A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘David Foster Wallace’

Boredom

In Creativity, Happiness, Life, The Examined Life on February 11, 2013 at 6:00 am
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“C’est la vie”

A few lines from the poem, Bored, by Margaret Atwood:

Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes
I would. The boring rhythm of doing
things over and over, carrying
the wood, drying
the dishes. Such minutiae. It’s what
the animals spend most of their time at,
ferrying the sand, grain by grain, from their tunnels,
shuffling the leaves in their burrows.

Big question: What I am doing here?

I used to proudly declare that, “I’ve never been bored.” It was a statement delivered with much the same self-serving gusto one hears when over-achieving middle-class poseurs declare, “We don’t own an TV” or “I only watch PBS.” It makes my eyes roll and my gut contract. “I’ve never been bored” now has the same effect on me. Agghh, what pretentiousness! (I also used to pontificate, in a similar vein, that boredom, like guilt, was a manufactured emotion.) I now understand that boredom is the foundation of everything. It is the pearl-constructing grit in the oyster’s shell, the red phosphorous that makes the match explode. Avoiding boredom is the motivation of modern life. I say modern life because I’m not sure this–boredom–has always been the case. The word boredom didn’t even appear in the language until 1852, when it showed up six times in Dicken’s novel, Bleak House. Given that the English language has been around in a form we (might) recognize since Chaucer (c1340-1400), it strikes me as dead-on that this notion is rather recent, that boredom is a symptom of modern existence.

It’s not an original thought. Heidegger (1889-1976), as have others, spent a lot of time on the subject. “Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference,” he wrote. “This boredom reveals being as a whole.” I don’t want to get up on a soap box, nor do I wish to write a thesis on the existential significance of boredom on modern life. That would be boring, would it not? And that is precisely the point.* Let’s not do something that is boring. To the opening question: What am I doing here? I now have an answer: I’m trying to out-sprint boredom.  Does my life have meaning? I submit: Only to the degree I can appreciate Heidegger’s “remarkable indifference.”

Boredom is, paradoxically, the disease and the antidote. We might be challenged by the thought that nothing remains that is new, a thought which prompts (some of) us to attempt the new. I have long held that creativity is key to the profound in existence. What I never really appreciated is that creativity is, to one degree, the response, should one be inclined to respond, to the threat of remarkable indifference. Creativity is the fear of the same styled into the unsame. What am I doing here?–both the practical and the highfalutin metaphysical answer is: wrestling against the threat of boredom–with my notion of creativity. And you?

* Perhaps you might be interested in a more modern–more creative–take on the subject: Consider David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King. (Can we long for the nostalgia of boredom?)

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And of course there is a Ted Talk on the subject, as there appears to be a Ted Talk on every subject:

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A long(er) version of this mini-essay appeared a few years ago over at The Nervous Breakdown. My essays at TNB can be found here. (Was boredom the motivation to lifting this essay…?)

In closing…

In Curiosity, Happiness, Life, Memoir, Writing on October 20, 2012 at 6:00 am

Behold the dangerous beauty of obsession!

My life can be easily reduced to phases, measured by degrees of obsession. These phases link to interests, which are sparked by curiosity. I do not know how to be interested in something without being obsessed by it. Obsession and it’s odd opposite twin, Discipline, have been my brightest marching outposts. My capacity to sustain pace is, however, inelastic and, pushed to the limit, fails me. Then, just like that, everything stops. Let me give you an example.

Several years ago I became interested in the classical guitar. I took lessons, went to workshops, sat in on master classes at a world-reknown conservatory. I studied music theory, took classes in composition. I played in recitals, practiced for hours. A guitarist grows long nails on the right hand to pluck the nylon strings of the guitar. One day, out of the blue, I cut my nails and put away the guitar and never played it again.

This pattern has repeated itself for years. Some passions–for that is what they are–last years, some only months. Some are still born and buried the next day.

That, friends, is the position in which I now find myself. I sense the nascent hankering to move on and redirect my laser-view of life. The blog, this house I live in, is on the wan. I trust you understand. You must know me by now, you know I can’t help myself. I figured I owed you a head’s up.

But before I go, please allow me to do something I have tried to not do. I don’t like to give advice. As a writer, I try to practice the old dictum, show, don’t tell. But let me tell you something now that we are going to be seeing less of one another. (“Parting ways” is such a strong and definite phrase–I just can’t go there.)

Let me tell you that life is the adventure–or lack thereof–that you make of it, as trite as that sounds. My flitting from obsession to obsession might appear random and ultimately meaningless; but the reality is that I encourage life to tickle my curiosity. I have trained myself to conform to the nature of my curiosity. There is a great natural harmony to be experienced in such a practice. If I am curious about the classical guitar, I will throw myself into it. I become a musician. If I am curious about the literature of David Foster Wallace, I throw myself into his work. I become a critic. Want to know what sunrise looks like in Nepal? Me too, let’s go, let’s become adventurers! Reinvent yourself over and over. Pursue the contrary, avoid the ruts. Stay interested–and interesting. Nurture curiosity. Allow yourself the freedom to embrace wholly, as well as relinquish freely.

Let us consider how to live, to paraphrase Thoreau. The terms of my consideration are different from yours. But consider we must! There is no greater challenge, no richer reward, than to carve from the marble of life a vision specific to one’s nature. A life well-lived is the greatest art. Become an artist.

“My whole life I’ve been a fraud.”

In Technology, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Writing on May 6, 2012 at 8:00 am

This is a repost. I’m out of the country. Should fortune be shining on me, I will be nowhere near internet connectivity, as you read this.

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Sherry Turkle is a professor at MIT who is studying the effects of social media and cellphones on children. She has interviewed over 400 young people and their parents. In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine she is reported to worry that “the self was increasingly becoming externally manufactured rather than internally developed.” The journalist, Peggy Orenstein, quotes Turkle: “On Twitter or Facebook you’re trying to express something real about who you are, but because you’re also creating something for others’ consumption, you find yourself imagining and playing to your audience more and more. So those moments in which you’re supposed to be showing your true self become performance.”

I am reminded of the beginning of David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon.” The story, his last great story, won an O. Henry Award and is mostly the recollection of a now-deceased advertising executive. It begins this way: “My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people.”

Moleskine notes

In Books, Creativity, Happiness, Literature, Philosophy, Writers on April 6, 2011 at 3:50 pm

I was approached by a panhandler this morning as I walked across town. He hit me up for a $5 spot. He was sober. Yesterday on Exchange, late in the afternoon, he hit me up for two bucks. He was drunk. To me the economics are simple: It takes five bucks to get drunk, two bucks to stay drunk. (I gave him a dollar.)

From a recent NY Times piece, Julian Schnabel: “Art is [my] religion.”

A note I made from an article in the The Wilson Quarterly: In the beginning of the 21st century social scientists showed that Americans have a third fewer non-family confidantes than two decades earlier. A quarter have no confidantes at all.

Not sure where this idea came from (but think/worry it is original): There are two types of men. Those who want to show you their penis; and those who want to be geniuses.*

According to Camus, Sisyphus found happiness in meaningful work. [I made this note in two different places. It strikes a chord. The first, older, entry reads as follows.] Was Sisyphus, according to Camus, happy because he knew the secret to happiness to be meaningful work?

On a similar note, Melville wrote that we should “lower the conceit of attainable felicity.”

Joyce on love: “Love (understood as the desire of good for another)…”

From the diary of Anna Magdelena Bach: “Johann Sebastian said, ‘How simple music is, you just press the right key at the right time.”

Though not properly a note in my moleskine, this is worth sharing. My reader’s copy of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King arrived yesterday. The first sentence is poetry:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spine-cabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.”

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*Lest there be any doubt, I’m the type of guy who wants to be a genius. Here’s hoping the distinction is mutually exclusive.

A Pandemonium of Myths…

In Mythology, Philosophy, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom on August 19, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Nietzsche held that a problem of modernity is that the modern man (and woman) is a “mythless man.” As a result, we take the mundane and lift it to the glorious, making it “shine.” As Julian Young says, “the problem, in fact, is that too many things shine in modernity, and that their shine rubs off too soon.” He continues to cite cultural examples of what so cheaply shines. (You can fill in the blanks; it’s not hard.) As a result there is a “pandemonium of myths…thrown into a disorderly heap,” [Nietzsche]. We live, as Zarathustra puts it, in a “motley” town.

This resonates with me. It feels true and is at the center of a personal quest for authenticity. One effort, along these lines, is the rejection of the shiny.  Or at least a severe analysis thereof. Regardless of what shines, glamor, consumerism, materialism, personality, this, that and the other thing, so often–always?–the shine wears off. We live in a neo-Guilded Age. There is no sustainable myth. (David Foster Wallace wrestled with this theme in Infinite Jest, the idea that our energies are spent on the mundane, seeking addiction in something, so as to fill some nascent unrealized need.) A mindful challenge of the assumptions of modernity correlates with a minimalist approach to living–which brings me to the most emailed New York Time’s article of last week, But Will It Make You Happy? The piece takes a look at the growing American phenomenon at personal down-sizing. (Can you live with just 100 things?) I will not attempt to encapsulate the article. Read it. (I expressed similar thoughts on happiness and the gross domestic product in previous blog entries.) There is also a wonderful blog linked in the article which warrants consideration, a collection of musings  advocating “social change through simple living,” by Tammy Strobel, called RowdyKittens.

As the slow cooking movement began as an Italian reaction to a new Rome-based McDonalds, so might a minimalist, non-consumptive living movement gain purchase against the drive to the abyss which our species seems hell-bent on completing. To paraphrase a personal hero, Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, We have marched to the brink of existence, now we have to turn 180 degrees and take a step forward. Backward is no longer backward. It is forward. Can we escape this motley town?

First sentences…

In Books, Literature, Reading, Thinkers, Writers on June 29, 2010 at 6:26 pm

…from a few of my favorite books:

“He awoke, opened his eyes.” The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

“The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.” The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport

“Life changes fast.” The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

“They sometimes met on country roads when there were flowers or snow.” Dubin’s Lives, Bernard Malamud

“Standing amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny sudden feeling that what he has come to meet, what’s floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane.”  Rabbit at Rest, John Updike

“The amber light came on.” Blindness, José Saramago

“The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.” Essays of E.B. White

“I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.” Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

“When you write, you lay out a line of words.” The Writing Life, Annie Dillard

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” Walden, Henry David Thoreau

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….” Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

…and perhaps the best opening sentence in all of literature:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez