[By James Wright]
[By James Wright]
Voltaire observed that there are “three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” He was not alone in believing “boredom is the root of all evil,” which Soren Kierkegaard called “eternity devoid of content.” To Kierkegaard eternity devoid of content precisely tracks his beliefs about death outside belief in God. Boredom as a gruesome death he shares with Marxist art critic and historian John Berger who asked “Is boredom anything less than the sense of one’s faculties slowly dying?”
John Berger may have well been echoing Sherlock Holmes, who also saw boredom as a type of slow degradation “My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work…” Or, less fictionally, Patrick Bigelow, in the “indifference of boredom, nothing matters, not even the nothing.”
Boredom as pure apathy is a rich heritage. Acedia, or a lack of spiritual energy, was first described by Evagrius, who gives us no definition, but writes that the demon of acedia:
Is the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk about [10 A.M.] and attacks the soul until [2 P.M.]… He makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly towards the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun to see how far it is from [3 P.M.]… he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself… He finds it would be better if he were not there.
David Miller’s boredom shares Evagrius’s essential quality of camouflage, boredom as a type of “pornography,” “hysterically converts into yawning affectlessness what would otherwise be outright panic.” In this he channels a long line of left thinkers, who deeply detested and feared a society of consumers without authentic moral values of their own, sunk in vulgarity and boredom in the midst of mounting affluence, blind to sublimity and moral grandeur, bureaucratic organisation of human lives in the light of what the French called “la petite science,” the puny science, a positivist application of quasi-scientific rules to society.
One conclusion of this part-fear-part-observation, perhaps not the best but my favorite, was by Arthur Schopenhauer,
“Human life must be some kind of mistake. The truth of this will be sufficiently obvious if we only remember that man is a compound of needs and necessities hard to satisfy; and that even when they are satisfied, all he obtains is a state of painlessness, where nothing remains to him but abandonment to boredom. This is direct proof that existence has no real value in itself; for what is boredom but the feeling of the emptiness of life? If life—the craving for which is the very essence of our being—were possessed of any positive intrinsic value, there would be no such thing as boredom at all: mere existence would satisfy us in itself, and we should want for nothing.”
But is boredom such a vice?
Four years and twenty-three days ago I made an extremely common mistake: I agreed to a friend’s request. He recommended that a couple we both knew, two of his friends and I visit a picturesque, elaborate, and once widely-celebrated establishment known for its hookah and cocktails. He and I went together while the three would attempt to come later. The weather was wintery, and cold and rainy. In effect we went during the sliver of offseason afforded by nature but, in any event, the place had already begun its descent to shabbiness and demolition.
The business was on the third floor. We walked up a groaning stair case. The grass needed cutting. The roof was a patchwork dating back to the 60s. The surface had been mauled by salt’s erosion. The businesses had two large doors, but the wood paneling was either peeling away or a patchwork of stain from ersatz replacements.
I agreed to this because my friend was an agreeable alcoholic. “I do not have a problem, I have a preoccupying hobby.” One day he drank a bottle of champagne, what was left of a bottle of red wine and started on a glass flask of Jack Daniels—while eating his way through gingersnaps and cheddar cheese. This began at eleven in the morning. At eight he fell asleep. At ten he woke up around the time we were heading out, and he followed. He drank three Old Fashioneds, four plain shots of bourbon, skipped dinner, and puked the next day until five. At five thirty he resumed his normal course. He admitted, “In the long run, gets rather unhealthy.”
He was agreeable in all ways but one. He smoked, which is no vice, but when he smoked he would put out his butts and place them in his pockets. We could smell him long before we could see him and while tobacco leaves may have an enticing aroma, there was nothing enticing about the lingering smell of burnt filter.
On entering we made the acquaintance of the proprietor, or some agent thereof, who was ugly, lazy and, really, quite accommodating. He monitored and curated a collection of faded couches, fraying armchairs, and coffee tables with new, plastic tops. In the corner was a shabby bar where the threadbare carpets had entirely given way. Bemusingly, not to be confused with amusingly, the lighting in each area is either too dim or too bright. The bar’s was too bright.
Since we did not see the others, we headed for the bar. The bartender was a small, middle aged man, smartly dressed, with an exceptionally lively, intelligent face – and a perceptible air of sadness. He was, like the rest of us, alone but also, I must say, deeply and truly lonely. My friend ordered a half dozen martinis to be prepared not sequentially but simultaneously—six shining glasses in a bright row, down which he would work, all the while talking at a rapid pace.
As he waited and drank the sun sank until it smiled crookedly like a fingernail. The declining light softened the sharp contrast of the establishment’s lighting and for the first time I was able to make a full inspection of the other patrons. There were a few Iranian businessmen, a few Pakistanis and a group of schoolteachers whose loud, crying laughter echoed horrifyingly among the quiet leather. Taken collectively I can say several things. First, at no time did any of the groups acquaint each other with another. Second, no social interaction proceeded beyond polite nods. Third, we made no indication except with the barest of turns that we noticed the passing of each other.
When I turned my attention back to the steadily thinning stems I noticed a new presence in our company. She immediately engaged me in her own conversation. Why she did this I cannot say for certain, but I believe that people perceive my mind as at rest. My face, which enjoys a default position studiously devoid of emotion, may imply that I am an endless supply of life without stress and obstacles, that I dream up what I want to do. Then I do what I dream or sometimes I do not but it is all baloo in the end. For this reason they tell me about themselves even though it is a fact that I do not know how to react to stories. My face brings characters and events to me and as long as I maintain my ability to look and listen people seek me out.
In literature and movies, sexual revelation is a matter of tact and occasion. Whether or not such candor is appreciated depends on the revealer’s attitude more than, even, the listener’s. But tact, mercifully, usually forbids us to tell other what one feels or, especially, Feels. Today I am never quite certain why memoirists are so eager to tell us what they do in bed. Unless the autobiographer has a case to be argued, I suspect that future readers will skip those sexual details that our writers have so generously shared with us in order to get to the gossip and the jokes. For this reason I am, these years later, equally mystified about her.
I have no recollection of all what was said, though much of involved hiking with her college roommates, but I remember her concluding with a small grin that “Come is a horrible word to apply to something ecstatic.”
Some time ago, it does not matter precisely when, I was sitting on a balcony’s faux-wood floor. My condition was framed by two incredibly large and incredibly clear sliding doors. The walls inside were white. The floors were of a cheap white tile fashionable in the 70s and polished to a gleam. The glare from the sea was so pronounced that the room, as much as the sun above, seemed, by contrast to the balcony, extremely bright. I say this because I remember my worry that I would be construed as the type who, in spite the south side’s perfect view of blue sea, had taken to the darkest corner, which was, worst of all, outside. In other words a loon of a very peculiar and unfashionable type—as if I was looking to thread the needle between the refinements of a conditioned interior and the beauty of those south facing bay windows.
Inside there were paper bags half filled with aluminum wrappers and animal fries and empanadas and empty bottles of gin that were white rimmed from excitement and thirst. A single red cup lay in the middle of the living room and around it a red splash had dried along the caulking in rough coagulated lines. I took this in because one of my favorite whites had performed the task of eratsz damn and, having left my shoulders, was finished as a piece of conventional clothing. Beside, near an overstuffed red armchair, was a pale-blue cashmere top and matching dress, both understated and from a thrift store whose sign I could, just barely, discern among the sprawl. Indeed sweat drenched finery lay all over, even on the balcony.
I listened to the following conversation that took place below and across the street outside a bar that was notable only because it required everyone to wear shoes.
“It’s an hour to Tijuana,” he said.
The other, “yeah.”
“We could spend the night out there.”
“Yeah,” a half pause, “nah.”
A laugh, “Nah, yeah.”
“We planning to come back?
“I was thinking we could get a little sliced. There’s a nice house my cousin owns. We could be back Sunday to see Kim.”
“I guess. Will Kim be down from West Covina on Sunday?”
He then said “No.”
I was unsure in whose favor the dialogue had been resolved, or if it had been resolved at all.
The faux-wood was beginning to heat up. I felt an individual drop of sweat work its way down my body. I tried stretching but my leg had gone to sleep. I did not stand up because my unspecific phobias seemed to be rendering everything I did in my space useless.
I waited. I remember that I did not like to wait and I despised waiting. I still do. I attribute this to uncomfortable childhood experiences. In line I was assaulted by my body, that thing, whose eating, pissing and sleeping crises (did I mention eating) reached a fever pitch as they acquired an ever more solid stake correlated to how far I was from the front.
Perhaps there was an attraction to waiting. It tastes just the way it looks: responsibility no longer rests with you, and freedom from responsibility can cause incredible tipsiness. It’s easier than putting up with everything. Easier to talk. But when the time comes your knees will be wobbly. And depression—a perpetual depression—until the next time responsibility is foisted. This peculiar effect has no name but that it exists in German as a compound word I have no doubt.
It was a long while later when Alex arrived. He had on a pair of khaki chinos and no shirt. Over his khakis sat a pair of assless chaps but with cheap, vinyl leis connected by twine. He had on a pair of wide, CHIP-gold Vans that he wore like flip flops with the heel-side pressed down. While he sat he plucked the leis’ purple stained flowers. An hour passed before he started sending small, discrete piles of leis off the ledge onto the street below us.
On reflection the most curious aspect of his arrival was this: I did not acknowledge it. Although he was in my direct line of sight I continued working out a discernible pattern to the sprawl that extended up around our house’s hills. I didn’t talk to him. I am large, imposing I suppose. I don’t talk a great deal to people I don’t know. I am invisible, perhaps out of fear. Most of my sentences drift off, don’t end. It’s a habit I’ve fallen into. I don’t deal well with people. I would think that this appearance of not being very much in touch was probably one of the reasons he finally stood up. “Yeah, well.”
This incident, which I often embroider to include an imaginary detour, exactly describes those slow summer days to me.
It is a fact that not once in my life have I enjoyed the sunshine. Every moment while I sit underneath that singing star makes me regret the old days when I was safe underneath a large, protective blanket of clouds. Or inside. When I grew up it seemed to me that the only advantage of the desert was that nobody ever wanted me to go out into the heat. I was safe, like some form of tortoise, and lived in relative peace.
The desert’s drawbacks—such as its endless dust and grasping pedipalps–assured all its resident this one immunity. But whenever I left the desert, especially with friends, I knew that at any moment, unless rain was falling with enough zest, someone, probably some man, might say “Let’s go!” in that sharp, short imperative tone I could not dream of hearing in any other connection. This desire seemed especially common whenever they saw someone comfortably settled in an arm-chair, reading.
I admit I was free to say, simply, “No.” Saying no to old friends is easy because I establish the habit early and often. No to new friends is easy because they do not yet matter. Unfortunately, this logic is unsatisfactory in a very particular way. Once you forget to say no, or more likely the no is quickly forgotten, then no is no longer a path left open. “I went last time,” “I wish I could, this time,” and so on are unconvincing. They are like dead birds and, once flung, simply return to the ground with a dull thump. Since this state of affairs can’t continue forever it follows that a single moment of weakness, once started, leads to a sweaty career of disillusionment without end.
Going out on a bright, beautiful day may be an excellent and appropriately ambitious task by those who practice it. My objection to it comes in two parts. First, no matter the temperature on stepping outside the air is thick and hot. It is like wandering into a place where you do not belong (and it is like that place exactly because outside is that place where you do not belong). Invariably, as if only to increase the heat and sweat of all those involved, and this seems particularly true on days when the day is especially bright and oppressive in its cheeriness, people hug each other and shake hands, big grins and a whoop here and there: “What a beautiful day! Good to see you, boy! Damn good … and I mean it!”
Second, on days where there is no escape from that unlidded eye the brain stops working. On a cloudy day, in a cozy café with a warm cup of coffee the conversation is always interesting. No gossip, no matter how dull, is unbearable above the gently tickling waves of steam. But on a bright day, walking around? The same man who entertained me with stories of past, present and future now says that A. (someone we both know in an unconcerned way) is a thoroughly good fellow. Fifty steps further on, he adds that A. is “one of the best guys I have ever known.” We walk another block and he says that Mrs. A. is a charming woman. “She is one of the most charming women I have ever known.” We pass a shop. He reads “Cakes and Ale.” We pass a street sign. He points at it. He says “Commerce Drive.”
“I would rather not,” but unlike Bartleby I am not willing to follow the statement to its conclusion. Instead I rely on the self-preservation of my friends. Unfortunately sunshine transcends reason. They go outside and remain. There is no destination in mind. Instead they answer from within with curt cogency. “There is no destination when we are in the sunshine. There is no ulterior motive. We are in the sunshine because of the mere fact that there is sunshine.” Existing underneath the sun is an indication of their happiness, elation or character. But while they swell with pride their brain is finding ways to escape and, eventually, abdicate altogether.
It is little wonder that the brain falls into a senseless slumber. It cannot bear such a body until it has been deposited out of the sunshine again. In the sunlight the brain becomes completely alone and if there is any wish, it is for the day of execution so that it is greeted with, at least, something—even if the something is These signals from the brain are interpreted and reinterpreted into peculiar statements that are terrifying if taken in any other context. For example, a close friend, reclining in the sun, said with equanimity “I cannot keep my eyes open.” “I feel… as if I may just die.”
I contrast this with the days of overcast. Then the mind is alive and the senses are (thankfully!) quiet. Ensconced within cozy layers the day seems far off, away from the present and so lends itself to contemplation. The day’s gentle indifference is not hidden behind the map-white consumption of the world.
I do not hate sunshine. I will go out for a walk, occasionally, when time demands. If a few strands of sunlight infiltrate the living room I will not huff the blinds closed. I enjoy the light sensation of watching the horizontal lines of my blinds plop, one by one, up and over my book during an afternoon. At midday the sun will do any number of helpful odd jobs for you. These jobs are useful, especially during a light cleaning, but when you are bandying about outside to gratify the soul’s pride, such as it is, there is every reason for despising it.
But, pending a time when no people desire for me to go out into the sun, or I have no wish to go and see any one, I will never willfully go out into the scorch. It is an indulgence that I am confident I will never acquire, to my great benefit.
Of course, I have written this out in the sun.
Don’t write about Woman, write about a woman. This is a simple statement but controversial.
Toni Morrison was recently appointed at Columbia University, a nice gesture. Morrison would not be teaching. She would not be publishing in any academic publications. She likely will not publish much more fiction because she is rapidly approaching her mid-eighties. “Her papers” will never be released in any form to the public and will not be viewed by any biographers. Her public refusals of Henry Louis Gates Jr. to catalog her life and African American heritage needs no additional commentary. The same is true for her repeated refusals to find a memoirist (for those dear readers who do not know—nearly all ‘memoirs’ are in fact written and compiled by other people and the ostensible subject combs through a finished project).
If Columbia does not expect a sudden start to Morrison’s academic career, has doubts about her continued career as a writer and does not, or should not, expect to be the recipient of Morrison’s generosity then there is no soft answer for why she was offered this position. But the answer is not difficult. Columbia University has joined an ever greater number of the public who read Morrison to make themselves feel better about themselves.
Few judge her on whether the prose is good or what she has to say because she’s long past being an author who is understood. Or an author at all. She is an empty memorial to everything and, so, nothing at all. She’s taught, at best, and at worst she’s just another author passing the public like two dark ships at night. And we’ll probably have nice little articles, perhaps a few honors, about a Morrison completely unrelated to anything other than the article-author’s own peccadillos and loves for quite some time.
Few people appear to be reading her books. One can pick up a glut of once read, perhaps, copies of Beloved for less than a dollar: the foisted remains of each successive high school class that struggles through a book presented by aging diversity ‘trail blazers.’ Unsurprisingly, her latest novel, God Help this Child, is currently ranked in the mid 1400s on Amazon, which in fact represents something of a crest in terms of sales potential as Amazon has recently begun combining all mediums—Audio CD, Kindle, Audible Audio. Never before has it been easier to buy a book no one else does.
That Morrison is not read because Morrison—as a person—no longer matters is a neat, linear progression I think more would make if they considered it. It also explains why Morrison, as a New York Magazine piece summarized, “decades after she won her Nobel, [her] place in the pantheon is hardly assured.”
For example, elsewhere in the article, in a burst of unintentional self-parody, the same writer fired off a slew of meaningless pretensions that explain more about the article’s author than Morrison. She writes, Morrison is successful even when she isn’t successful or, in the article writer’s words, writers with “smaller ambitions” would “live on contentedly in this plush purgatory.”
But what I found especially telling in this piece was a final, parting paragraph. Tacked on, perhaps, but truncated just as the article becomes interesting. The author writes: Morrison will escape the “plush purgatory,” and “pass the test” when “Chloe Wofford is gone, and Toni Morrison is all that’s left.”
Chloe Ardelia Wofford is Toni Morrison’s real name and, curiously enough, her preferred name—as she has stated almost incessantly since the end of her first marriage and, likely, stated long before its end. “Oh God! It sounds like some teenager—what is that?” She laughed through one interview with the Times. “But Chloe,” she explains “That’s a Greek name. People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best. Chloe writes the books.” Toni Morrison, Ms. Wofford clarifies, does the tours, the interviews, the “legacy and all of that.”
Her legacy, so far, is bracketed by discussions of her Nobel Prize. Note well how the international community has approached Morrison, memorializing and promptly forgetting about her. Like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah—African American literature, great stuff, see you later.’ They made a nice gesture, handed out a few medals and became (I’m reminded of Tony Judt’s comment) another gnome in the land of forgetting.
And note well how the Times, serenely unaware of its own complicity, writes in the same article that Wofford does not even have control of her own name—as if that was an accusation directed against anyone but the people who appreciate her body of work. Gawker famously remarked, on the announcement that there would be a Morrison book this year, declared that there was already a ‘Best Book of 2015.’ Enter Columbia University to finally prove, channeling Dr. Johnson’s Gospel of Matthew, that pride must have a fall to prove that it is the true thing and not merely the mock.
Or, perhaps even better, a tendentious article with the word ‘vision’ in its title. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/magazine/the-radical-vision-of-toni-morrison.html?_r=0 As the author explains, but doesn’t get at the heart of, “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Song of Solomon” are a bold holy trinity of “classics.” How do we know this? They were the jumpstart to a “literary culture that had to either diversify or die.” And if we ignore the uncomfortable fact that literary culture died anyhow along with most of the reading public, then we get at the heart of what Morrison was to the author from virtually the very beginning. Not so much a writer, or even an artist, but a thing that everyone just wished would hurry up and die so that she could be memorialized and symbolized. And since she has (unfortunately) lingered on, we will just go ahead and memorialize all her work as “classics” before she dies.
She is often discussed in terms of her audience, the older black women who fan themselves with her book covers at her readings, the teenage girls who sigh on buses and trains while reading “Sula” for class, the young male rappers who have interpolated lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their songs.
Here the author comes so, so close to making that point. I take for granted that the “older black women” who fan themselves with Morrison’s book covers, apparently just the book covers, are just as real to the author as the “young male rappers” who have “interpolated” lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their song. By that I mean not real at all. Instead, they are reduced from an actual group of people to symbols whose actual existence is irrelevant. Morrison herself flatly reflected across other people, other times, because Morrison doesn’t exist as a person to the author either. Morrison is the ultimate mirror, and like all mirrors merely reflects back at the author the author’s own opinions.
This sort of empty memorializing, Morrison “on her own terms,” is both flatly untrue if the author is writing from the Old Gray Lady and is also a choice to evaluate Morrison on no terms at all. If I evaluated you on your own terms that would only be evaluating you on whatever items I thought were neat. Cool. Exciting. Not ‘terms’ in the classical, objective sense of the word but random notes that I bang on about. The author almost admits it, “Morrison serves as a totem for so much of this energy.” Totems don’t write, they just accumulate whatever superstitions the devoted attribute to the object. Phrased a little differently, Morrison is in fact a totem.
This sort of thinking isn’t limited to popular venues. Even odd academic pursuits, such as the recent Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, is ready for those heady times when we are completely free from living with Wofford. As the introduction explains one essay, “For Stave, Sweet Home is a riff on the Garden of Eden with its ‘lush pastoral setting’ that is far from innocent. She then engages both Jazz and Paradise as a ‘startling critique of the Judeo-Christian God,’ positing salvation not as religious reward but as the ‘result of human forgiveness and connectedness.’” This essay must assume that Ms. Wofford is dead—most of these essays have to as a preliminary matter. Because if they don’t their ‘research’ is useless. On one hand they can write and write and analyze. On the other they can call her up and ask.
Less interesting, but also relevant, is the creation of Morrison as a weapon. She explains herself well: her vision of God, Judeo-Christian and all, is one of forgiveness. This anthropomorphic being creates bridges and, as the cliché goes, he does not destroy them. But here, as is elsewhere, Morrison is ‘actually’ criticizing the author’s own peccadillos. Perhaps it’s an elaborate coincidence, and that it so happens that Morrison was actually thinking that when she wrote of her conception of Judeo-Christian God she was also criticizing Judeo-Christian God—or, at least, a form. But when a whole book, a whole industry, springs up where author’s appropriate Morrison for their own views coincidence begins to look like deliberateness.
I am not saying that they must pick one side or the other. I’m merely commentating on the choice they have created for themselves. One or the other: whatever Ms. Wofford happens to say is beside the point. Her ‘true’ meaning is irrelevant and the meaning that they pull from her works, which inevitably has a meaning near and dear to their own lives, is of primary importance. Literary hashish for the 21st Century.
Part of this is inevitable. Books are never written for most Americans. They simply are not. How many comments begin “I’ve never read (m)any of Ms. Morrison’s books but…?” And when you reduce book-reading even further to all dozen African-American study programs that require their students to read novels, the pool only gets smaller. The calculus, then, is that more people will care about Morrison if she is divested of her thorny, real-person edges and transformed into being a feel good story about black experience.
Young, male rappers and old, porch-bound spinsters coming together with NYT article writers to sit in a circle around the figure of Morrison–the NYT’s writer leading the discussion, of course. It doesn’t have any meaning, but in the garden of forgetting not having a point is rarely fatal. In fact the opposite is true, so Morrison herself can be left at the door (and must be). Such that someone can be quoted, criticizing the establishment, “black literature, black art, has always been put in a separate category” almost simultaneously as Morrison herself is saying ‘I write on my own terms, African-American literature first and distinct from literature over all.’ Oh well.
I had spent hours with Morrison, accosting her with questions, thinking about her, observing her, and yet for the first time I understood Morrison was a person with real human concerns.
And for the last time.