The ego – at length


Almost all the French men who populated my intimate life only a few years ago (five to ten years?) have come to be like entirely other people in the ensuing years. All men who vowed they would never have children now have unplanned but very welcome infants and toddlers running around. All men who claimed they would be ‘terrible fathers’ are now the most doting and madly-in-love parents of all. All men who are older, and avoided young parenthood, completely contradict the assertions of their youth and middle years. Did they really change; were they suppressing their true selves and desires or did they simply adapt to circumstances mostly beyond their control?

I am reminded of this as I finish up the wearisome and dully pretentious novel, L’égoïste romantique by Frédéric Beigbeder. I’d never have grabbed this book myself, but one of these aforementioned French men gave it to me back before he had his daughter, when he probably imagined himself (or even fashioned himself) a bit like the antihero of this book – a sex-obsessed, louche writer – a bit self-important, a bit navel-gazing (to use a term others use but I don’t. I never saw a reason until I sat down and read this).

I keep picking up books that are 800+ pages long, and feel a bit disappointed in myself for starting them. I am building up my tolerance and attention span for that kind of heft after years of not reading much of anything. But even the mental toil and time that those books require does not compare to the mind-numbing feeling of reading this tedious book – made all the more annoying by the fact that it’s not in my native language. It’s light reading, not lengthy, not profound in any way. But it’s still an effort, which I only decided to make because I had read about a quarter of it years ago and never finished (obviously because it was boring, eye-roll worthy) and because it had been a gift, so I feel obligated, despite receiving it so many years ago and not even being in touch with the giver any longer.

Reading statements like, “Les femmes veulent transformer leurs amants en maris, ce qui revient à les castrer”, I roll my eyes and think, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Is this really a profound or even a cool observation/thought? Was it worth the paper it was printed on? Still, in the interest of equality, it continues, “Les hommes ne sont pas meilleurs: ils métamorphosent leurs maîtresses en femmes de ménage, et les vamps en mères de famille.”

Or “Je stagne sentimentalement.
En Amérique, ceux qui sont dans ma situation disent:
-I am in a transitional stage.

Funny that something very brief can ignite an outsized reaction – at lunch yesterday I read Borges’s “The Aleph” – so short but infinitely more rewarding than these rambling epics and masturbatory drivel I’ve otherwise been reading. Is it effortless complexity and casual passion – all these contradictions – in Borges that stir the brain and make curiosity and questioning bubble to the surface? While the sense of “when will this end?” returns again and again with these other efforts.

It is perhaps this same brevity that so alarms us, wakes us up, in life experiences as well. Brief but intense.

Book: L’égoïste romantique – Frédéric Beigbeder and “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges
Film: La Belle Personne (via MUBI)
TV: Both Underground and Hap & Leonard are back!
Soundtrack du jour: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

To deal with the times: Don’t go numb


“How inured to that do I want to get?”
“Just enough.” (from this week’s episode of Madam Secretary)

The problem we face, beyond the immediate stripping of democratic tradition and human rights, and all the diversionary fires set to distract us, is our own boredom, our own fatigue, our own journey toward being inured to what is happening: “It isn’t so bad.”

Almost everyone knows that the intensity of any feeling cannot be sustained: anger, passion, love. Perhaps especially the attention span. We have neither the attention span for sustained fighting, even if we have our own lifelong cause, nor the attention span to maintain laser-like focus on one thing while all the distractions explode all around us. And that’s what is counted on – at least with the way things are going in the politics and government section of society. Isn’t that kind of everything, though? Society and our place in it? We know what happens if we bury our heads in the sand: nothing good.

Where is the line between burying our heads/distracting ourselves/avoiding reality and allowing ourselves some diversion to regain our strength and focus, to learn and prepare for everything the world is throwing at us? Something that keeps us from burning out?

I had a conversation the other day that made me think of the concept of ‘burning out’. It was about learning languages, actually, and how I took on languages as though it were a PAC-MAN game. Keep gorging. Gobble gobble gobble. Naturally I burned out on the whole idea of being a student.

J: When I was 22, I wanted to play frisbee and kiss girls.
Me: I loved learning languages much more when I was young. Now I would prefer kissing girls and running through the forest.
J: Well – a true Renaissance woman would be able to do all of those things. Concomitantly.
Me: I burned myself out on studiousness.

I had, back then, and even throughout my 20s, believed that I would always be a student. (Yes, we are always students throughout our lives – learning never ends unless we are willfully ignorant and closed off. Here I refer to living as a formal student, enrolled in a study program.) It became so much a part of who I was that it stopped having much meaning. And this, too, is a symptom of the aforementioned malaise/”issue fatigue”: even when you are not only passionate about a cause, but your life or livelihood depends on it (healthcare activists, equality/civil rights activists, etc.), you still get so beaten up and worn down that the fight, too, can start to feel meaningless.

Once I was burned out on applying myself to studies, I focused on other things and purposely tried to numb myself with overdoses of work and TV. I stopped reading because I wanted to sidestep meaning and feeling. Incidentally, a lot of formal education feels like it is designed to sidestep meaning, feeling and independent thought, which is why we also need committed education activists who prioritize the fostering of creative and independent thinking. (“Poetry is important for the teaching of writing and reading.”)

This numbness is the most dangerous thing. We must in these times find the path that lets us balance the pain and frustration against the will to fight and hope for something better (that we may never see).

…As a side note, at least not every interaction with television is empty; in a recent episode of Call the Midwife, we experienced real beauty with a taste of Federico Garcia Lorca.

And in Madam Secretary, a most apt Kierkegaard quote:
“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”

It’s True
-Federico Garcia Lorca
Ay, the pain it costs me
to love you as I love you!
For love of you, the air, it hurts,
and my heart,
and my hat, they hurt me.
Who would buy it from me,
this ribbon I am holding,
and this sadness of cotton,
white, for making handkerchiefs with?
Ay, the pain it costs me
to love you as I love you!

Es verdad
¡Ay que trabajo me cuesta
quererte como te quiero!
Por tu amor me duele el aire,
el corazón
y el sombrero.
¿Quien me compraria a mi,
este cintillo que tengo
y esta tristeza de hilo
blanco, para hacer panuelos?
¡Ay que trabajo me cuesta
quererte como te quiero!

Photo (c) 2013 Justin Elliott

Spring soundtrack ready to go: Muck of Spring 2012


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