Guy Davenport (1927-2005), The Symbol of the Archaic in The Geography of the Imagination (David R. Godine, Publisher, 1997), p. 19-20:
[..] we are alienated from all that was most familiar. Basically he [Charles Olson] meant that we no longer milk the cow, or shoot the game for our dinner, or make our clothes or houses or anything at all. Secondly, he meant that we have drained our symbols of meaning. We have religious pictures in museums, honouring a residual meaning in them, at least. We have divorced poetry from music, language from concrete particulars. we have abandoned the rites de passage to casual neglect where once we marked them with trial and ceremony.
Thirdly, he meant that modernity is a kind of stupidity, as it has no critical tools for analysing reality such as the ancient cultures kept bright and sharp. We do not notice that we are ruled by the worst rather than the best of men: Olson took over a word coined by Pound, pejorocracy. Poetry and fiction have grieved for a century now over the loss of some vitality they think they see in a past from which we are by now irrevocably alienated.
Laughter evolved not for its health benefits but because of its impact on others, and therefore positive benefits should most reliably occur within interpersonal contexts. Evolutionary accounts of laughter exists because of the generally accepted view that laughter is a homologue of the primate relaxed open-mouth display, known less formally as the play face.
For at least two hours in the London Library I was absorbed in Psychophysiological Approaches to the Study of Laughter in the Oxford Handbook on positive psychology. (I’m ambivalent about the positive psychology movement, sympathetic to its Stoic roots, but repelled by its corporate manifestation.) There was much of interest in the chapter, but mostly it brought to mind Beckett, Critchley and Bergson.
In Simon Critchley’s essay superb On Humour he writes,
For me, it is this smile – deriding the having and the not having, the pleasure and the pain, the sublimity and suffering of the human situation – that is the essence of humour. This is the risus purus, the highest laugh, the laugh that laughs at the laugh, that laughs at that which is unhappy, the mirthless laugh of the epigraph to this book. Yet, this smile does not bring unhappiness, but rather elevation and liberation, the lucidity of consolation. This is why, melancholy animals that we are, human beings are also the most cheerful. We smile and find ourselves ridiculous. Our wretchedness is our greatness.
I’ve always viewed with a mixture of envy and unease those with hearty, big belly laughs. From time to time I try them out for size, but they don’t fit. I laugh often but my laughs are quieter, sounds, whether major or minor, from the interior. Bataille identified “major laughter” which requires “two conditions: (1) that it’s sudden; and (2) that no inhibition is involved.”
Critchley’s argument, if I understand it correctly, is developed from Plato’s theory (in Philebus, Socrates explains his suspicion of laughter) that humour comes from a place of superiority, that laughter has its roots in disparaging others. Not Bataille’s unpredictable laughter of release, but one of mockery, closer to what Beckett calls the intellectual or dianoetic laugh.
The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! – so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please — at that which is unhappy.
This theory of a superiority of humour fits with Bergson’s idea that laughter is a corrective to foolish behaviour, what he calls, “a constant striving after reciprocal adaptation, ” concluding, “We may therefore admit, as a general rule, that it is the faults of others that make us laugh by reason of their unsociability rather than of their immorality.“
Brouhaha, not the word I was seeking, but a magnificent word nevertheless, defined as a state of social agitation which, afterwards, can seem pointless or irrational. But it isn’t the word I want. Palaver is closer in that it signals tedious discussions. Commotion is close. Performance?
This time I am taking out, away from the necessity of performance and mindless conversation. My preoccupation with the intertwined themes of solitude and silence. Not to be absent from conversation (even on social media), nor, of course, from the company of books. Perhaps privacy is better, solitude with external stimulation.
Solitude is easier in the autumn, there is less expectation in the quiet magnificence of dark autumn nights. Silences that are preoccupied with retreat and expansion, not a resistance to others, but a curiosity to explore personal existence.
To take time for solitude is also inevitably to be confronted with loneliness, but in a minor form it is as fascinating as boredom. In major form loneliness can obviously result in extreme pain, where it overlaps, like boredom, with depression. Ultimately though we are born and live alone.
There are so many writers that face solitude and loneliness at the heart of their work. Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Wolfe, and Duras come to mind. Conrad, too, in An Outcast of the Islands who writes, “the tremendous fact of our isolation, of the loneliness impenetrable and transparent, elusive and everlasting; of the indestructible loneliness that surrounds, envelops, clothes every human soul from the cradle to the grace, and, perhaps, beyond.”
This afternoon I reread the passage in The Magic Mountain in which Thomas Mann expounds on the nature of boredom. Lars Svendsen in A Philosophy of Boredom asks, “What is the difference between profound boredom and depression?” concluding that there is considerable overlap.
Thinking about how various thinkers have dealt with boredom led me to scribbling a bibliography for a study on the subject, which I thought I’d share here. All of these works deal to a greater or lesser extent with the concept of boredom:
- Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind – Patricia Meyer Spacks
- In Praise of Boredom (from On Grief and Reason) – Joseph Brodsky
- Boredom is a major preoccupation in much of Herman Melville’s work
- Being and Time – Martin Heidegger (on the theme of profound boredom)
- The Conquest of Happiness – Bertrand Russell
- The themes of boredom and waiting are dominant in the novels of Marguerite Duras, notably Moderato Cantabile (which is brilliant and you should read anyway.)
- The Voyage Out – Virgina Woolf (fascinating exploration of the textual use of boredom)
- Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity – Elizabeth Goodstein
- Anatomy of Melancholy – Robert Burton
- A Philosophy of Boredom – Lars Svendsen
- Boredom: A Lively History – Peter Toohey
- Beyond Boredom and Anxiety – Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
I realise there is an extensive literature of the phenomenon of boredom, many of which I have not included. I came cross Lee Rourke’s top 10 books about boredom. Please feel free to add any titles in the comments section.
Coetzee on Beckett (1992):
Beckett has meant a great deal to me in my own writing – that must be obvious. He is a clear influence on my prose. [...] The essays I wrote on Beckett’s style aren’t only academic exercises, in the colloquial sense of that word. They are also attempts to get closer to a secret, a secret of Beckett’s that I wanted to make my own. And discard, eventually, as it is with influences.
It is In the Heart of the Country that Beckett’s influence seems most clear in Coetzee’s work, but also apparent in Waiting for Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K. In the latter Coetzee writes memorably of, “a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand,” paying quiet homage to Molloy’s famous sequence.
[November 2013: The link originally in this post, to a NYRB Coetzee review of Beckett's letters is now subscribers only, so I've changed the original post.]
These notes on contemplative silence and hermitism aspired to something more, but failed. Insomnia gives me solitude and reading time, but the longer it persists the more fragmentary my thoughts become.
Gustav Mensching offers a typology of silences: preparatory silence, contemplative silence, worshipful silence, expectant silence and monastic-ascetic silence.
I wonder what lies behind my longing for a hermitic existence, to enact a modern-day Anthony of the Desert (sans sainthood).
“Why write about solitude in the first place? Certainly not in order to preach it, to exhort people to become solitary. What could be more absurd? Those who are to become solitary are, as a rule, solitary already … all men are solitary. Only most of them are so averse to being alone, or to feeling alone, that they do everything they can to forget their solitude.” (Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions)
I return to the desert eager to welcome the dawn, but what I’m seeking is an outer silence to complete my inner silence, my voicelessness. Desert silence is before time, beyond life, a place we have come from and to which we will return.
The word hermit-and, of course, eremite, derives from the Greek eremites, with its roots in eremos, a desert or wilderness.
The Japanese have a term hikikomori, literally pulling inward, reclusiveness as a manifestation of a social illness. Samuel Riba, the protagonist of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque self-diagnoses hikiomori tendencies.
Cixous (Rootprints) writes that “Our dialogues are often mute. / This doesn’t prevent them from taking place,” understanding that keeping silent is a form of communication. Cixous’ writing is filled with silence. It is a silence that runs up against the thresholds of language.
Anna Akhmatova’s poetry resides in that realm between silence and speech, between muteness and articulation. “Silence herself speaks.” (Poem Without a Hero)
“The person who dares to be alone can come to see that the ‘emptiness’ and ‘uselessness’ which the collective mind fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth. It is in the desert of loneliness and emptiness that the fear of death and the need for self-affirmation are seen to be illusory.” (Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable)
Egyptian-born St Anthony spent fifteen years living in a cave, communicating with others through a tiny crevice carved into the cave wall. He died in the year 356 at the age of 105.
Brodsky (Conversations) said, “As the body grows older it fills up with silence-with organs and functions which are no longer relevant to its life.”
Neurologists profess that the brain’s cortical mantle evolved primarily from a need to communicate. We are wired to be sociable and live in communities.
“Every human being is alone in the core of the mind. When we are born we cry; and that cry is the cry of loneliness. Thus it is with children. Thus it is with growing youth. And the older we grow the lonelier we grow.” (John Cowper Powys, A Philosophy of Solitude)
People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void, of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Last night I reread, in part, Sarah Maitland’s A Book of Silence, which made a deep impression when I read it three years ago. Kathleen Jamie captures the richness of Maitland’s book exceptionally well.
“Silence has its own weather. In silence, one’s mental states loom large and require constant vigilance,” writes Jamie. I think it is precisely that fear that has led to a depreciation of silence. Perhaps, in the West, we never appreciated silence much in the first place. Greek philosopher Pythagoras the Samian studied with both the Egyptians and East Indians, cultures where silence and listening where highly valued concepts. Pythagorean initiates were required to be silent for five years.
In Book of Silence, Maitland writes, “Incessant noise covers up the thinness of relationships as well as making silence appear dangerous and threatening. The nervous chatter that is produced to cover even brief periods of silence within a group is one manifestation of this.” Speech is deemed the distinguishing aspect of humans, silence considered suspicious. Choosing silence as a deliberate choice is thought of as masked, secretive, or labelled pejoratively as ‘shyness’. Sarah Cain in Quiet wrote, “If you’re an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain.”
Western culture values extraversion, what Sarah Cain termed the Extrovert Ideal – “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” (Jungian labels like ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ are useful in so far as they offer a conversational short-cut, they are widely understood and conceptually predate the field of psychology.)
Choosing silence is also expressing a preference for listening. I find that using silence to prepare my thoughts is essential preparation for speaking. Listening is an undervalued creative activity. (I’ve always loved that ‘silent’ and ‘listen’ contain the same letters.) Maitland writes in A Book of Silence, “Just as if you leave the door of the public bathes open the steam escapes and their virtue is lost, so the virtue of a person who talks a lot escapes through the door of the voice. That is why silence is a good thing; nothing less than the mother of wise thoughts.”
[This is a substantially updated post, originally from June 2009.]