Friday, January 22, 2021

'Things That Form the Real Texture of a Life'

“These fragments from a decade ago don’t amount to much, and yet they seem (to me) to represent the texture of day-to-day life (not just our particular lives) that’s missing from so many accounts, peripheral to much that passes for commentary on our common lives.” 

In a recent First Things essay, John Wilson describes finding some of the notes he had kept while his wife was travelling out of town. He used them to recount the daily commonplace events – the weather, overheard conversations – he wished to share with her when she returned. They serve as a substitute for the day’s casual chats, the thoughts without monumental importance that we exchange with spouses and other loved ones throughout the day. Their ordinariness is their essence and the source of the solace they provide.


This week Matthew Walther tweeted a passage from Michael Shelden’s Orwell: The Authorised Biography (1992). It’s one I had marked in my copy:


“There must be a place in the modern world for things which have no power associated with them, things which are not meant to advance someone’s cause, nor to make someone’s fortune, or to assert someone’s will over someone else. There must be room, in other words, for paperweights and fishing rods and penny sweets and leather hammers used as children’s toys. And there must be time for wandering among old churchyards and making the perfect cup of tea and balancing caterpillars on a stick and falling in love. All these things are derided as sentimental and trivial by intellectuals who have no time for them, but they are the things that form the real texture of a life.”


The most pernicious and influential of the slogans coined in the nineteen-sixties is “The personal is political.” Many of our troubles can be traced to that pithy bit of idiocy. The personal must be buffered from the political, must “have no power associated with [it].” We require a realm of immunity, one in which we regulate the gates.  There’s always someone out there happy to tell us what is and isn’t important. In literary terms, we see this in the recent ascendancy of propaganda, the antithesis of aesthetic considerations, in books. On May 9, 2013, my friend the critic D.G. Myers, a little more than sixteen months before his death from cancer, sent this to me in an email:


“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. I may try to write about the `small cares,’ but I'm not sure yet what I want to say.”


Richard Zuelch said...

"We require a realm of immunity, one in which we regulate the gates." Related: the trend of working from home (some of it made necessary by the pandemic, I realize). Is this a "gate" that is becoming un"regulated?" Home is supposed to be the place you got to get *away* from work.

zmkc said...

To take your objection to "the personal is political" one step further, I've been wondering lately whether "the political" has as its main aim the obliteration of the personal - via corporatisation and mass surveillance. But perhaps pandemics induce paranoia.

zmkc said...

I agree about the silly phrase "the personal is the political", although lately I've been wondering whether it is true in a way in reverse - that is, the intention of today's version of "the political" is to obliterate the personal, via corporatisation, globalisation and mass surveillance. But perhaps that is pandemic-induced paranoia at work. (Sorry, if I've already sent you a version of this comment; the computer appeared to have swallowed it, but it may simply have sent it to you.)

Cal Gough said...

I've always loved (once I found out what it meant) the word QUOTIDIAN. Your friend Myers was correct: those ordinary things in faily life, even the ones that bring us considerable comfort (at least in the long run) don't often get written about in interesting-to-read ways.