Lost causes


“There are chapters in every life which are seldom read, and certainly not aloud.” The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields

Each day I rise only to spend countless hours trying to reassure someone that there is a chapter in life waiting for him that is not all just monotony. He spills out his desperation at being bored, at having no life, at being “used up” and tired, and I try to ‘cheerlead’ him out of these doldrums. Trouble is, they are much more than doldrums, and he cannot see his life the way I see it. He cannot see life, as a concept, the way I see it. He and I both know the deception of this cheerleading: it is a lost cause to believe that life is anything more than monotony. I know and accept that this is mostly what life is – we wake, we eat, we go to work, we sleep, we pepper nice things in between. If we are lucky, we find a way of being that delivers contentment, and we can cultivate it. And amidst all of that, there may even be flashes of happiness.

But it’s mostly the monotonous grind, not the fun stuff, that makes up life. This man seems to believe that life should mostly be an endless carnival of the fun stuff (not to be confused with the funhouse, which is something quite different) and that he alone endures this life without constant stimulation and joy. There is no point telling him that this is how everyone’s life is; he viciously retorts, “I’m not fucking talking about anyone else. This is my life. And there’s nothing in it.” As though that nothingness is unique.

But no, in fact…

“Nothing happens while you live. The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that’s all. There are no beginnings. Days are tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, an interminable, monotonous addition.” Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre

“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre

To feel alive in that interminable in-between space, so often devoid of any inspiration, people flail, and look for ways – without even knowing it – to drag others into their misery, demanding from them the swaddling of misplaced comfort.

“People are always looking for consolation and accepting it too readily. They find clever ways to invert their humiliations, little tricks of self-deception, a form of artistry.” –The Republic of Love, Carol Shields

This man will deceive himself and others for the purpose of gaining attention – even negative attention is not being alone, which for him is the worst possible outcome.

“Solitude is the playfield of Satan. I cannot describe the depths of my loneliness and distress.” Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

(One wonders how it is that someone who is so needy and so craves social attention and affection has fixed himself like a barnacle to one of the most antisocial people alive.) He needs above all else to be seen and heard… but even this will never be enough.

“Life is an endless recruiting of witnesses. It seems we need to be observed in our postures of extravagance or shame, we need attention paid to us. Our own memory is altogether too cherishing, which is the kindest thing I can say for it. Other accounts are required, other perspectives, but even so our most important ceremonies—birth, love, and death—are secured by whomever and whatever is available. What chance, what caprice!” –The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields

There are days, though, when he is perfectly fine. In fact, long stretches pass in which he conforms to something like a routine.

“And I’ve figured it out. Routine is liberating, It makes you feel in control. A paradox, isn’t it? You think your routines are controlling you, but in fact you’re using the routine to give you power.” –The Republic of Love, Carol Shields

Most people bristle at the idea of a routine but fail to realize that the routine and its structure is often all that keeps them in line, and in fact is one of the strictures that affords the occasional moments of happiness and staves off the occasional “emptiness creep” that sneaks in. When he starts to come undone, though, the first thing to go is the routine. And sometimes the universe seems to conspire against him, derailing him from his routine. Recently, he lost his mother, which is sad enough, but because she was at the center of many of his routines, he lost this anchor. Beyond that, the other parts of his routine, and indeed the foundation of his health and mental well-being, were interrupted by the recent winter blast. Every place he would normally go was closed due to weather, leaving him shut in his flat alone for too many days.

Sometimes maintaining a routine is all that will get you through. Yet, no one imagines that a collapsed routine will kill you.

Eddig vendég


“The cause of my profound sense of incompatibility with others is, I believe, that most people think with their feelings, whereas I feel with my thoughts. For the ordinary man, to feel is to live, and to think is to know how to live. For me, to think is to live, and to feel is merely food for thought.” –Fernando Pessoa

Guests in town, unable to write anything too thoughtful but realized I never posted a whole thing about Fernando Pessoa despite constantly citing him.

Unfinished Pessoa: “The monotony of everything is merely the monotony of myself”

No plot, unfinished, beautiful observations, ramblings and self-conscious passages filled with self-doubt and aching humanity. Even unfinished and unpolished, the aimlessness of his work strikes a chord. I’ve never found anything that amounts to the internal ramblings of an introvert to be particularly readable, but in Pessoa, I’ve found the exception.

Has anything come so close to describing such a range of human feelings – the deepest sense of understanding the world and its nothingness and our nothingness within it at the same time as embracing a strange, but sad, soulfulness? (He might disagree, were he able.) Pessoa’s unfinished and scattered The Book of Disquiet reminded me of myself and my own scattered thinking, reminded me so much of others and their even more scattered thinking (and battles with self-esteem despite the bulwark of their formidable intellects). The sense of inner disquiet, the sense of always wanting to flee but not knowing from what (Anna Swir’s – paraphrasing here – “I envy you – you can leave me any time but I can’t leave myself):

“…envy everybody for not being me. Since this always seemed to me like the most impossible of all impossibilities, it’s what I yearned for every day, and despaired of in every sad moment.” (Again like Swir: you are not only not me – you can also leave me!)

But also knowing leaving yourself is futile because no place in the world will be able to give you what your own soul cannot:

“What can China give me that my soul hasn’t already given me? And if my soul can’t give it to me, how will China give it to me? For it’s with my soul that I’ll see China, if I ever see it. I could go and seek riches in the Orient, but not the riches of the soul, because I am my soul’s riches, and I am where I am, with or without the Orient. Travel is for those who cannot feel.”

“There are basically only two things in our earthly experience: the universal and the particular. To describe the universal is to describe what is common to all human souls and to all human experience”

“Eternal tourists of ourselves, there is no landscape but what we are. We possess nothing, for we don’t even possess ourselves. We have nothing because we are nothing. What hand will I reach out, and to what universe? The universe isn’t mine: it’s me.”

He observes; he complains/criticizes; he lets his dreaming soar but reins it in, finding it tiresome; he complains some more – strikingly bold in his prose but timid in existing in the world outside his own mind and words. Everyone else is stupid but happy, and he can’t help but revile and envy it at once while also knowing this is the multiplicity of one’s own being:

“Only one thing astonishes me more than the stupidity with which most people live their lives, and that’s the intelligence of this stupidity.” “Wise is the man who monotonizes his existence, for then each minor incident seems a marvel.”

“Monotonizing existence, so that it won’t be monotonous. Making daily life anodyne, so that the littlest thing will amuse.”

“Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.”

“To live is to crochet according to a pattern we were given. But while doing it the mind is at liberty, and all prince charmings can stroll in their parks between one and another plunge of the hooked ivory needle. Needlework of things … Intervals … Nothing …”

“Life’s basic malady, that of being conscious, enters my body and makes me uneasy. To have no islands where those of us who are uncomfortable could go, no ancient garden paths reserved for those who’ve retreated into dreaming! To have to live and to act, however little; to have to physically touch because there are other, equally real people in life!”

“The intensity of my sensations has always been less than the intensity of my awareness of them. I’ve always suffered more from my consciousness that I was suffering than from the suffering of which I was conscious.”

Pessoa makes statements that our own ‘shadow selves’ might utter with some shame, and never in the wrong company, but he is unapologetic:

“I see humanity as merely one of Nature’s latest schools of decorative painting. I don’t distinguish in any fundamental way between a man and a tree, and I naturally prefer whichever is more decorative, whichever interests my thinking eyes. If the tree is more interesting to me than the man, I’m sorrier to see the tree felled than to see the man die. There are departing sunsets that grieve me more than the deaths of children. If I’m unfeeling, it’s so that I can feel.”

These words, devoid of sentimentality, nevertheless collide directly with my recent readings on creating one’s own reality, thoughts being things, the oneness of everything. How, indeed, is the tree – or the loss of it – any different from the loss of the man? Would we be somehow poorer for, say, wishing a swift death or karmic justice on American frat boys visiting Mexico chanting, “Build that wall!” while standing on the Mexican side, soaking in the Mexican sun and hospitality? (I realize I bring more ire to this argument than Pessoa’s dispassionate expression of preference. But, in relating this tale to someone, I offered similar disenchanted but detached twinned apathy-hope that these frat-asses might ‘disappear’ in Mexico. Can you be apathetic and hopeful at the same time?)

“Life is whatever we conceive it to be. For the farmer who considers his field to be everything, the field is an empire. For a Caesar whose empire is still not enough, the empire is a field.”

“How many Caesars I’ve been, but not the real ones. I’ve been truly imperial while dreaming, and that’s why I’ve never been anything.”