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A sadness in Autopia

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Perhaps it was foreordained that the freedom we get from our automobiles requires that we keep others in slavery.

So as we march off to war to preserve access to the oilfields of Iraq, a book about the idea of cars, and the deeper meaning of our attachment to them, should appear.

It happens that I am a childhood friend of one of the authors of this book, Dirk Leach, writer of the essay “Technik.”

I have known Dirk since 1967. We shared a first apartment together. We even, for a brief time, shared a single bed — because that was the only bed there was. We traveled (by car) to Alaska. He used to walk through the hills of the Black Forest dictating letters to me by cassette.

To this day I get, at least once a month, a handwritten letter, sometimes 20 pages in length, bursting with the details and intrigue of his life as a high school teacher in Brooklyn, as an artist, and as a philosopher/author of works on Heidegger, Albert Hoffman, Ernst Juenger, Bob Dylan and the Indian philosopher Patanjali.

In the war of ideas, Dirk Leach is a combatant. I wonder sometimes where he gets his relentless zeal and his focus, and his essential kindness in a mean world.

Dirk’s essay in Autopia is about a period he spent in the 1970s as a factory laborer in the Daimler-Benz plant. It is a remarkable portrait of labor, and intelligence, and oppression. Read and tell me this is not terrific prose from a poet you probably never heard of:

“It was saddening to watch the finished Mercedes automobiles slide by under the inspection lights. The absurdity of the pretense of being one of the leading automobile manufacturers in the world of gasoline-powered transportation, a rank achieved through the appeal of the luxury car, was a pompous parade before me which no statement could stop.

“This parade of wasted resources which we tended all day was pushed forward by a struggle for survival, a race. The were all driven to work at the speed of the belts in the factories. It had been calculated, estimated, how fast we had to work to keep up. The military economy set the pace for our 40 hour week. We needed the money to pay for the guns, soldiers, and bombs — to defend ourselves from the ‘Great Enemy,’ and to exploit the populations of poor neighbor-nations.

“Building Mercedes Benzes was one of the most lucrative of the different enterprises constituting the war effort: these automobiles were a powerful weapon in the fight for more power, power to fulfill ideas and realize projects. And power, as far as technology understood it, was fuel. Fuel was the life in a dead machine. We were mobilized by machines, fighting each other for the power to animate the dead products of our technological skill. They would all stand useless without fuel.

“And if we understood this we were challenged to overcome the voracious system we had created as our slave. It was our own incomprehension of strength made metallic and automotive.”

From Technik, Dirk Leach, (c) 1986

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