28 October, 2007

N is for Neville

Heareing a learned Philosopher discourse of death and how it is not to be feared, and the stroake passes and the dead feele no torment. How, sayth M. Gaulard, doe they not feele the ffleas? Then, haueing the Philosophers answere No, Truly then I beleeue it is good some tymes to be dead.

— Étienne Tabourot, Bigarrures or the Pleasant and Witlesse and Simple Speeches of the Lord Gaulard of Burgundy, tr. "J. B. of Charterhouse", from a manuscript circa 1660.
From our bathroom window can be seen, in the indigo night, a far distant object, large and bright, like a cinema-screen, but still, and unanimated. I would stare at it every evening, in an attempt to decipher and identify it, but without success. In the dark it sat, silent and unknown.

Finally curiosity got the better of me. From the family home I fetched a pair of binoculars, and later that evening, after supper, I opened the window and trained my new lenses upon the far light. As I turned the focus, my vision extended slowly into the distance, alighting momentarily on other windows, and on their inhabitants, moving silently, as if in a camera obscura. At last I could see the mysterious object. It seemed to be some sort of communiqué, with words, black on white, but I could make out only letters. I was inclined to think it was a large lane-indicator by the side of the road.

The next evening I returned to the window, this time resting the binoculars against the sill, for a steadier vision. Now I found I could discern words. World; place; home. Important place. I felt rather like Marvin in the climactic scene of So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, descrying God's last message to his creation. The next night I returned again, and this time I could finally see the whole. Home is the most important place in the world. What was this quasi-philosophical banality doing in huge letters by a distant road? I turned to Google, and soon learnt that the phrase is used as a slogan for the furniture company Ikea. The great screen is merely, it turns out, a commercial hoarding. All the sublime has gone out of the world—the mysteries of our city are now only opportunities for product. It's enough to make one a fucking Marxist!


In the face of this vulgarity we grow bored. Don't we? Boredom seems to have become an integral part of my outlook, as if by accident. It is a double-faced vise: on one side, we struggle to avoid it, constantly seeking the new; on the other, we embrace it, accepting boredom, and contempt, as the markers of an ironical and urbane sophistication. We take pleasure in boredom as we take pleasure in incessant and unwinnable combat against it. When I wrote against the appreciation of literature, here, I imagined of my pupils:
Shown a Renaissance sonnet, they would yawn, Oh! Another wittily inverted pentameter. Shown a passage from Henry James they would sigh, Ah, yet another meticulous character-portrait. Have you nothing more interesting for us? They would revel sybaritically in their grand scorn. The world could show nothing to them—and they would die content at their mastery of it.
This summer, rereading Candide, I realised I had been anticipated, 250 years ago, in the character of Pococurante, a Venetian noble whose palace the hero visits in chapter 25. Candide and Pococurante discuss the latter's maids, his paintings, his large collection of classic books, and his gardens. Candide admires it all, but Pococurante despises everything, weary with the greatest masters.
As soon as our two travelers had taken leave of His Excellency, Candide said to Martin, "Well, I hope you will own that this man is the happiest of all mortals, for he is above everything he possesses."

"But do not you see," answered Martin, "that he likewise dislikes everything he possesses? It was an observation of Plato, long since, that those are not the best stomachs that reject, without distinction, all sorts of aliments."

"True," said Candide, "but still there must certainly be a pleasure in criticising everything, and in perceiving faults where others think they see beauties."

"That is," replied Martin, "there is a pleasure in having no pleasure."
Last weekend I saw the same again, in a modern setting, watching Armando Iannucci's surreal and poignant sketch about the unappeasable. As a doctor explains, 'Sammy's developed a syndrome which means that he's literally being bored to death. If he ever has the same experience twice, his internal organs will haemorrhage simultaneously. We're desperately trying to invent as many completely new experiences as we can.' We see the aged Sammy, utterly jaded by a surfeit of information and entertainment, confronted by his wife with a cascade of bathetic novelties:
— It's a new shaped teabag!

— It doesn't interest me.

— A book about Ronnie and Reggie Kray!

— I'm bored of bastards. . .

— They're starting a new round of Champions League football-matches!

Upon discovery of some unreleased John Lennon material, Sammy's eyes start bleeding, and when presented with a documentary about the International Space Station, he curls up with a pillow, whimpering pathetically. Here is Pococurante, but rather than revelling in his grand bored scorn, he is suffering. I feel a little of either, sometimes revelling, sometimes suffering. It was a condition diagnosed with philosophical sympathy by Kierkegaard, who immortalised the thrill-hunting aesthete as A in his Either / Or. This is not one of those times that the world shows its wares to me. Giornale Nuovo has closed shop, having apparently grown tired of its own endless succession of nice pictures. Novelty palls, or turns out to be an Ikea advertisement. Novelty palls—one wants to stop sorting through the flotsam for once, stop skimming, and start digging, properly. A blog, naturally, is more suited to skimming than to digging, so what this change of heart spells for the dear old Varieties—well, time will tell, eh?


M.W. Nolden said...

Nice title for this sad but nicely written post. (That happens to be one of my favorite books by EG, although I'm always a bit appalled that I can be so amused by the passing on of children.) I had just discovered the Giornale Nuovo (possibly through your blog) & am sorry to see it go as well.

Anonymous said...

I certainly hope your condition is not fatal, as it was for Mr. H and Neville. That would be a great loss.

Malone said...

Drat. It's enough to make me wish you back in Arizona (almost).

Best of luck, Conrad, whatever the fate of Varieties!

Anonymous said...

I see the same "home is the blah blah blah" message every morning from my vantage point sitting at an outdoor coffee place. (I like to have my coffee while the sun comes up. Manhattan is a fascinating place always, but I find it particularly compelling when I have it almost totally to myself.)

My first thought, upon seeing it there on 3rd Ave., only a few scant blocks from where the Bowery famously solidified the title "Bowery Bum," was that it was cruel somehow.

Aren't the endless rows of looming and unattainable "homes" taunt enough to the scores of homeless? Must we spell the taunt out explicitly across said buildings in 4000pt type as well? Poor bastards. Course, I don't suppose Ikea runs much risk in hurting the feelings of homeless people, since they sell home furnishings and all.

As to all the blog ennui... no comment. (I've written so much about that subject and made so many threats and promises that to even write this sentence now I threaten to perjure myself.) Needles to say H will be missed and I hope you stick around.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, guys. Don't worry, I don't think we have anything to fear. There must always be surges and recessions, upon the eternal sea, eh?

Robert said...

I am glad to hear it Conrad. Some times it is better not to use the binoculars; a blurred vision can have its advantages!

chris miller said...

Not to disparage any of the earlier posts, but I do predict that the last entry in VUNEX will be the most exciting of all.

(which is not true of all blogs -- I'm sure that mine, for instance, will expire with a whimper)

Greg Afinogenov said...

"The book of Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher, is also ascribed to Solomon, and that with much reason, if not with truth. It is written as the solitary reflections of a worn-out debauchee, such as Solomon was, who looking back on scenes he can no longer enjoy, cries out All is Vanity!" (Tom Paine)

In case you're considering it, I beg you not to stop writing here. You're one of the Internet's few really intelligent and cultivated voices, a beacon and an inspiration.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, friends.