesis model! Thus, key ideas of Buddhism such as karma, dukkha, the mind poisons, emptiness, etc. fit perfectly into this picture. Moreover, since the early days of scholarly Buddhism (the days of Nagarjuna), it has a lot to say about consciousness, human psyche and mind, so that an exchange with biological and cognitive sciences seems due. Varela (together with Adam Engle) founded the “Mind and Life Institute” that facilitates the dialogue of (cognitive) science with the Dalai Lama on the connections between our scientific insights into the human mind and the Buddhist understanding of it. Many conferences with renowned scientists and venerable Buddhist masters have been held since then, with very fruitful output.

I call him a visionary because in his last years he tried eagerly to connect the puzzle pieces to a picture in which normative implications of constructivism become obvious. What does it mean for our understanding of ethics? What does it mean for individual well-being and the creation of quality of life in a social collective? Unfortunately, before he could elaborate his thoughts to the fullest he passed away. His last contribution was the combination of Husserl’s phenomenology with first person approaches from neurosciences (so called neurophenomenology). He inspired many scientists and philosophers alike to continue working on what he started. I like to see myself as one of them, carrying on the mission to fruitfully connect our scientific knowledge base with normative orientational knowledge for which philosophical ethics as well as sophisticated worldviews such as Buddhism can (and must) be a source.

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My Heroes – Contemporary Philosophy: Jürgen Habermas

My hero in the category contemporary philosophy definitely had the largest number of competitors. Apparently, for me, this is the most important field of human activity. There is no human progress without the great philosophical thinkers. I employ a rather wide definition of who counts as a philosopher: those who contributed significantly to the larger picture of society and individual in terms of ontology, epistemology and ethics (the three core fields of philosophical inquiry). Same as in the music field, I have many idols and sources of inspiration, all of which could be candidates for the “my hero” award:

  • Among the famous “classical” philosophers: Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, because their thinking is original and insightful. Interestingly, both were inspired by Eastern philosophy like Buddhism, and the attentive reader of their works will notice that!
  • The phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, because they contributed significantly to the foundations of my favourite philosophical position, constructivism.
  • The great American pragmatist and constructivist John Dewey, probably the best that ever came out of USA.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein for his clarifications on language and how it impacts our life.
  • Psychologist, philosopher and member of the Frankfurt school Erich Fromm, because his well-founded social criticism as expressed in “Having or Being” convinced me as a teenager and increased my interest in social philosophy and socio-cultural anthropology (here, I don’t mean the biological-archaeological direction of it).
  • Sociologist Niklas Luhmann, because he did ground-breaking work in the field of social theory.
  • John Rawls (after Dewey the second great US-American) for his incredibly convincing theory of justice with its veil of ignorance as the major tool in contractualism as an ethical theory.
  • Vienna-based philosopher Friedrich Wallner for his Constructive Realism as an epistemological model and “middle way” between scientific realism and relativistic empiricism.

Now, what happens when we take all these loose ends and tie them together in one philosophical figure? We end up at Jürgen Habermas!

juergen-habermas

Born in 1929 in Düsseldorf, Germany, he became one of the most influential philosophers of our time, mostly known and awarded for his contributions to critical theory and pragmatism. His academic interests and fields of inquiry cover a wide range. Anyhow, two major strands can be identified: socio-political issues (deliberative democracy, social theory), and elaborations on rationality, communication and knowledge. In the former field, his system-lifeworld distinction serves as a theoretical framework for constructive realism, and he added many missing links to Luhmann’s theory. More importantly (for me), in the latter field, he explicated the concept of communicative rationality in great detail so that it could serve as a basis for discourse ethics as an own-standing ethical theory (together with, but more convincing than, Karl-Otto Apel). It is certainly not an exaggeration to state that his ideas advanced my own academic field – technology assessment and S&T ethics – significantly. When today we have established efficient arenas of pragmatic discourse on scientific and technological progress as constructive input for S&T governance and policy-making, it is mostly thanks to Habermas’ achievements concerning ideal discourse, deliberative and participative democracy and a much clearer view on the relation between social systems and the cultural lifeworlds they are embedded in.

Jürgen Habermas is still active as a public commenter and intellectual mastermind. Find a list of his major works and a summary of his achievements and insights in this article by James Bohman and William Rehg on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and a list of his awards and prizes on Wikipedia.

My Heroes – Literature: Max Frisch

I want to write about a “hero” from the field of literature. I really want to! But I had some difficulties choosing one! First, I was very sure I would write about Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). He impressed me sustainably with his psycho-horror and fascinating crime stories. From my point of view, he had an incredibly good sense for the “inner” terrors of people that are much worse than outer threats like diseases, losses, monsters or villains. The most horrifying “monsters” are our mental constructs, and in poems like The Raven, tales like The Tell-tale Heart as well as in his unputdownable novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, he illustrated these destructive powers of our vulnerable psyche extraordinarily well. However, after reading about his life, it is impossible for me to name him “a hero”! Besides being a literary genius, he seemed to have been quite a fool. He was alcoholic, sexually obsessed by women, married his cousine when he was 27 and she was 13 (!), and was an eccentric unreliable person. Not very heroic.

Then I remembered that I read all the books by the two outstanding Swiss authors Max Frisch (1911-1991) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990). Actually, I like Frisch’s works more for several reasons. Dürrenmatt’s plays like Romulus the Great or The Physicists are outspokenly funny and intellectually deep at the same time, and his crime stories like The Pledge, Suspicion, The Judge and his Hangman, or A Dangerous Game are must-reads for every bookworm! However, Frisch’s criticism of postmodernism and his literary analysis of the ongoing alienation of man from his social and environmental lifeworld  (like in Homo Faber, Stiller, Gantenbein, or The Fire Raisers (German: Biedermann und die Brandstifter)), is much more profound and subtle than that of Dürrenmatt. My favourite book of his is the early work Bin or the Journey to Beijing (German: Bin oder Die Reise nach Peking)! It is a mental odyssey around the question How do we want to live our lives? and What is in our own power to do about it?, employing even a Buddhist touch of mindfulness, emptiness and inner balance. It is primarily this book that makes me choose Max Frisch as “my literature hero” over Dürrenmatt.

max-frisch

However, I was hesitating also with this choice. The reason is – same as for Poe – Frisch’s personal lifestyle. He was a notoriously unfaithful man. After his first failed marriage, he had a liaison with Ingeborg Bachmann (also a famous author). Over several years they had a kind of partnership that was dominated by dirty public fights and exhaustive pulling-each-other-down, affecting both their literary work negatively. Later, he married the 28-years-younger Marianne Oellers, but also this marriage was divorced after Frisch had several love affairs. He wrote about his sexual life in his novel Montauk (which is the name of a city in USA where he had an affair with a young American woman) which caused a public debate between his wife and him about where to draw the line between public and private life, ultimately leading to the divorce.

It seems, I have to find a compromise. Maybe, there is no “good literature” without its producer being a bit “weird”, notorious, eccentric, and unheroic. In any case, I learned a lot from Max Frisch’s works, and in terms of partnership conduct I’ll just take him as a negative example.

Real Music vs. Pop

Another story I remember vividly from my childhood is “The emperor’s nightingale” by Hans Christian Andersen. I had a nicely illustrated book in German, and now you have an even nicer Chinese version of it.

nightingale

Here is a short summary of the story: The Chinese emperor gets knowledge of a bird with the loveliest voice ever. It is a rather plain and ordinary nightingale – and the emperor and the citizen don’t hide their disappointment about this unspectacular appearance – but when it starts singing, however, everybody is amazed by its clear and beautiful melodies. One day, a gift from the Japanese emperor arrives: a mechanical nightingale with gold and gemstone applications that looks really precious and valuable. It’s melodies, however, are not as pleasant as the real nightingale ones. The people and the emperor, obviously more of the visual type, decide to give their admiration to the mechanical bird while the real nightingale is expelled from the palace. There is, of course, a dramatic twist in the story including death and regret, but no worries, it has a happy end! For now, however, this plot description shall be enough to explain a thought that I had after reading the story again.

It immediately reminds me of the contemporary situation of music. On the one side, we have great music, on the other we have good-looking puppets of pop industry. My definition of “great music” is related to its compositional sophistication, aesthetic value, or the creativity and technical skills that are put into it. Orchestral works, chamber music, blues and jazz, funk, reggae, rock, heavy metal, progressive music, even some of the electronic music like drum’n’bass, ambient or acid jazz – in these genres there is a good chance to find “great music” and admirable musicians. Music industry, in contrast, produces pop. The music is plain and boring, but the promoted stars look pretty, handsome, sexy or in any way “marketable”. The latter only exists because people are more competent with their eyes than with their ears and brains. Visual pleasures are easier to acquire than auditory ones. Moreover, music with high quality needs an understanding of music that many people don’t have or are too lazy to train. They are lured by the shallow but blinking and shiny pop business. Those who are really interested in music with aesthetic and qualitative value don’t need to bother, but there is one big problem with it: Acquiring musical skills and creatively producing outstanding music requires time and money. Also musicians need to make their living! However, the field of creative and valuable music is seared by music industry, because all the money is put into visually appealing puppets, because they are more promising for generating profit, because the masses (where the money is) are reached with prettiness rather than with musical quality. This shallowness (as a form of stupidity) will someday ruin mankind, I am quite sure! Music is just one example where it becomes very apparent. In more impacting spheres of society (technology, politics, economy, etc.) it will have devastating effects! Just saying.

Gender Construction

A while ago, we all (you, your Mom, me) went to the market together, passing by a baby and children clothes vendor. Since you needed new pants, we made use of a good offer: buying three pants for a discount. When choosing the three pants, it turned out that your Mom and me had quite different ideas of what would be good colours and designs for you. She chose mostly girlish items, pink, cute and with decorative applications. I preferred neutral colours with subtle patterns and designs that support outdoor activities and climbing play structures (you may say: somehow boyish pants). That made me think about gender roles and their formation. As a constructivist, it is out of question for me that gender roles and expectations are the result of socialisation and culture. Nowhere in our biology it is determined that female humans have to be or do like this and that male humans have to be or do like that. Gender shouldn’t even be a big deal! In reality, in many social spheres (education, job life, sexuality and partnership, etc.) it definitely is, but I don’t want to support that by indoctrinating you with such ideology. It starts with simple things like choosing clothes for you, is supported by our choice of toys, by the tasks we give to you and the expectations we have on your behaviour, performance and character, and might even amount to our idea of your partnerships and sexual orientation. I want you to grow into a free, open-minded, self-confident, self-fulfilled and happy person! I wish you will be able to choose freely from all the possible options that come along your way. There must not be any gender restrictions. It doesn’t matter if you dress yourself like a girl or like a boy, as long as you are happy with your choice! It doesn’t matter if your favourite hobbies and activities are typically boy’s domains or rather girlish, as long as you feel satisfied with how you express yourself and your skills. Be creative! Be weird! Be yourself! And don’t let any narrow-minded traditionalist tell you anything different! Gender (which must not be mixed up with biological sexes) is an element of the mind-deluding matrix that limits your freedom and diminishes your life quality. In the Buddhist sense, it is part of the suffering. Better rid yourself of that concept. As parents, we should give you all the support to do so!

pinkgirl

Two important topics are connected to this: Gender disorders and sexuality. Biologically, you are a girl. Maybe someday you will feel something is wrong with it and it turns out you are actually a boy in a girl’s body. This is not a seldom phenomenon. But from my point of view, this “problem” is only amplified by the stress that is put on you in form of gender role expectations. Your identity and personal integrity shouldn’t depend on whether your appearance and biological gender is matching with your actual emotional and cognitive perception. With this mindset, there can’t be any “disorder”, because the “order” is a flawed constructed idea. A friend asked me if I would mind if you were homosexual. Of course not! Who am I to decide who you love or who you feel sexually attracted to?! Again: Make free choices that suit you! Observe yourself and increase the chance that your choices are sustainable and viable! Be happy! What your actual choices are, then, is rather secondary.

The Pannonia Chronicles

The Pannonia Chronicles

One of the more unusual experiences of my life has been this: I was the dictator of my own country! Here is the full story:

Back-story

Here is an overview of my family’s countryside house. On the right, between our residential house and the way that led from the road to the landlord’s bee house, that small stripe was my friend Christoph’s and my most favourite playground. We called it “the forest”.

scheme

However, we grew up and the space between those bushes grew smaller. Therefore, we conquered a new “playground” in Autumn 1993. It was an area of ~200m² between our garden, the paddock and the apple tree meadow on which trees and bushes were growing. In the beginning we had to fight our way through stinging-nettles and branches. Before, the area was a bawn for chicken and ducks, the only man-made structure was an old chicken barn, about 80 cm high. Here is a map of the area as we found it (tree positions only approximately).

Pannonia-scheme1

The copse was surrounded by a fence, we installed a wire fence on the Northern end (in those schemes the right side) to mark “our” area. The old chicken house was used as a “desk”. In August 1994 we had an idea: In our “forest” we should build a real hut. After making drawings and plans, we asked our parents for material and built it. First we made a frame from wooden posts and sticks, and then covered it with silage film that the farmers in our neighbourhood use for covering the silage (animal food). We were so proud of our building that we celebrated its roofing ceremony and invited our families for a BBQ party. The hut was 3 meters long, 1,50 meters wide and 2 meters tall. I was playing (no, working!) in the “forest” nearly every day. Here I was king! I borrowed all kinds of tools from my father and built things, a table, a shelf and other things as interior for the hut. And sometimes I just sat there and thought about my life and that the world would be better if everyone was like me and not like all the idiots around me… In October 1994 we created a garden, fertilized it with horse dung and planted strawberries. In December we constructed an oven inside the hut to keep it warm. The first attempts were very terrible, the hut was full of smoke and the oven often broke. Then we masoned it with cement. We made a fire nearly every evening! We decided to have a cash box and paid “taxes”: 1 DM (~0,5 Euro) every 2 weeks. In the meantime we got a lot of material from our parents, like pots, a fuel lamp, and some tools. When we measured the area we found this data: Width: 6,80m, length (Paddock side): 9,80m, length (middle): 10,50m, length (meadow side): 16,50m. We counted 28 trees, 21 bushes and 13 small shrubs. At the end of 1994 the area looked like this:

Pannonia-scheme2

I often made candles by myself from wax remains (my mother often used candles in the house and gave me the remains when they were too short). In February, we added a part to the hut as a storage space for some new stuff that we got (a barrel, several cans, a ladder). The oven still broke very often. Especially the stovepipe was very unstable.

Rise and Fall of Pannonia

One day in March, on the bus back from school to Hoetmar, Christoph and I talked about our “forest” (as usual). Then I had an idea: Obviously it is “our” ground, so why not making it independent from Germany and form our own country? We needed a name for it. I remembered a class trip to the “Panorama Park” in spring 1994, an amusement park 100km south of Hoetmar in which the mascot sang a song that goes like “I am the Pano from Panorama Park“. This name “Pano” sounds so stupid that we often made jokes with it. I remembered this name and suggested “Pannonia” (written with double-n instead of only one) as our country’s name and we are the “Pannos”. Christoph agreed, so we founded Pannonia on March 9th 1995. This day became the “national holiday”. As an independent country we needed a flag of course! I designed this one (with MSPaint of Windows 95 on our very first PC):

Pannonia

We also made passports for ourselves. We were now Pannos and chose new names: I was Detlef Panno and Christoph was Otto Panno.

We added a second entrance gate on the left side. The oven got a new bigger pipe, and a secret underground storage box was constructed (to hide important things from my sister who sometimes came and stole our things). To protect our country we attached barbwire around it. The inside of the hut was a little too dark, so we added a window. I enjoyed such construction work very much! And the more we made, the more skilled we became. The first constructions all broke, but later we built really cool things! Of course I told my classmates about my country. Some friends from another village (Everswinkel) also founded a country then, “Joppe”. It was self-understanding that we were arch-enemies! Christoph and me elaborated some military strategies, constructed weapons and practiced on the meadow (sword fighting with sticks, shooting with a “pea shooter”, a tube with the finger of a rubber glove). We planted carrots, peas and beans in the garden, also the strawberries grew well. When we repaired the oven once again we added a metal plate on it. Now we were able to cook! Sometimes we made Ravioli (canned ready-made noodles). In June 1995 we added another part to the hut. We still constructed with the same style: a frame made of wood covered with big pieces of silage film. In the beginning we used white film because we got that from Christoph’s parents. Later we got more robust black one from another neighbour.

In August 1995 we affiliated a new “inhabitant”: a boy from my class called Steffen (Erwin Panno). In October, a 4th Panno was accepted: Stefan joined us (Herbert Panno). We had our first official big assembly on October 19th and 20th. First, we tried to organise our politics. With only 4 citizen, we decided that we wouldn’t need a parliament or government, but that we elect a dictator for one year. We called that “democratic dictatorship”. I was elected as the first dictator of Pannonia, probably because I was the one who spent most time there, because it was at my home. However, in order to keep our society balanced, I appointed Christoph as our agriculture minister (who had to take care of the garden), and Steffen as our minister of defence (but we called it “war minister”, planning defence strategies, but also “foreign affairs”). We also reformed our tax system (more money!) and decided to write a constitution. Then, the pleasurable part of the meeting started: We bought Ravioli, snacks and coke and slept in the hut. Actually, we also bought some beer, but we had to keep it secret, because we were just 14 (Christoph even only 12) and definitely not allowed to drink alcohol. That was the first time in my life that I drank beer. I liked sweet drinks (like coke) more, but it was cool to drink like the adults do. We talked all night about girls in our class, which of them we liked most, what part of a girl’s body is most sexy, and all these things that teenage boys think about. At midnight we had a night walk for 2 hours and frightened the neighbours’ dogs. Of course we were very smelly and dirty the next morning, but that was part of the game.

In November, we constructed a second hut. It was only 1 meter high, but we wanted to dig a hole inside of it. We had agriculture (our garden), military and thought we also need industry: mining. One side of the hut was left open, so we could dig and throw the soil outside. Now I was digging nearly every day. After 2 days the hole was 60cm deep. At the end of the year the hole had a size of 1,50m x 1,80m and was more than 1 meter deep. It was often filled with water that came from the ground or from rain.

In the diary that I wrote about Pannonia I found a mysterious entry from December 12th: Julia and Sarah (Christoph’s sister) occupied Pannonia. On December 16th the occupation was put down successfully. I just ask myself why it took 4 days (in the future, Historians will have to do some research into this matter!)… Since then, the two girls had their own space on the right side of the copse and – of course – were our No.1 enemies! In the meantime our arch enemies (formerly known as “Joppe”) were renamed “Sestania” (made from the first two letters of each of their names, Sebastian, Stefan and André). Actually, in school we were all friends, but for boys like us it was more fun to have “enemies” and to be “at war”.

Here is a picture of Pannonia at the end of 1995:

Pannonia-scheme3

During 1996, Pannonia saw major architectural advancements. In March, the old chicken barn was replaced by a two-storey tower, at that time our by far most sophisticated construction! The sand that we dug out of that hole was used to form a low levee around a wooden frame, a kind of bunker that had space for one person. Later it was fortified by an iron fence and a roof. The whole thing was connected to the hut above the hole which later turned into a tower, too. In May, we conquered “Lower Pannonia”, the North side of our country, by building an outpost: a hexagonal pavilion (classical Pannonia style: wood and silage film) with an elevated part in the middle of the roof. We made campfires inside this hut. The smoke could escape through the hole in the roof. One night we didn’t extinguish the fire properly, and the next morning I found wide parts of the film molten and burned. We were lucky that this didn’t turn into a serious bush fire! Here is one of the few real photos of Pannonia, taken in April 1996, when the bushes still had no leaves. Our silage film constructions looked pretty ugly – my Mom often complained about that, actually – but during summer it was almost invisible in the dense copse, covered by leaves.

1996-04 - Pannonia

Not only the architecture, also our political ideas advanced. As announced earlier, I tried to write our constitution. Of course, I had no idea about what a constitution should look like, so I took the German constitutional law and “translated” that into terms that meet our purposes. Most remarkably, the first sentence in the German constitution – “Human dignity is untouchable.” – didn’t make much sense to me. Dignity – what a hollow and hazy term! I changed it into “The freedom of the Panno is untouchable.“. In retrospective, it makes sense to me! What teenagers want to see protected the most is their freedom – freedom from parents, authority, limitations, and freedom to do what we like and to live out our ideas. Dignity is not much of an issue at that age.

In spring 1996, we recruited a 5th member, Benjamin alias Bruno Panno, but only as a “Half-Panno”, because his half-hearted commitment left certain doubts concerning his loyalty to Pannonia. By the end of the year, we attracted 4 further interested boys, all “Half-Pannos”, so that we can say that at the peak we had 9 citizen, counting all of them in. I must admit, I forgot who these others were (one was called Tim, I think).

A major obstacle for Pannonia was the lack of sanitary facilities and electricity. Yes, boys can pee everywhere, but for “big business” we still needed to run to my family’s house. Whenever we wanted to use electric tools or simply listen to the radio, I had to connect a 50 meter extension cord to the nearest plug in the garage (only possible when there were no horses in the paddock). Weather, though, was never a problem. We managed to make the huts rain-proof, they withstood storms and heavy snowfall, and with the oven it was even comfortably warm in winter. In summer, Pannonia was completely in the shade under the dense canopy of the bushes and trees and, therefore, not too hot.

We have been quite busy in Pannonia throughout the whole year, according to the notes I took. We constantly remodelled the area, built things, got more equipment, and made it a fancy place. The landlord turned his bee house into a kind of “holiday house” and gave us the discarded beehive boxes. We stacked them together as a locker shelf in the first hut. We finally managed to make the oven stable enough to survive our excessive night sessions with more and more beer and endless conversations about everything. We truly “grew up” in Pannonia! In October 1996 we held our second “National Assembly” (again, of course, combined with drinking and staying overnight in the huts) in which I was re-elected as the dictator.

Pannonia at the end of 1996:

Pannonia-scheme4

In early 1997 we turned the mine (in the scheme labelled “hole”) into a new landmark building, a three floor tower with basement, ground floor and attic. It was the tallest structure that we built, but at the same time the least used one. I guess its construction coincides with a shift of interests away from Pannonia as our favourite playground towards other activities like playing music (I had my band “no more lund”, for example) or doing sports (Christoph played football in the local team). I still spent much time in Pannonia, working or taking it as refuge from the evil outside world. However, our space was almost fully exploited, and also our construction skills have reached their limits. Childish ideas like our self-drawn “passports” lost their attraction, and also our plan to make Pannonia independent – an option that we seriously discussed and (at least I) dreamed of – gave way for more pragmatic and down-to-earth considerations: Pannonia was and will ever be a fancy playground and, Anno 1997, a place to have fun. But definitely NOT a place to bring girls or to demonstrate our “coolness”, which both became more important in our lives when we got 15, 16, and beyond. The huts were cool but, as we had to admit, also dirty, ugly and uncomfortable.

On the photo, taken in February 1997, you can find me looking out of our first hut (in analogy to a real country, if the huts were cities of Pannonia, this hut was always regarded as “the capital”), and the beginning of the scaffold construction of the central tower above the hole.

1997-02 - Pannonia

After two years of stagnation – no visual progress, no more national assemblies, no new members – and after frequent complaints about the ugly appearance of Pannonia’s “skyline” (at least in autumn and winter), we decided to tear it down in late 1999. In 1998, I still spent much time in the huts, but when my interest and motivation dropped, too, I agreed that it would be the most reasonable thing to do. We deconstructed (if not to say “destructed”) all the huts, recycled the posts and boards (my father and the landlord used them for other purposes) and threw all the rest, especially all the silage foil, into the hole that we dug and covered it with soil. That was the end of an era for me. One of the most exciting and important parts of my life was buried in the ground.

Retrospective Reflections

Why has Pannonia been so important for me? Why did I put so much heart and soul into this “project”? I am inclined to characterise myself – the 12-16 year old me – as extraordinarily introverted and as unhealthily misanthropic, almost sociophobic. The experiences at primary and secondary school of being teased and bullied left a deep imprint on my view of other people: Everybody is either a fool or an idiot. Obviously, people didn’t appreciate my qualities – I was good at school, could solve mathematical and empirical problems, had some practical skills – but focused on exploiting my weaknesses (being shy, not good at small talk, not looking “cool”, low self esteem). Pannonia – same as my Lego role-playing worlds before – was my way of escaping, my refuge. In this smaller community with my childhood friend and two classmates who were like me, I felt much better and safer than in the larger, unpredictable and inhomogeneous conglomerate of the school classroom or the boyscouts group. Above all, Pannonia gave me confidence: The proof that I am good at something, namely being the leader of something and, as such, making it flourish and grow. I was a worthy dictator, and not the fool that everyone else wanted me to believe to be. Of course, these are thoughts that I can only have in retrospection. At that age, I was not able to reflect consciously about these kind of issues.

The time between the age of 12 and 16 brings significant and crucial changes in personal development and interests. I believe, this is the age in which the future path of a person is paved the most. Besides playing drums and acquiring musical skills, Pannonia is my main source of positive life attitude without which I would have drifted off either into depression, serious misanthropy, or aggressive disorders. It served as an outlet for all my inner insecurities, instabilities and worries – and as an introvert I had many! The experiences of being respected by my peers, of sharing thoughts and secrets (in those endless nocturnal meetings around the fireside), of experiencing that I am just a normal boy with an inside world that is similar to others, was extraordinarily relieving for me! It also taught me how to expose myself in front of myself, something that is far from being trivial for a young teen!

Besides this psychological dimension, there is also a normative one, as I believe. The idea of making Pannonia an independent country was most likely inspired by the conviction that “we – with the values that we defend – would be a better society than the one that we currently find ourselves in“. We reflected directly and in open debate about values like freedom, justice, or fairness, when we discussed our constitution. From an uninformed, greenhornish, teenage perspective, though, but firmly convinced that our views are “right”! But also on a deeper, rather unconscious level, since Pannonia fell into an era of my life in which I progressed from a “mindless” child into an assertive and reasonable teenager, it served as an environment in which I formed and contested my value system and normative (if not to say “ethical”) integrity. I wouldn’t underestimate this impact that Pannonia and my dedication for it had on me!

As a conclusion, I wish that all children and teens would have a chance to build their own personal version of Pannonia, maybe not physically in a copse (since that is not available for everyone), but at least in their own room and with the proper amount of freedom and creativity! It might be the main reason for me wanting to move to the countryside with my family, giving my Kids the chance to experience something like this. Not only for practical skills and creativity, but also for personality development in the very critical time from childhood to adolescence. Being a “dictator” one time in your life – letting confidence and integrity rule you until the end of days!

Superstition = Ignorance

In the previous letter I mentioned ignorance. This is an important topic that is worth elaborating further. According to Buddha’s teachings – and I fully agree! – it is one of the three mind poisons, besides attachment (or greed) and resistance (or hate). It is even regarded as the root of all mundane afflictions since it produces and amplifies attachments and resistances. Not knowing how things really are – how, then, can beneficial and sustainable decision-making be possible? One of the most obvious unwholesome manifestations of ignorance is a mindset based on the maxim ‘We have always done it like this!‘ as often observed in matters of tradition, customs and especially religious and superstitious practices.

A while ago, your Mom insisted on taking you to a nearby temple of the deity “Mazu” (媽祖), the heavenly goddess and patron saint of fishers and sailors, who was suggested by a fortune teller as your “Ganma” (a kind of patron or godmother). Since you are perfectly healthy and develop more than well your Mom wanted to thank the Mazu and please her with your visit. I know that this is very important for her, so I didn’t stop her and went with you. Actually, for me, these religious rituals, same as horoscopes and fortune telling, are entire nonsense! But, pragmatically speaking, if it makes the family happy, why not?! However, I had one serious objection: In Taiwan, it is a custom to burn tons of incenses and even paper money for the deities and ghosts of their folk religion, a mix of Daoism (the biggest influence), Confucianism and Buddhism with strong impact of shamanistic beliefs and practices. Bringing a little baby to such a smoky and polluted place is certainly not a good idea! Isn’t that ironic? We take you to a temple to pray for your good health and, by that, expose you for a considerable time (20-30 minutes) to highly carcinogenic air, heavily laden with the combustion products of organic material, full of heterocycles, acrylates, and many more. This is exactly my problem with ignorance! Instead of applying rational, reasonable, knowledge-informed considerations to their decision-making and choice of options for their life, people do stupid, unhealthy, counterproductive, inefficient things that are motivated by traditions, believes, fears and unquestioned customs that are passed down from ancient times in which the people really had no better idea. What a humbug!

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Indeed, the ubiquitous burning of ghost money is one of the most annoying things about Taiwan, from my perspective. The air is bad enough, but there is nothing worse than neighbours who burn an entire bucket of paper sheets on each and every possible occasion (the lunar calendar is full of special days of hundreds of deities). Especially in the “ghost month” (lunar 7th month) there is a brown layer of ashes above the city. In Taipei the public burning of ghost money is forbidden, but still many people do it, because for them it is a severe offense to stop them from their traditional customs. Sometimes I wonder if the young generation that has at least some formal education is still really believing in ghosts and spirits and the effectiveness of pleasing them by burning paper. Yes, cultural customs and traditions deserve some respect just for the sake of being a cultural element deeply rooted in a society. However, there is a limit, and that is rational reason! When traditions are found to be entirely counterproductive (like producing air pollution to pray for health), there must be a way to change the custom! Even religious and other spiritual worldviews have to be adapted to contemporary levels of knowledge! Ignorance is NOT bliss! As long as a society doesn’t reach this level of understanding, it will remain an “underdeveloped” one. Sorry, Taiwan!

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