"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Embracing The Ordinary

Embracing the Ordinary is a book by Michael Foley (reviewed by Stuart Jefferies in the Guardian 8.18.12) about discovering, enjoying, and reveling in everyday life.  Not only waking up to smell the roses, but to appreciate real estate, traffic, and dogs.

Thirty years ago, Michael Foley had an epiphany. As he emerged from jury service, the street outside the court became "illuminated, transfigured, a portal to infinite being".

Everything became sublime, especially the menu of the café advertising "egg's, sausage's and tomato's". "Those misplaced apostrophes tore at my heart like orphan children, blessed like the first timid snowdrops of February, sparkled like a dusting of precious stones. I wanted to rush in and embrace the illiterate proprietor.

He then wandered up the street to an estate agent's office, inside which a middle-aged woman in a heavy cardigan was snuffling into a tissue and leaning over a two-bar fire, exposing the white roots at the parting of her dyed hair. "I wanted to go in, tell her that I understood her disappointments and difficulties and then help pay to have her roots done by renting a one-bedroom flat above a launderette."

A lot of writers have been fascinated with the mundane – James Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time are perhaps the most famous. Neither writer was satisfied with giving the reader a slice of life, or even better the occasional morsel as other writers have, but to give page after page of often impenetrable or sloggingly boring prose.  My favorite was Andy Warhol’s a, A Novel:

a, A Novel, Warhol's knowing response to James Joyce's Ulysses, was intended as an uninterrupted twenty-four hours in the life of Ondine, an actor who was famous mostly as a Factory fixture.  A taped conversation between Warhol and Ondine, the book was actually recorded over a few separate days, during a two-year period. The book is a verbatim printing of the typed manuscripts and contains every typo, abbreviation and inconsistency that the typists produced from the twenty-four tapes (each chapter is named for its respective tape and side, from '1/ 1' to '24/ 2'). Ondine's monologues and disjointed conversations are further fragmented by Warhol's insistence on maintaining a purity of the transcriptions.

Talk about thuddingly boring.  Even better (or worse) was Warhol’s movie Sleep where he filmed his friend sleeping for five hours and twenty minutes.  Warhol was spoofing Joyce, who was actually trying to recreate the life of Bloom and Molly with his acres of unconscious, spontaneous, associative musings; but in both Ulysses and a, A Novel, getting through the pages was work.

Proust is in another category altogether.  At least in Ulysses there is some dialogue and real time exchanges; and in all the blather that passes for conversation between Ondine and Warhol there are enough references to the underground life of New York, amphetamines, sex, and painting to make it somewhat interesting.  The only thing that most readers of In Search of Lost Time  is the madeleines that open the mental sluices to produce floods of memory.

No one claims that Foley is another Proust.  At least Proust left it to readers to figure out what his writing were all about.  Foley has to moralize:

"The crucial thing is to start paying attention now." Like a budget Buddha, Foley counsels mindfulness, attending to the here and now rather than dreaming of the future or fetishizing the past. That way we can sacralize the profane, even empathize with estate agents with tragic hairdos. Or, as Foley puts it, "by the sweaters of Benetton I sat down and wept".

Easier said than done:

But how do we reach the portal to infinite being without the lottery of jury service? [Foley’s epiphany to the mundane happened as he walked out of jury duty] How elude the hellish maw opened up by break-out areas, corporate away-days and co-workers with signs on their desks reading "Situation worsening – please send chocolate!"?

I used to hate the ‘message’ pictures of women around the village well on the walls of my office; the schlocky African carvings, and the god-awful print wall hangings with solidarity slogans in five languages.  Rather than embrace them, I ignored them.  To somehow glorify these uber-bourgeois chotchkies was never an option.  Why should I? I reserved my mini-moments for nice things – a rocky mountain of Skookum and Wellfleet oysters piled high in the window of Clyde’s, for example.

I think Foley is on to one thing, however – smelling the roses or enjoying a break-out session at a conference does break up the routine and slow time.  Every day that I make my bed, arrange the sheets, pillows, blankets, and bedcover in precisely the same way, even out the rumples and bunches, aligning the patterns, and tuck the stray bit of fray, I make another big X on the calendar.  If I walk the other way on my familiar Spring Valley walk I see the houses, gardens, and SUVs from a different direction.  I notice more, remember more.  If my days are are filled with lunches, outings, coffees, and movies they pass just as quickly as more routine ones, but I don’t seem to notice the time passing with such deadening regularity.

Foley recommends spiritual exercises, appropriating the French theorist Michel de Certeau who, in The Practice of Everyday Life, railed against those snobby morons who fail to realize that if the everyday is everything that is ignored by official forms of knowledge, its very invisibility gives the potential for freedom and even subversion.

Certeau advocated the idea of the ruse, reconfiguring everyday tasks for transgressive personal purposes. One night, Foley relates, he did just this when he sneaked out to a neighbor's skip with an old ironing board. He "felt not only 30 years younger but as lean, tough, resourceful and clandestine as a Viet Cong tunnel rat".

I am all for these ruses.  I used to stick large Post-Its in the Men’s Room at the World Bank, with the words “Is It True?” written in bold black letters.  A week later I would repeat the question, but add more nonsense: “Is It True? Check below” where I would draw a Yes and a No box. I added detail and innuendo each successive Monday.   After a few weeks of this, I heard colleagues talking about them, wondering, of course, who did it; but also what did they mean?  Was the anonymous author after some bit of office intrigue? A veiled warning about another reorganization. 

This somehow leavened the boredom of the job, made me more able to look at the lifeless photos of village women at the pump, and speed up the day without cancelling it out.

But Joyce and Proust, on whom Foley spends much time meditating in these pages, are not the only high priests of low life. He hails others: Alice Munro, Walker Evans, Edward Hopper, Georges Perec, David Foster Wallace, Jan Vermeer. He cites the advice of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke to a depressed man: "If your daily life seems poor do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches."

The point of all this navel-gazing is not self-evident.  I had a good reason for shaking up my day and for creating ruses to slow the passage of time.  Foley wants only to observe objects and events of his mundane life for what? To feel more alive?  Sooner rather than later he will become very sick and tired, nauseated even, looking at wastebaskets and toilet bowls, and on that day he will stop embracing them and complain to Engineering to bloody clean them.

My hero is Nietzsche who had something to say about living in a mundane, repetitious world – follow your will, express it with all the force and power of your being, be a Superman.  Trample on whomever is in your path, clear the way to your goal, accelerate beyond good and evil, beyond pedestrian moral constraints, realize your full potential and validate your life.

Schopenhauer saw the world as meaningless and purposeless… He had failed to see the sense of joy and vitality that is achieve when the superior person faces the meaningless world and clear-sightedly imposes his own values on it. The superior person neither shrinks from the struggle of life, nor struggles blindly, but wills to live deliberately and consciously. Nietzsche calls this sense of joy and vitality accompanying the imposition of values on a meaningless world tragic optimism. It is belies the "reality" that the world is not [Schopenhauer’s] Will to Existence, but Will to Power. (www.carroll.edu Friedrich Nietzsche)

For the legions of ordinary people who form part of Nietzsche’s ‘herd’ and who never rise above the perpetual sameness of life, embracing the mundane may be the only way to shake up the Grand Mechanism (Jan Kott on Shakespeare’s Histories) and catch a glimmer of what life is really like.  But thin gruel indeed compared to Nietzsche’s superman, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, or Richard III.

Like most of us I am caught in the middle.  I aspire to be a Superman, to take great risks to achieve great things and I want to slow time.  Because I am neither a man of Pure Will nor a believer in the transformative power of the mundane, I must resort to ruses, find ways to trick time.  Very unsatisfactory and very unsettling.

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