Tuesday, May 14, 2013

`Insect Vexations, Which Sting Us and Fly Away'

“I've been thinking how much of life is absorbed with `small cares’ that seem overwhelmingly important at the time--or at least disabling--which are forgotten in the sequel: the headaches, stomach aches, the traffic jams, the appointments which are late. Do these take up the majority of our time? They almost never make it into literature, and in fact literature seems an unstinting propaganda on behalf of the dramatic occurrences of human life.” 

So writes David Myers in an email, bringing to mind a fantasy I’ve nursed in recent days – a nagging nostalgia for old troubles, what David calls “small cares.” With high-definition acuity I remember sitting at my desk writing a story for my high-school creative writing class. It was the first-person account of a blameless “prisoner of metaphysics,” the pretentious spawn of Kafka, Malamud and utter inexperience of life. The words came in a constipated sputter that amazes me today. I’m never blocked for words – the lasting gift of decades in journalism. But I remember the struggle, the halting creep of sentences, the histrionic despair, and think: “How romantic. How dedicated. How young and serious I was, how unaware of projecting my narcissism into the narrative.” I felt nostalgia for a time when trivia seemed important because importance otherwise seemed absent from life. 

In defiance of the “unstinting propaganda,” the masters of depicting “small cares” mingle the serious and the comic – Chekhov, Joyce and Bellow. Each redefines drama with comedy. Misail Poloznev in Chekhov’s “My Life” dreams he will have a ring inscribed “Nothing passes” after his wayward wife has her ring inscribed “Everything passes.” Leopold Bloom is a cuckold who buys a pork kidney, fries and eats it. He moves his bowels, attends a funeral, tries to place an ad in a newspaper and meets an anti-Semite. Moses Herzog takes his name from a minor character in the “Cyclops” chapter in Ulysses.  Herzog says: “We love apocalypses too much...and florid extremism with its thrilling language. Excuse me, no, I’ve had all the monstrosity I want.” A repudiation of the dramatic, the heightened and over-hyped, almost an endorsement of the prosaic. Herzog, too, recalls with aching fondness his childhood in the slums of Montreal. Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #68: 

“The main of life is, indeed, composed of small incidents and petty occurrences: of wishes for objects not remote, and grief for disappointments of no fatal consequence; of insect vexations, which sting us and fly away; impertinencies, which buzz a while about us, and are heard no more; of meteorous pleasures, which dance before us and are dissipated; of compliments, which glide off the soul like other music, and are forgotten by him that gave, and him that received them.”

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