Friday, March 11, 2016

Boredom, Writing, Subjectivity, "Struggle"

"The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line." --H. L. Mencken

"I don't pray because I don't want to bore God." --Orson Welles

"Bores bore each other too, but it never seems to teach them anything." -–  Don Marquis, author of  archy & mehitabel (1927)

March, not April, is the cruelest month.  The drama and adrenaline of the heavy snow and ice cover are gone, and the explosions from the green fuses of April's spring are not yet.  All is gray, brown, or grayish brown: even the sky has a beige filter over the relentless, close, gray cloud cover.  The old, all-white neighborhood tom cat, Piper, never stinting in his single-minded predation, stalks the birds, patiently as usual, but he is obviously embarrassed and mournful to have suddenly lost the advantage of his full-body snow camo--now stark against the dark brown mud of the neighbors' back yards and damp fences.

When my New Yorker subscription fortuitously delivered its usual preview blurbs to my email box yesterday, my attention was grabbed by a link to Karl Ove Knausgaard's "At the Writing Academy"--a fifty-page excerpt from the not yet published "Volume V" of his monumental 3,600 page autobiographical "novel," My Struggle. I have only read bits and pieces of his work, translated from Norwegian--an essay on "Necks" (intro to a photography collection), his multi-part essay for the New York Times Magazine, "My Saga: Travels Through North America," and a couple other excerpts from My Struggle, a work-in-progress since 2009.  I call the link "fortuitous," because nobody I've read has done a better job of reproducing the quotidian details of human inner life--not Proust, not Woolf, not Kerouac, nor Faulkner, Beckett, or Camus.  Karl Ove's "struggle" is dailiness itself: crumbs on the floor, a walk to the corner, masturbation, a nap, self-doubt about an assignment, betrayal by a friend, remembered fear of his father, postponements, small victories, humiliations, a cracked cup... So easy to refer to him as "Karl Ove"!   Everybody seems to say, "He's writing my life!"  (Even if they were not born, as he was, in 1968 in Norway.)  The daily "struggle" of small plans, strategies, schedules, avoidances, successes or failures--all meaningless to everyone but me--these ARE my life,

As if on cue, my inbox delivered the lastest post by Doug Bruns from his blog, "The House I Live In," which he devotes to an evening alone here in Portland, sorting and packing books, in preparation for a long trip--"on the road" looking for America via Airstream Trailer.  The urge to be on the road again, to simplify, to find Answers (or even, answers), has ruled my life, as it seems to rule Doug's, though on a different scale and schedule.  Twenty years older than Doug, and more than thirty years older than Knausgaard, I have had more time to explore. Indeed, I have visited every state except ND, AK, and HI, many times, and by many conveyances--starting in the mid-1950s.  I read Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, and Kerouac's On the Road, early and often.  On the other hand, unlike Doug, I have had only limited travel outside the US--mostly in Western Europe, and especially France.  (See for travelogues.)  And unlike Knausgaard, I have no fame, no millions of readers, no budget OR time left for grand plans and adventures.

Yet, like both, I share an inner life of small struggles and daily banalities, and dreams the scale of the modestly possible, however different mine from theirs.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

Is my "desperation" really despair, or simple boredom?  Clinical depression? Or just spring fever on an undramatic day without plans?  Or maybe it can be explained by possession of a reduced reward system in the operation of my neuro-transmitters, brought on my having stopped drinking 10 months ago, after half a century of daily wine consumption?  Blame the dopamines?

Piper, the neighborhood tom cat, would not have made any therapeutic difference, one supposes, to Don Marquis's Mehitabel, for whom a life "devoted to her art" has become, instead, "just one damn kitten after another."

"it isn't fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom"

No kittens here, so no excuses, I suppose.  But.........there are always "kittens" in one form or another. People who consider new lives, dream of following new stars can always find reasons to keep the status quo:  responsibilities, empty pockets, irrational fears, schedules poorly synched, illnesses, "required" commemorations, political and geographical disgusts or dangers, bad timing, unexpected weathers, simple fatigue, lost chances, changed relationships, revised tastes, "counted blessings," separation anxiety, waiting for enough money for the right boat, partner, or visa, working longer to amass enough in the retirement fund, inertia or ....laziness.

Would I be less desperate, less bored, walking along the rim of the Grand Canyon?, drinking coffee in our cockpit at anchor in Tahiti?, playing the flรขneur from my cafe table in Nice?, buckling on my skis after a gondola ascent to Pila, above Italy's Aosta?

Probably not: kittens are always checked through with your luggage.

So, is Knausgaard bored?  Are his struggles just Mencken's "standing in line?" broadcast to a few million (bored) readers?  Am I bored?

Time to sort out subject and object here, noetic and noematic, flashlight and mirror:  who's asking?  who's being asked?  As soon as I ask, "am I bored?" I am aware that I have blundered into a down-market cousin to the old Paradox of the Liar, or of the Coward.  Say I ask you, "Is your answer to this question a lie?"  If you answer "Yes," then your answer, being a lie, is true. If you answer, "No," then, in answering truthfully, you are lying.  Similarly, if I ask, "Are you a coward?" and you answer "Yes," then you are answering courageously, and are thus no coward.  We'll leave the consequences of such knotty linguistic issues to the likes of Tarski, Russell, and Whitehead.  But what of the person, sitting here now, who writes, "I am bored."

That person, moi, is tapping away on a computer keyboard, a glass of iced tea nearby--a person who notes that the morning cloud cover has given way to glorious warm-on-the-face sunshine, and flocks of birds at the feeder, chirping in accompaniment to the clattering keys beneath my fingers, as I vaguely compose the rest of this paragraph, designed to illuminate a dull corner of my consciousness--and maybe yours, too--concerning issues of no pressing urgency, and comporting hints of satisfaction in finding connections between people, ideas, and projects heretofore unsuspected.

If I were truly bored, would I be doing this?  More likely I'd be sitting dull-eyed, staring at the clock, waiting for F. to wheel into the driveway, so we can make plans to go to dinner somewhere.  I conclude that I am not bored, and that Knausgaard, through the whole slog of writing 3,600 pages of the minute details of his struggle, his life as struggle,  was never bored in doing it.  I am reminded that Camus concluded his Myth of Sisyphus with: "The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."