World-Weariness

This Summer’s Brick arrived recently.

New to me is Australian author, Robert Dessaix, with a noteworthy article about world-weariness and ageing. On arriving in Naples he writes:

Naples unsettled Stendhal too, it now occurred to me, yet you’d have thought his enthusiasm for travelling (in style, of course) was inexhaustible. He remarked in his Promenades dans Rome that by the time he got here, he wished he could have found the river Lethe, and drinking deeply, forgotten everything he’d seen in Italy and then start all over again. In other words, by the time he got here he knew Naples and Italy too well to fall again under their spell. More than that: he knew life too well. “Alas, in one respect,” he wrote, “all knowledge is like old age, whose worst symptom is the knowledge of life that prevents one from becoming passionate about anything, from behaving madly over nothing . . . Instead of admiring the ruins of the temple of Jupiter, as I did twenty-six years ago, my imagination is chained to all sorts of stupid things I’ve read about it.”

This ennui that casts a cloak over new experiences, particularly travel, is deepened by the consistency of global branding. Marks & Spencer in Reykjavik, Perrier from a corner shop in the Mull of Kintyre, iPods and Starbucks everywhere. It is impossible to re-discover the sensation of discovering Paris or Rome for the first time. It is why you can join expeditions to climb Mount Everest or to the Poles. It is hard to be amazed.

Dessaix goes on to say:

But I’d seen it all before. At a certain point in life, like Stendhal and Chateaubriand, one has. Everything feels repackaged. The crêpe and ice-cream wagons, the miniature train, the hoopla stall, the Africans selling belts and fake Louis Vuitton handbags – even the gangs of teenagers in T-shirts emblazoned with jaunty slogans in English I Love Beer, Fuck Work and so on) – I’d seen and heard and smelled it all before hundreds of times. It felt like the umpteenth performance of a circus act I’d thrilled to when I was five. Would nothing transformingly beautiful ever happen again?

He finds an antidote in André Gide:

A thick life, that was Gide’s secret. It’s an odd word in English, but one he used over and over again. A good old age in his case, if his diaries are any guide, had something to do with an unfailing appetite for the tightly woven, for turning the basic melodies that shaped his mind from childhood into sonatas, concertos, symphonies, operas, ballets. This makes it sound as if he strove to turn the simple into the complex and grand, but that wasn’t what he did at all: it was a matter of playing with almost endless variations on fundamental themes by reading more widely, rereading with greater attention, staying curious, living fearlessly, and acquiring new passions.

Susan Sontag admired Gide’s diaries. Writing in her diaries at fifteen she states:

Immersing myself in Gide again—what clarity and precision! Truly it is the man himself who is incomparable—all his fiction seems insignificant, while [Mann’s] The Magic Mountain is a book for all of one’s life.

I know that! The Magic Mountain is the finest novel I’ve ever read. The sweetness of renewed and undiminishing acquaintance with this work, the peaceful and meditative pleasure I feel are unparalleled. Yet for sheer emotional impact, for a sense of physical pleasure, an awareness of quick breath and quickly wasted lives—hurrying, hurrying—for the knowledge of life—no, not that—for a knowledge of aliveness—I would choose [Romain Rolland’s] Jean-Christophe —But it should only be read once.

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