[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?
My job is not important. But I go into lives. While there I collect snapshots. One life sticks with me. He was older. He would not let me read or hold the file, but sat at the small round table in the prison while I sat opposite. In his 40s, still coughing and husky from a recent cold, he read aloud from the narratives. Some were from the paramedics. One princely story was from an officer. He read, or perhaps recited, into my office’s tape recorder, session after session, skipping gore and anything else he thought too personal, announcing “propusk” (“omission”) at each cut.
The omissions were not for my benefit. They were not for anyone’s benefit but his own. Even here he could not bring himself to bring certain words into the world. As long as he could keep the words trapped on the paper, part of a world he did not think about, then the words and the world they represented could not affect him. Or that is what I hope he thought. There is a calming, reassuring logic to it. Twisted but understandable.
I needed to know whether he was sane. Several other people were similarly interested. Part of the process was noting his reactions and hearing his theories regarding his defense. If he could provide a cogent, coherent narrative of his own to provide to the court then there was a sign of sanity and therefore competence. In a perverse way his ability to help himself was his biggest liability. If he had that ability he would lose his best defense. If he did not have that ability, he had a defense.
He thought his father was part of a large conspiracy. The conspiracy extended, as conspiracies inevitably do, to the police. The walls of his house were also implicated. They hid the enforcers, the whisperers, that flourished in the wall space. In retaliation he would pour and rub lotion along the walls. Bottles on bottles. I saw the photos of empty bottles stacked on top of each other. If only he was richer this would all be considered eccentric, but since he was poor he was crazy. He poured lotion on the walls and was irrationally distrustful of his father. Such is life among the Naciremas. Dove would have sponsored him if only he had more followers on Twitter.
But they did not. He had no followers. He got worse. Perhaps some of it was an accident he had. Perhaps some of the disease was meth speaking. There was no reason for why it could not be both. His eyes did not dart. His fingers did not tremble. There was nothing that indicated sustained usage. His teeth sparkled. The sparkle was muted but by comparison to some of his peers they radiated a reassuring haze of healthy living. He read. I watched. An associate took notes. The recorder lived out its life hearing but never speaking, poor thing.
I was reminded of a homunculus: a being who is soul-less until instructed in certain rites. His expression and affection was blunted. He was accused of stabbing his father in the neck with a small wood knife. But the accusation did not touch him. I asked him if he understood the situation. He replied yes. I explored further. Did you stab your father? Yes. Is it because you suffer from delusions? He seemed to grin. From the side it was a grin. But he was only showing his teeth. Social niceties, in all their oddness, do not leave the insane. That is all the commentary social niceties deserve.
Did you stab your father because he was conspiring against you? He gave the most condescending, dismissive and empathetic chuckle. Empathy was not something I expected. No one expects empathy. He replied you do not believe me. No I don’t. I know. But do you know why I don’t believe you? Doesn’t matter what you believe. I stared at him. He stared back. I want to tell the judge what happened. Tell me what happened. My father was attempting to kill me and off he went. The rendition was not earnest because emotion could not escape the blunted face. Thick fingers held themselves firmly in his lap. But an energy was there. A foot tapped. Perhaps it was his.
Los eruditos a la violeta is a satirical work (1772) by the Spanish poet and essayist José Cadalso y Vázquez. It attacks pseudo-erudition by offering would-be scholars lessons on how to appear to be learned without too much reading. Like all satire it picked a slow, large and undefended target. The cultural aristocracy of the late 18th, especially in Spain, fulfilled those requirements. I have no idea why it came to my mind at that point. There was something about the man’s stance. His slow, elaborate and unnecessarily deliberate explanation could have been the root. Or his stance. He had crossed a leg over his other. No chains because this facility was not constructed on a Hollywood set. Yet striped orange pants and shirt were too absurd looking to be believed.
In short, he looked like a professor or a parody of one. Not an affable parody. Not a Pnin or Charles Kinbote. Our man’s work, dear reader and his life. His drugs, his analysis, his self-pity, his delusions and his moods take on a curiously hermetic quality. He comes to resemble some minor medieval scholastic, desperately scrabbling around in categories of his own imagining. But even the most obscure theological speculation usually had as its goal something of significance. From his musings, however, nothing followed and nothing would ever follow. They were not subject to proof and they had no intelligible wordly application except as abstruse apologetics for this man’s humanity. I sighed. I carefully slide the file back to my side of the table. Thank you for your time.
I think about that day quite a bit. I hope to have more like it.
I am looking for new, interesting blogs to follow. Can you, dear reader, help me?
If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem, ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is the every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.
Borges and his unique, accurate and interesting approach to Kafka. For the full essay, and a few others, click here.
To anthropologists of the future my book buying will look as much like a sinister cult as a commercial triumph (for the bookstore, of course). Book-buying, after all, has all the basic lineaments of a religion. When I walk through the shelves I am an adherent, and when I seize upon a book I am as much motivated by feelings of guilt as anything more constructive. For when I walk through all those words, winking shyly at me, my hand never leaves my side without a twinge. There are so many, how can I only choose one? And then, right alongside, is the urge to atone for fleshly sins. ‘I can read this book,’ I assure myself, and in the process relax. It will be treatment for those long hours contorted into office chairs. My back shouts in triumph. I have neglected the finer things in life and with a bit of book all will be forgiven.
Another sign of puritanical, religious beliefs? Regularity. Many visit their places of worship with a fanatical regularity: a third of LA Fitness members, for instance, go virtually every day. Once there, believers are led by sacerdotal instructors, who either goad them into mass ecstasy during aerobics classes, or preside over the confessional tête-à-tête of personal training. Similarly, I am led by my greatest instructor: my nose. Otherwise, I am led through, confessional style, by a tightly clutched list of titles urging my not to stray too far from the path, but also indulging my tendency to get lost among the trees.
I can see your eyebrow raised, dear reader. ‘You are led by your nose!’ I’m afraid so. There is no other way to describe it. My only hope is that you, too, dear reader are a member of the (secret?) book-sniffer guild. Surely I cannot be alone. When I wander through the aisles of books I wish, or at least lie, that my buying habits were motivated by a curious but pleasant mix of knowledge, taste and refinement. That is simply not the case. The situation I am in is that of a slave. I am a slave to smell. The smell of a good bookstore has the same effect as that of, well, something appropriately illicit. Would it be fair to say that it is a fetish? I am not sure, and frankly I do not want to dwell on the subject too long. But there is something intoxicating about the right balance of glue, age and love that is the exclusive domain of pre-owned books.
What always surprises me about book stores is how transparent the books are. What I feel for any single book, like Alice’s Cheshire cat, threatens to disappear if I stare at it too long. Gradually and then all at once. I pick up a winking, colorful book with a title and cover art that promises so much. But then I am left with nothing but a disembodied smile. The book is not a thoughtful meditation, or even a frothy adventure. Instead it is something dully and duly pushed by an obscure publisher. I have tendency for picking up shallow devotionals. Scripture for the young, thirty-something entrepreneur. Sigh. Another book, which promised to be a riotous adventure through medieval theology, is at best something that gets placed on a coffee table never to be loved. The editors and publishers have done too much damage. Where is the substance? It prevents no one from seeing right through.
Allow me one quick aside, dear reader. A well replicated Borges critique: “Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem “Fears and Scruples” by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” In the same sense I feel that the best bookstores, and the best trips, modify my conception of the past. The best book stores burden my future, in the best possible sense, and brighten my past.
Each devotee has his or her own rituals, though most rely on the principles of self-mortification and delayed gratification. My own are simple. I must carry everything I buy in one armload or not at all. It is my absolute barrier. I do not do two trips. Perhaps this habit started out of hubris. But now it is a fail-safe that prevents my wallet from being emptied in a particularly riotous afternoon. I do not apologize for myself or provide excuses. Yet when my arms strain under the pounds I feel some sort of joy. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, I suppose I do something similar and in some perverse sense my arms are straining under the time they hold. In short, my aching muscles represent a perfect bridge between self-mortification and delayed gratification. There is nothing more gratifying than a book, and nothing dilates time like trying to herd my books from some obscure back table, to the front, to my car, from my car and to my book shelves.
That my grunts, sighs and quiet mutterings through this whole process provides a liturgy is only an excellent bonus. Perhaps they reach the firmament above? God I wish I was worshiping right now.
His distinction between analysis and advocacy is a little innocent. (Like the insistence of the man who went from the Times to ESPN that he is an “outsider.”) Is numeracy really what American public discourse most urgently lacks?
Mr. Wieseltier had a prime opportunity to approach the reoccurring theme of internet ‘debating.’ I enter argument, I throw some insults out there, and then I go to the proverbial “WhyIAmRight.com” before debating anew. If only indirectly Wieseltier comes close to making that point but at the last second ducks away to offer up some platitudes about inequality. Are we really lacking proper ‘numeracy,’ what a awfully pretentious word, Mr. Wieseltier? I do not know too many people who believe that inequality is absent from America. I do, however, see quite a few people–from all sides–defending themselves with the ‘need-not-be-said’ type of arguments. e.g. I vote for X, and it need-not-be-said that according to this argument concocted from these obscure and misguided numerals I am right. I know there is inequality, and it need-not-be-said that according this argument concocted from these obscure numerals I am right. And those are the worst type of arguments. They are not debates, the ‘debate’ is two people talking past each other.
Nevertheless, it makes for good, light reading. And anyone who mentions Isaiah Berlin deserves a bone.
One-off does not mean merely “unusual”; nor does it mean “like Halley’s comet,” coming back once in many blue moons. The one is off by itself, standing alone, pristine in its singularity. The compound adjective and noun means, in my mind, “without precedent, easily copied but impossible to perfectly reproduce or clone.”
Hello, dear reader. I am going to start something to accompany the somewhat standard ‘Today I Noticed’ blurbs with a few posts titled ‘One Off’ or ‘Another One Off.’ It’d be something small. Appetizing, I hope, but still small. Perhaps a photo but more often a link.
The first one-off will be about the etymology of the word. Happy reading.
Also, dear reader, feel free to post links that you find interesting.
Some days I think it would be terribly romantic if I became someone of one book. Assuming I don’t succumb to my romantic dreams about being an alcoholic I’d be a grouch, but a well-loved one. I would always carry that one well-loved book with it’s tired pages. In this daydream I imagine myself like some sort of latter day Jonathan Edwards. But instead of the Bible it is Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Perhaps the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance and you all are unbalanced chakrahs in the hands of an angry
God world. Perhaps it could be some Third Wave Feminist pink handbook or Mao’s red one. The book is not as important as the habits and the accomplishments. I’d be the Robert Graves of Aztec literature. Or the Robert Graves of Robert Graves–his works can sustain and even flourish with multiple readings.
Aquinas created the aphorism ‘a man of one book,’ or so I believe. Wikipedia confirms which is almost a reassurance. What I would like, and perhaps I should store this seed away for future efforts, is a book like Robert Merton’s. But instead of tracing the phrase ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ I trace ‘a man of one book’ used in the appropriate context. That would be scholarship of the most frivolous and fun kind.
Isaiah Berlin, in his frothy essay about Russian literature, had this to say about the phrase: “[Aquinas’s] words are generally quoted today in disparagement of the man whose mental horizons are limited to one book. Aquinas, however, meant that a man who has thoroughly mastered one good book can be dangerous as an opponent. The Greek poet Archilochus meant something like this when he said that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The metaphor glitters. I love it. I would be the best hedgehog the world had ever known! Or so I reassure myself.
A few people have attempted to become a man of one book (how interesting is it that I have not found a woman or two to soften this list? Not very, as my ‘research’ skills are not without their blindspots but worth mentioning). Michael Dirda owned, at last count, nearly twenty books by or about E. F. Benson as well as a few by the brother Robert Benson. E. B. White carried Walden around everywhere he went. The grandmother in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had the letters of Madame de Sevigne. Even Alexander the Great never left Asia without Homer’s tome, bejeweled with the conquests of nations. Samuel Johnson admonished novice writers to devote themselves to Addison’s essays. There’s that well-worn anecdote that Francis Bacon always chatted about Aeschylus, almost obsessively, and his writings make him a first ballot ‘man of one book’ shoe-in. John Wesley also claimed to be a man of one book.
An interesting note: the scholarship that surrounds Wesley is, in brief, a rough mimic of the popular and academic esteem one gathered (or missed) by being a ‘man of one book.’ He was loved when he was a man of one book, the Bible, during the early scholarship but as that idea became more archaic to those who care about his reputation (or, to be honest, those who know about him at all) scholarship has changed accordingly. It’s a prime instance where there was one set of agreed on facts that were “papered over and a new set of agreed-upon facts were hurried into place.” If I ever write a book about the phrase, I think he would be a nice pinnacle.
Perhaps I’m already someone of one book, or at least one author. I manage to throw Vidal’s name out therefrequently. But it would be another animal entirely if I peppered my posts, not to mention daily chats, with Augustine’s Confessions, or Georg Misch’s impossibly well researched History of Autobiography in Antiquity and–wait for the gasp–its two volumes. If I’m honest, and I had to commit myself to one book, I would attempt it with Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.
“That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truth and they were all beautiful.
The old man had listed hundreds of the truth in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.
And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.
It was the truth that made the people grotesques.”
The most enjoyable aspect would be the great irony of becoming a character in Anderson’s book. My one truth would be the bookwarning me away from letting a single group of truths monopolize my attention.
Even still I wouldn’t mind reading one book to death. I just never have. As it is I don’t know if I’m much better than those that have. Christopher Howe, over at the Guardian, has a long list of reasons for why it’s never a problem to have too many books. Who is he trying to convince himself except for himself? When I scan my books there are not any convincing, or even defensible, reasons for why I should not read every one of the forlorn friends. This book is for a more patient me, I assure myself, than the one that woke up today. I pick up and read the back cover of another. This one I quickly put down. Poetry! I am too patient for poetry. I want the meaning to bite me in the ass. Another book is about the English—bah! Too frumpy. Another is about peasants. I have no time for the working class.
Perhaps this worrying forgets why I read in the first place. To Professor Borges his message was always that the study of literature is about appreciation, not context or theory much less romantic ideas about how my universe would revolve around some mulch and ink. “Reading should be a form of happiness.”
As I currently sit in another uninspiring classroom, doing my own doodles, it’s good to know that I’m in good company.
But how depressing is it that Dostoevsky draws more exciting doodles more quickly than I do?