[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?
I was hanging out with the wrong people. The bad people. An unusual crowd. A maddening friend. So went the parade of horribles as I nodded uncomfortably in my pew. Asleep? Such is life in the court.
I work for the ‘juvenile’ division of a public defender office, I work mainly for kids and those considered ‘adults’ in relation to the heinousness of their crime. On one occasion I was asked, by a client who is going to be incarcerated for a violation of parole, if I had any recommendations. A curious if pleasant question. He wanted to make something out of his time. He wanted to take steps toward self-improvement. He wanted a book to read.
Some decide that their incarceration will be the start for going to the gym, or finally kicking caffeine. Others have promised to watch less television, or have fiendishly reasoned that self-improvement relies on watching more television: they still don’t know what happened at the Red Wedding or who Walter White is, and this is making connecting with their fellow human beings difficult.
But what if you’re interested in connecting with your fellow human beings in a way that doesn’t require access to premium cable? At the time there was anything to say. What could I say? I could recommend some books, but uselessly. I can never forget when Starbuck tells Ahab that the hunt for Moby-Dick is against God’s purposes, and Ahab looks at him blankly. Just who is Melville’s God, or the God of those who came after him? Who is Ahab’s God? Like Prometheus, in ancient and in Romantic literature–or Gore Vidal against the New York Times–Ahab opposes himself to the sky god, even if you want to call that God Yahweh or Jehovah. He does not expect to win but he fights anyhow, perhaps like Milton’s Satan merely for the excitement of courage in the face of defeat.
I can never forget the client’s face for the same reason. He is fighting a battle he will not win and so what could I say? And yet saying nothing seemed a crime. Seems a crime. Is a crime. If not against him then against a far-off world where people know what to say.
Fortunately Penguin Books aims to help thousands of the soon-to-be-incarcerated (who else reads?) by engineering a fantastical little effort. For 80 pence, or about a 1.30 dollars, readers can purchase a lovely (“slender”) black book by Penguin. They take a bite from multiple pies—Roman history, poetry, essays from Montesquieu, a few shorts from Chekhov, a novella from Dostoevsky. No context, of course. Just snippets and little tidbits for men and women that are endlessly trying to improve themselves.
Like most marketing these days what is being sold is not product, but an image of you. For some the image is being sold as an ancillary to the product. But only some. I make no judgment, dear reader, only commentary. Note well: there is no pattern to the selection. A quote is plucked out, perhaps perfect for the creation of a Buzzfeed list, and potential customers are seduced with a future image of themselves navigating a literary iPod of little black books. Russians fill the gaps between Romans. Sappho makes an appearance. Nietzsche pops up, but since he—like myself—was never pithy he comes in an edited book of aphorisms.
What is a book without context? Not much, I am afraid, which is why recommendations are so crucial. It is why I failed. How can I capture in a few words, even a thousand, a whole book—a whole novel? There is a short story in here, I am sure, of a man who tries to recommend a book but ends up recommending it so well, so on point, that he ends up writing the book himself.
If I could have that moment back I would recommend the short stories of Anton Chekhov. There are few things about his writing that are not loved. According to a study published in October, 2013 in the journal Science, reading literary fiction — including the works of Anton Chekhov — increases scores on tests of empathy and emotional intelligence. Who wouldn’t want to be more empathetic in 2015? Much better than kicking a nascent addiction to Keurig cups.
I wonder what I should have told him about Chekhov. About Penguin Books. So it goes, in Vonnegut’s laconic phrase, and so I will tell you. Before embarking on a self-help tour of late-Czarist Russia, dear reader, be advised that Chekhov doesn’t provide easy answers to becoming a kinder, more caring person. There’s no five-step solution, no short prayer that will increase your fortunes and lay waste to the fields of your enemies. Instead he brings us into a world where bad things often happen, especially to good people. That is why he can be so difficult. He does not afford many happy endings, or endings of any sort. Yet I firmly believe that if you read his short stories, maybe even twice, then you will become a better human being than when you first went in. Here is one short story that you may like.
Chekhov will always represent the impressionistic pole of the short story, and the novel for that matter. For better or worse is it impossible to escape his shadow. He is simply a door we must pass through, having exhausted all infamy, gratefully.
But that is not what Penguin is offering, even when it offers us a few Chekhov’s shorts. They are offering a fragment, a shadow of a shadow. Instead of Chekhov, and understanding him, they are offering the appearance of improvement. Improvement without purpose. Click the Penguin, select a random book and press purchase. “Where to start? In the end I just tipped them out and stuck out my hand at random.” Don’t think about it—buy it. Improve yourself. To what end? That is the question that is better left unanswered. That is the question that makes me think about my client.
The trouble with the presumption is not that it addresses trivial or unreal issues but that it provides self-defeating solutions. Arising out a legitimate need to sell itself to an increasingly ignorant public the idea is to, well, accept that the public isn’t going to read books. They are going to buy an article that is marketed as a sleek, little, black book. But such a solution is self-defeating. Without foundation these little black books are symbols crashing. If a book falls on deaf ears does it make a sound?
Those who believe in critical thought as an indispensable precondition of social or political progress might well renounce the very possibility of progress and side with the conservatives, who at least recognize intellectual deterioration when they see it and do not attempt to disguise it as liberation. But the conservative interpretation of the collapse of standards is much too simple.
There is no wrong crowd or maddening friend. There is no group of bad influences, mistook for good. The trouble is with him. No single book, or collection of books, is going to do him much good. We failed him a long time ago. It is too late to spin the dial and hope for the best. But I guess I will.
Dear Reader, let me apologize for my prolonged absence. I cannot explain the implosion. I have never been terribly productive. I have always felt a little out of place in the cult of the economy. I find myself, as if I was lost, in graduate school. The dual threats of work, fulfilling, and study, less so, strains my soul. I have also found a Dear Other who I love.
As my last post hinted this Dear Other is quite Dear. Like all people, unfortunately, they will always be an Other—no matter how Dear. My energy is sent to cheery exploits of exploring and mapping and existing with Dear Other. I have no other words to describe it, and since I cannot I will not. These energies are gratefully expended but writing becomes difficult. My world has collapsed and have my usual subjects.
In equal parts fortunate and unfortunate I have received a steady supply of comments and views—more than I ever imagined. Fortunate because each encourages me to do something I enjoy like a wink or a nudge. Unfortunate because I feel unable to meet even these humble expectations.
But perhaps I put too much pride in my work. Too much ego. Is writing that difficult? I can hear the silent head shaking from here, ‘producing my drivel, surely, can’t be hard’—is it a question or a statement of fact? I cannot tell. Or perhaps it is precisely because I can’t escape my love of needless literary blandishments that makes writing so hard.
What I do know, and now accept, is that I celebrate novels when they defy those dominations and powers that enslave us. This is my house of worship, and if you would like to take an occasional peek—dear reader—then all the better. If there is pride then I cannot escape it. Prometheus somewhat cryptically observes, “Time, growing ever older, teaches all things.” Or, as Dr Johnson notes, reflecting Matthew’s Gospel, “Pride must have a fall;” thus proving I have the real thing and not merely the mock.
In my spare time, for I have many hours that I fill with trivial pursuits, I write myself notes. I write myself notes about odd things. Recently I wrote some notes while I watched, equal parts amused and bemused, an American-Japanese animated serial called Cowboy Bebop.
I do not think the show needs much introduction, mainly because the exact content I relate well as this note goes along, enough and the actual content you either know, dear reader, or do not. Without firsthand knowledge you are not missing much, and with firsthand knowledge you are not missing much. Suffice to say the series details the exploits of two guys in the far future. Their job, or at least what they occasionally do to acquire money, is odd jobs. Usually capturing or killing people—think of a Western but in space. Needless to say the lessons I drew from my viewing did not relate to the plot.
One thing I’ve noticed from the two or three episodes of Cowboy Bebop that I saw, I’m afraid it never quite caught on with me, is how it paired itself down to two general themes. The first being ‘American Western’ to the point of being a farce or satire, campy, perhaps in the same mold as the Italian spaghetti westerns like the Dollars trilogy (e.g. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). The second being the Japanese penchant for pinpoint expression bridging a vast emptiness of unspoken (here, unwritten) details. Described, once, as “the emptiness, the nothingness, of the Orient… not to be taken for the nihilism of the West.”
I’m reminded of this passage from Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler, which may (or may not) be an excerpt from a fictional Japanese book On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon.
the shower of little ginkgo leaves is characterized by the fact that in each moment each leaf that is falling is found at a different altitude from the others, whereby the empty and insensitive space in which the visual sensations are situated can be subdivided into a succession of levels in each of which we find one little leaf twirling and one alone.
Like much of Calvino’s work it is, curiously and truly, unique. Part of that uniqueness in how he grasps something that, seemingly, Cowboy Bebop grasps. A certain zeitgeist paired away of all the other influences radiating outwards from the Home Islands.
In Japanese literature what does not move, and what goes unsaid, is often as important as movement. Absence propels just as rapidly as presence. I find a reflection of this dynamic on the screen in Cowboy Bebop because there is often never more than a single animation overlaid on a static background. It’s interesting to see this habit reflected, to an almost comical degree, in the show because one can count on a single hand any frame where more than one movement is shown. Even the fight scenes are carefully choreographed routines where one arm moves through the air to connect at one point.
Bebop’s arc captures, for me, the zeitgeist of Japanese literature. Perhaps the Bebop series, much less Calvino’s slender chapter, is too campy to fully capture Japanese literature in total. Actually there is no perhaps at all. But they are useful, at least as useful as Sergio Leone when he captured the American zeitgeist in Clint Eastwood. Because Bebop’s use is that it refracts a unique quality of Japanese literature across the screen, sometimes badly but well enough.
Dear reader, a quick note. My definition of unique is, well, unique. Thus departing widely from the practice of Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard, who, if I am to believe the indulgent fourth edition of Webster’s International Dictionary, could bring himself to write at least once of the “less unique” just as the novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher could write of the “more unique” and the playwright Arthur Miller could cap it all by writing of “the most unique.” We can only look nostalgically toward that once-upon-a-time when “unique” was an exceedingly powerful and precise word. Now we observe the erosion of its meaning. No longer can we indicate the only one of its kind, having no like or equal. Another victim of sloppy semantic change for the word has deteriorated into a rough synonym of unparalleled–but not even quite. Much more closer to odd, curious, unusual or even quaint.
Japanese writers focus a tremendous amount of energy on the experience of alienation. The recent Murakami craze, which is certainly not limited to Japan, highlights the trend: South of the Border, West of the Sun. The book contains some extremely poignant explorations of coming of age, early relationships, etc. But crucially the protagonist never escapes the emotions and memories from that adolescent period in his life, the period that everyone faces as one of extreme alienation hangs over the protagonist for the rest of his life.
I think this is also why some people have such a strong reaction to his work. Even when Murakami is writing about adult protagonists he is describing adolescence’s (and adolescences’) alienation. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle the protagonist is faced with unfathomable changes in himself, his relationships with women, and the world around him. These changes bring him into a new, stranger world that he is unequipped to function but must. Everything from the wet dreams to the confusing inexplicable relationship with the girl next door evokes the creamy confusion of adolescence.
In Murakami’s works, the narrator is almost always somehow set apart from the world he ostensibly exists in. In the end of the world portions contained within Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World the narrator (apparently) possesses the only ego or mind in Town. This is mirrored in the hard-boiled wonderland portions of the novel, where the narrator is cut off from a portion of his own mind, and apparently unaware of the strangeness around him.
This is something Bebop captures and captures well. Perhaps it is also why the show fares so well with a particular age range and, like skateboarding, if you do not approach it at the right age you feel silly when you try. Ultimately the main protagonist in Cowboy Bebop is an adolescent. The other side-show protagonist plays a fairly conventional father figure. He is needlessly and inexplicably thrown from one situation to another where love, loss and confusion drift interchangeably—and senselessly—in a world where adults’ plans dominate.
As a passing remark, for everyone who enjoys Cowboy Bebop I hope that you would take a look at Phillip K. Dick’s novels, especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I find the emptiness of Japanese literature reflected in Dick’s “California spirituality,” which was at least sincere and arguably superior to Cowboy Bebop’s heavy handed effort to apply a Zen-like emptiness to wild Japanese conceptions of American westerns.
Admittedly, Dick was not intentional in the same way about the sci-fi. In Bebop I found the sci-fi to be, largely, just enough to make it politically digestible. And perhaps most noticeably in Dick’s there are no real starships flying around the galaxy. But on the other hand Bebop always seemed to be in the future just far enough so one would care about whether he is driving a Toyota or Ford, whether his father killed my dad or your’s, ect. The future, in Bebop, functioned as a mechanism to place it beyond today’s political concerns but not so far we would not worry about alienation.
Somewhat amusingly, in Bebop the date was never important beyond the first few seconds for the obligatory ‘star port’ scene. And I always found those portions of the episodes to be stylistically and thematically at odds with the rest of the episode. The scenes were a simple device to provide a fig leaf of progression to the plot for audiences antsy about the post-modernist, inconclusive endings that characterized the show. The practical effect is rather small.
So Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? has the same setting, generally, and the same Eastern nihilism. ‘Who am I? What am I about?’ The style is generally similar, if we can agree on Bebop’s culture heritage. Finally, it has a great amount of reality-based science that may seem a little old, now, but at the time was quite forward thinking.
Quod scripsi scripsi.
I wonder aloud to my companion and in a sense once removed from the present, you, dear reader. I imagine stories for the storefronts we pass and the people we see. The only thing more imaginative than the combination of jewelry and ammo is the clientele. Everyone does the same. I hope everyone does the same. Continue reading
I recently finished Stoner.I expected the book to be worse than what I was told. It was hyped up by magazines, authors and friends. Imagine my surprise when I was able to read the book through in less than a day. It was a wonderful experience.
It makes me wonder if the problem is not the endless distractions, but the endless and correspondingly poor content that is pushed on the reading public. I spend a good deal of time on the internet. I’m an email addict. But I made time. I did not check my email. It never even occurred to me. Stoner was consumed wholesale. In on big gulp I read M.S’s life. I digested it and then, almost as an after thought, I wondered about this blog. Facebook. The other million amusing and bemusing social media profiles I have.
So stern, so dire is the article that I wonder if the author hasn’t spent too much time struggling for books that are not written for him. Mr. Parks seems like a kind heart. But somewhat battered, a word he favors, by climbing literary heights that are best suited for others who genuinely enjoy the ascent. People unlike me and unlike him. Perhaps he should be looking for books that he can read on the subway, even if others consider them in the same light as he does Dickens.
To propose something concrete: only read the books you can read on a subway. Read only the books that will make you miss your stop. Those books will keep the light burning bright inside you.
Sometime in late 1960 or early 1961 Adolf Eichmann, jailed and awaiting trial in Jerusalem, was given by his guard a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s recently published Lolita, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “for relaxation.” After two days Eichmann returned it, indignant: “Quite an unwholesome book!” (Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch!)
Eichmann’s reaction is about what I imagined for him. But guessing the officer’s intentions is another matter. There is difficultly imagining anyone offering Lolita for “relaxation.” Eichmann was writing under observation and awaiting a trial that will consign him either to death or prolonged imprisonment—which fate spares him by felling him with a heart attack. If nothing else we can agree that Eichmann did not find many things relaxing. Regardless if he was a delusional madman or simply unthinking: few things are relaxing for someone at that moment writing his (soon to be posthumous) memoirs. Nabokov’s challenging book is not one of them. That much, dear reader, we can assume.
We might speculate other intentions on the part of Eichmann’s guard. Was it a sincere gift? Or was it something of an experiment? Nabokov has never faded from the popular consciousness, but Lolita was certainly closer national recognition in the ’60s. It is probable that the guard knew the book was for the thinking public and imagined that Eichmann constituted some distorted, cruel reimagining of that public (by National Socialism? Germany? Hitler? I leave the agent in that sentence up to you, dear reader).
I can’t help but wonder: might Eichmann’s guard have seen Lolita as a sort of litmus test for radical evil, and wanted to see whether the real-life villain reacted? Was it to see how the novel reacted to him? Imagine his devastation, or glee, if the man who organized transportation for countless innocents approved of Nabokov’s creation.
In a bit of awkward preening in Despair’s foreword, Nabokov recounts the circumstances attending to this first translation of the work. “I asked a rather grumpy Englishman,” says Nabokov, “whose services I obtained [End Page 313] through an agency in Berlin, to read the stuff; he found a few solecisms in the first chapter, but then refused to continue, saying he disapproved of the book; I suspect he wondered if it might not have been a true confession” (Despair, p. xi). Nabokov’s explanation appears to be the one which we will find in nearly all of his later works. If Eichmann approved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? That he disproved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? Too little?
It is possible to imagine that Eichmann’s reaction was intended to act as a mirror. What does the guard see when Humbert is reflected through and off the lens of evil. Did Eichmann see a fellow traveler in Humbert? An alien? What could we say if Eichmann, like so many of us, grasped the novel and refused to let go? I wonder if it would make any difference and whether it should.
This is all only speculation. In Arendt’s account, she congratulates Eichmann for his indignation and moves on to other matters. In any event, given Eichmann’s radical conventionality one could hardly imagine him liking—or even very well understanding—much of the book. As Eichmann himself avowed, during his adult life he had read only two books, one of them being Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. He preferred newspapers. I don’t know what that says about the New York Times.
The French have a vocabulary of eroticism littered with gems. Jouissance and jouir scrupulously put the facts but they hint at currents that flow beneath. English cannot channel them. Leon Roudiez’s, in his introduction to Desire in Language, is that there are several meanings of jouissance. The meanings “are simultaneous” and at once “sexual, spiritual, physical conceptual.” The definitions are neither sterile and medical nor guttural and grotesque. Yet because of our tradition or some natural limit of expression English comes awkwardly to the bedroom. Sentences can buck with double meanings. But if the word is not diagnosing a condition it is being scrawled on bathroom doors. If we wish to speak of the kind of pleasure we take–the supreme pleasure, say, associated with sexuality at its jagged edge with consciousness–we lack the terms acknowledged and allowed in polite French circles.
The Bible has “knowing,” but it is imperfect. Deep in the prehistory of Greek there was a word root constructed of a k or g, an n, and a vowel. The words springing from this root all have to do with reproduction, both sexual and intellectual: generate, gonad, know, ignorant, and forty others. In the King James Bible a husband knows his wife and begets children. In the Bible’s original Greek procreation is a type of construction, say ‘the Structure of the Orgasm and Making Children.’ There is no bliss and if there is pleasure it is tangential. Continue reading
Whatever it was, this mind took control of Dick when he was at a low ebb and, like a loving parent or an exceptionally talented personal assistant, cleaned up his life. “I was a spectator,” said Dick. This mind, which Dick characterized as female, fired his agent, tracked down editors who were late sending checks and modified his diet.
She also revealed that his young son had an undiagnosed birth defect that was potentially fatal. And the revelation proved to be true. The child’s life was saved.
But, as one commentator put it, one man’s “religious experience” is another man’s “bat-shit crazy.”