Monday, March 31, 2014

`The Glory of the World'

Witty writers plant parenthetical prose-bombs, calibrated for maximum damage. Mediocre writers turn a parenthesis into a junk drawer. Here’s a recent example of the former: “(My patients who were bored by existence and therefore in search of themselves used to ask me how one became interested in something, a question to which I did not know the answer.)” The detonation takes care of whiners, self-seekers and the fashionably bored, while inflicting minimal collateral damage. Only a confident writer keeps his goods so unspectacularly under wraps. Today’s booby-trapper is Theodore Dalrymple, who begins his essay when he receives a catalog from an antiquarian book dealer, and concludes by diagnosing the pandemic of our age: “The greatest cause of boredom in the modern world is entertainment.” The theme will be familiar to long-time readers of Dalrymple:

“...the world is so infinite in its variety that our brief time on it cannot, or at least should not be able, to exhaust our interest. I used to tell my patients that it was vastly more important, from the point of view of reaching contentment, that they should lose themselves than that they should find themselves; and that, in losing they would find themselves and most of their problems would disappear, at least for the time they remained lost. If they made finding themselves the precondition of losing themselves, they were, in effect, lost.”

From the mouth of another writer, this would sound like New Age mumbo-jumbo, but Dalrymple is the least mystical, most common-sensical of writers. When someone, whether child or adult, complains he is bored and blames anyone or anything other than himself, I stop listening. The world is crowded with boring people, situations and ideas, and my job as a grownup is to ignore or transcend them. While a prisoner of the communists in Lubyanka, held in solitary confinement, Aleksander Wat painstakingly recounted the plots of novels he had read, often many years earlier. Muddled inattention, exacerbated by a purposeful pursuit of distraction, seems to be the cause and sustaining impetus for a chronic case of boredom. When John Berryman announces,Life, friends, is boring,” he writes not as a poet but as an alcoholic. Boredom is a symptom of his disease. 

Until I began rereading Revolutionary Road this week, I had forgotten that Richard Yates borrows the epigraph for his novel from Keats: “Alas! When passion is both meek and wild!” I had never bothered looking up the source, which turns out to be one of Keats’ lesser efforts, “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil.” Keats borrows his kitschy melodrama from Boccaccio. In Yates’s novel, Frank and April Wheeler borrow theirs from Hemingway, Hollywood and other second-hand founts of Romanticism. They too are “meek and wild,” fatally so. Nor had I noticed Keats’ play on the conventional pairing of “meek and mild.” Respecting a book means following clues left by its author, upholding the contract agreed upon by reader and writer. Dalrymple writes:
It is my regret that I shall not live long enough to explore everything in [the book dealer’s catalog], let alone everything else beside, but it is the glory of the world that its interest is without end. As for my patients who were bored and who created convoluted difficulties for themselves to disguise that fact, I came to the conclusion that the world seemed dull and slow moving to them by comparison with videos, films, shows, and television. The greatest cause of boredom in the modern world is entertainment."

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

Oh, I like him very much as well. One of my favorite bits in this was "Under his infectiously enthusiastic tuition, I came to believe that there was no more important or interesting study in the world, and wished only that my life had taken a different path many years ago."

I wish he had the rule over a wider range than he does, for he would be much better than most of the rulers of the world!