CLIFF: Anytime I want to, I can close my eyes and call it back. Then it’s like I’m really back there and I can practically hear that field buzzing. In a way, it’s like I never left that field. In a way – it’s like I can’t.
(The single light fades, and bright summer sunshine fills the stage. Dorothy is on the ground, reading a book.)
-The Land of Cockaigne, David Ives (1995)
In the past few months, I’ve taken a brief hiatus from this blog to focus on sorting my life out living.
When I first started Classic Jenisms, my goal was to ‘connect literary appreciation and real living’, i.e. to find parallels between the literature we read and the life that we lead. As time went by, I noticed that I got quite good at the reading, but would at times forget about the living part of the equation.
I’d spend hours pouring over the minutiae of how certain words are arranged in service of certain aesthetic effects, all the while losing sight of how I could apply the human message behind them to the way I live. I decided, then, that it was about time I focused a bit more on being present in my own reality, and to temporarily retreat from vicarious living in fiction.
Now that I’m back on the radar, the natural question would then be –
Instead of writing about literature, have I used the past four months to live my life in a more fully engaged way, to make more out of the pregnant hours of my every day?
Instead of writing about literature:
- I visited my maternal grandparents up north and spent more time with them during the Chinese New Year and in early March
- I went on my first ever organised bushwhacking hike in March, and thereafter went on another rock-climbing hike at the start of this month and thoroughly enjoyed the experience
- I joined a volunteering organisation through the recommendation of a friend, and found out more about the daily struggles that different groups in HK society face
- I returned to the UK for the first time since graduating back in July 2015, and visited my closest friends and those who matter to me
- I travelled to Ho Chi Minh City with one of my besties on a whim, and explored the city on the back of a motorcycle with a loosely-fitted helmet (not to be encouraged)
- I took the plunge and made a decision to change jobs back in January, and can now confirm that I will be leaving my current employment next month to join a new firm and a new industry come 1 June
Looking at this list, I suppose that 2017 so far has served as a turning point, one that has enabled me to turn away from my usual inward focus, and to instead actively seek out more opportunities for external connection, whether they be with new or old friends; in familiar or novel surroundings.
As a self-professed introvert, I’ve always been happy enough doing solitary activities like reading, writing, running, solo backpacking etc. And while these are still some of my favourite things to do, I’ve also come to realise that perhaps I crave solitude so much because it allows me to recharge and be my best self when interacting with other people.
I used to think that the deepest, most meaningful and authentic relationships reside only in great literature, but I’m slowly beginning to suspect that this is only true insofar as they inspire us to make the relationships in our own lives deeper, more meaningful and authentic. After all, no novel – not even the ones crafted in prose as exalted as Updike and Bellow’s poeticism, nor ones based on anecdotes as poignant as Didion and Plath’s memories – can permanently transport us out of our own versions of reality, or deliver us into alternative realms of existence.
This is partly why I enjoy realist fiction so much, because realism rarely puts on the pretence that one’s life is any ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than anyone else’s – they are simply different, and as such, are different lives to be lived on different terms.
During my break from this blog, I have been reading with a more relaxed, less ‘analytical’ mindset. The result of this is less dog-earing of pages for future referencing (a habit which I’d like to resume), and a more hands-off willingness to just be carried along by the narrative.
We all read to find information which we subconsciously seek, and seeing as I’ve been thinking a lot more lately about the need and importance of prioritising human connection as a daily practice, I’ve picked out two relevant extracts that I came across while reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, both of which are authors I highly recommend (not necessarily to the same type of readers) and have previously written about at length on this blog.
Both extracts are about the emotional and interpersonal costs of not being able to connect with others for short and long stretches of time, the result of which, as you would expect, is the gradual but definite erosion of one’s soul.
Suburban loneliness in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake
Lahiri’s The Namesake revolves around a first-generation Indian-American family’s experiences in America, which starts with Ashoke and Ashima’s arranged marriage in Calcutta and thereafter traces the struggles that their children, Gogol and Sonia, face as they come to terms with their cross-cultural identities. In the moment captured below, the couple has just moved to a small university town outside of Boston for a professorship that Ashoke has decided to take up.
As a result, Ashima, having just given birth to their son, Gogol, finds herself alone on most days while her husband works hard at the school, save for the rustling of New England autumnal foliage and the constant presence of her infant child:
For Ashima, migrating to the suburbs feels more drastic, more distressing than the move from Calcutta to Cambridge has been. She wishes Ashoke had accepted the position at Northeastern [University] so that they could have stayed in the city. She is stunned that in this town there are no sidewalks to speak of, no streetlights, no public transportation, no stores for miles at a time. She has no interest in learning how to drive the new Toyota Corolla it is now necessary for them to own. Though no longer pregnant, she continues, at times, to mix Rice Krispies and peanuts and onions in a bowl.
For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realise, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that the previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.
Her forays out of the apartment, while her husband is at work, are limited to the university within which they live, and to the historic district that flanks the campus on one edge. She wanders around with [her baby son] Gogol, letting him run across the quadrangle, or sitting with him on rainy days to watch television in the student lounge. Once a week she makes thirty samosas to sell at the international coffeehouse, for twenty-five cents each, next to the linzer squares baked by Mrs Etzold, and baklava by Mrs Cassolis. On Fridays she takes Gogol to the public library for children’s story hour. After he turns four, she drops him off and fetches him from the university-run nursery school three mornings a week.
For the hours that Gogol is at nursery school, finger-painting and learning the English alphabet, Ashima is despondent, unaccustomed, all over again, to being on her own. She misses her son’s habit of always holding on to the free end of her sari as they walk together. She misses the sound of his sulky, high-pitched little-boy voice, telling her that he is hungry, or tired, or needs to go to the bathroom. To avoid being alone at home she sits in the reading room of the public library, in a cracked leather armchair, writing letters to her mother, or reading magazines or one of her Bengali books from home. The room is cheerful, filled with light, with a tomato-coloured carpet on the floor and people reading the paper around a big, round wooden table with forsythias or cattails arranged at its centre.
When she misses Gogol especially, she wanders into the children’s room; there, pinned to a bulletin board, is a picture of him in profile, sitting cross-legged on a cushion during story hour, listening to the children’s librarian, Mrs Aiken, reading The Cat in the Hat.
For Ashima, anything is better than unfamiliar solitude, even if it means the prospect of being amidst strangers in silence, or of being subjected to the wailing reminders of her son’s basic needs. Being alone in a land to which she is not native translates into lonely inertia, not the luxury of getting away from the loving buzz of friends and family that she once found so annoying back in India, but now deeply misses 8000 miles away.
Removed from the stifling hubbub of Calcutta’s urban life, Ashima now finds Massachusetts’ suburban ennui to be even more stifling, as there is nothing – not even “streetlights… public transportation [and] stores”, but her thoughts and the crunching of “Rice Krispies and peanuts and onions” to distract herself with.
To the city-raised Ashima, then, her idyll greener pastures may as well be rugged asphalt sidewalks, where buses and people – for all their unruly chaos and unpredictability, at least remind her of a world beyond that she could reach out to at any given point for contact.
Urban isolation in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission
On the other hand, the protagonist of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, Francois, is somewhat of an anti-Ashima, as he is contentedly uninterested in being around people, despite his ready access to them in the form of university students, colleagues and sex partners.
Like Ashima’s husband, Francois is an academic at a well-esteemed institution, but he differs in that he is a Frenchman working in his home capital, Paris, and that he has no wife and practically no family to speak of (he is estranged from both his parents).
Having consigned himself to a career of scholarly solitude, the lack of real human connection in his life doesn’t much bother Francois, as he is able to make it past everyday by looking forward to his microwave Tikka Masala meals and sleeping with students or escorts, most of whom he just fucks and forgets.
The only one he remotely cares about, Myriam, recognises this and finds his apathy to be exasperating, which is memorably (painfully? perversely?) portrayed in the scene below:
Myriam wore a short black skirt and black tights. I’d invited her to my place. I didn’t really want to go to a restaurant. She had an inquisitive look around the room and sat back on the sofa. Her skirt really was extremely short and she’d put on makeup. I offered her a drink. Bourbon, she said, if you have it.
“Something’s different…” She took a sip. “But I can’t tell what.”
“The curtains.” I had installed double drapes, orange and ocher with a vaguely ethnic motif. I’d also bought a throw for the couch.
She turned around, kneeling on the sofa to examine the curtains. “Pretty,” she decided. “Very pretty, actually. But then, you always did have good taste – for such a macho man.” She turned to face me. “You don’t mind me calling you macho, do you?”
“I don’t know, I guess I must be kind of macho. I’ve never really been convinced that it was a good idea for women to get the vote, study the same thing as men, go into the same professions, et cetera. I mean, we’re used to it now – but was it really a good idea?”
Her eyes narrowed in surprise. For a second she actually seemed to be thinking it over, and suddenly I was too, for a moment. Then I realised I had no answer, to this question or any other.
[…] “You know… the one night we see each other again, don’t you think we could try to be nice?” I heard the catch in her voice and was ashamed. “Are you hungry?” I asked, to smooth things over. No, she wasn’t hungry, but we always ended up eating. “Would you like sushi?” She said yes, of course. Everyone always says yes to sushi. From the most discerning gourmets to the strictest calorie counters, there’s a sort of universal consensus regarding this shapeless juxtaposition of raw fish and white rice. I had a delivery menu, and she was already pouring over the wasabi and the maki and the salmon rolls – I didn’t understand a word of it, and didn’t care to. I chose the B3 combination and called in the order. I should have taken her out to a restaurant after all.
[…] “You don’t seem to be doing too great yourself. But then you always seemed that way, really,” she said without animosity, almost sadly. What could I say? I couldn’t exactly argue.
“Do I really seem that depressed?” I asked after another silence.
“No, not depressed. In a sense it’s worse. You’ve always had this weird kind of honesty, like an inability to make the compromises that everyone has to make, in the end, just to go about their lives. Let’s say you’re right about patriarchy… where does that leave me? I’m studying, I think of myself as an individual person, endowed with the same capacity for reflection and decision-making as a man. Do you really think I’m disposable?”
The right answer was probably yes, but I kept my mouth shut. Maybe I wasn’t as honest as that. The sushi still hadn’t arrived. I poured myself another bourbon, my third. Nick Drake went on evoking pure maidens, princesses of old. And I still didn’t want to give her a child, or help out around the house, or buy a Baby Bjorn. I didn’t even want to fuck her, or maybe I kind of wanted to fuck her but I also kind of wanted to die, I couldn’t really tell. I felt a slight wave of nausea. Where the fuck was Rapid’Sushi, anyway? I should have asked her to suck me off, right then. Then we might have stood a chance, but I let the darkness settle and thicken, second by second.
“Maybe I should go,” she said after a silence of at least three minutes. Nick Drake had just ended his lamentations. We were about to hear the belchings of Nirvana. I turned it off and said, “If you like.”
“I’m really, really sad to see you like this, Francois,” she said to me in the hallway. She already had her coat on. “I’d like to help, but I don’t know how. You won’t even give me a chance.” We kissed cheeks again. I didn’t see what else we could do.
* * *
The sushi showed up a few minutes after she left. We’d over-ordered.
The friend who first introduced me to Houellebecq said that the line “I kind of wanted to fuck her but I also kind of wanted to die” stuck with him for a long time, and upon re-reading this section, I can kind of see why. The problem that Francois faces at this moment is having to deal with feeling something – real emotions – for another human being, which, for a misanthrope like him, is a task more herculean and discomfiting than writing an academic tome in a holed-up office room or delivering a thousand more lectures to audiences he doesn’t need to register as people.
Because his modus operandi has always been marked indifference for others, he cannot bear to have thoughts that demand real emotional intimacy and investment a la marriage, domesticity and – god forbid – love – sneak into his consciousness in a kind of scenario where he knows only to operate by the principle of ‘fuck and forget’.
By actually caring about Francois as a person and not just as a sex partner, however, Myriam makes him feel vulnerable and inadequate as a human being incapable of feeling, which he attempts to deflect onto another form of bodily satiation – the anticipation of food.
In a turn of punishing irony, the sushi arrives in a quantity that requires sharing, but by then, of course, Francois already has no one to share it with.
* * *
And this is what I fear the most:
That one day, I’ll have no one to share too much sushi with.
That one day, I’ll no longer feel solitude to be an invigorating sanctuary for retreat from chaos, but rather, an indefinite state of living uncushioned by the expectation that there’ll always be people I love to fall back on.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from this year so far, then, it is that literature will always stick around for as long as human civilisation stands, but people won’t.
So let’s all try to be a little bit kinder to each other while we can. #2k17 #goals
It’s good to be back, all.