“To Commute,” by the Way, Can Mean to Transform (as in from Base Metal to Gold), or, The Banality and Sublimity of the Mundane

“To Commute,” by the Way, Can Mean to Transform (as in from Base Metal to Gold),

or,

The Banality and Sublimity of the Mundane

by Tom Jacobs

Each morning the day lies like a fresh shirt on our bed; this incomparably fine, incomparably tightly woven tissue of pure prediction fits us perfectly. The happiness of the next twenty-four hours depends on our ability, on waking, to pick it up.

~ Walter Benjamin

Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor. Neither do they spin.

~ Luke 12:27

Depending on whether one has ever felt the vaguely incarceral character of everyday life, the following scene may or may not resonate. The term “everyday life” is tossed around quite a bit by cultural/critical theorists and philosophers, and it’s not always clear just what the hell they mean by it. And I will try to explain what I think it means in a moment, but first, this scene. It’s about a guy who comes to understand that the life he’s been inhabiting is not actually his own, but has yet to figure out how to create a new one. No doubt you’ve seen it, but it’s good enough to warrant watching again.

It is worth noting that this conversation takes place in the context of an emergent love that, even here, clearly begins to be felt by the two characters. And also that it takes place in something like an Applebee’s. Even in an Applebee’s, it seems, the source of true love and real hope may lie. Strange to consider.

****

Here’s another scene of a man locked into the routines of everyday life. I quote it in full because it reveals the mind of a man fully engaged with the world around him, however generic and cultureless it might be. We all live in cocooned little worlds, shielded by ego and desire and narcissism. But boredom here can produce insight. This guy works in a generic office in a generic skyscraper in a generic and cultureless part of a business district. And yet his is a mind that finds interest in the quotidian, the minutae, the fabric of the everyday. He is in the bathroom of his corporate office.[i]

I negotiated the quick right and left that brought me into the brightness and warmth of the bathroom. It was decorated in two tones of tile, hybrid colors I didn’t know the names for, and the sinks’ counter and the dividers between the urinals and between the stalls were of red lobby-marble. I checked in the mirror to be sure that while chatting with Tina [Ed’s note: the secretary.] I had not had some humiliating nose problem or newsprint smudge on my face—she would probably have told me about the smudge, but not about the nose. A few sinks over from me, a vice-president named Les Guster was brushing his teeth. He was staring straight at the mirror and very likely seeing there the same expression on his face, the same quick bulgings in his cheek, that he had seen while brushing his teeth since he was eight years old. He blinked frequently, each blink slightly more deliberate than a blink he would have performed while reading or talking on the phone, possibly because the large motor movements of tooth brushing interfered with the autonomic rhythms of blinking. His tap was running. As soon as I took my place at a sink, Les bowed close to his sink, holding his tie with his free hand against his stomach, even though he was clearly not ready to rinse or spit yet, in order to shield his sense of privacy against my presence in the mirror. We were not obliged to greet each other: the noise of the water from his tap, and Alan Pilna’s winding-down urinal-flush, defined us as existing in separate realms. I was impressed by people like Les who had the bravery to brush their teeth (before lunch, even!) at work, since the act was so powerfully unbusiness-like; to indicate to him that I didn’t think that his tooth-brushing was in any way notable or comic, and that in fact I was unaware of his presence, I leaned into the mirror, pretending to study a defect on my face; then I cleared my throat so unpleasantly that there could be no doubt that I was oblivious to him. I pivoted and stationed myself at a urinal.

I was just on the point of relaxing into a state of urination when two things happened. Don Vanci swept into position two urinals over from me, and then, a moment later, Les Guster turned off his tap. In the sudden quiet you could hear a wide variety of sounds coming from the stalls: long, dejected, exhausted sighs; manipulations of toilet paper; newspapers folded and batted into place; and of course the utterly carefree noise of the main activity: mind-boggling pressurized spatterings followed by sudden urgent farts that sounded like air blown over the mouth of a beer bottle. The problem for me, a familiar problem, was that in this relative silence Don Vanci would hear the exact moment I began to urinate. More important, the fact that I had not yet begun to urinate was known to him as well. I had been standing at the urinal when he walked into the bathroom—I should be fully in progress by now. What was my problem? Was I so timid that I was unable to take a simple piss two urinals down from another person? We stood there in intermittent quiet, unforthcoming. Though we knew each other well, we said nothing. And then, just as I knew would happen, I heard Don Vanci begin to urinate forcefully.

This, it seems to me, is a tour de force that cuts to the very quick of how one with a poet’s soul might negotiate and transform everydayness. The protagonist, Stewie (from Nicholson Baker’s 1986 novel, The Mezzanine), lives a boring life and spends his days crouched over a computer in a felt-lined cubicle, yet it is one full of remarkable discoveries and insights. Here is a person who pays attention, who finds in everyday life a subject worth serious inquiry and reflection. And that matter of paying attention makes all the difference. Perhaps the heart can be full anywhere on earth, as has been said. But should it be? After all, transforming the way we perceive everyday life is a very different thing from transforming the character of everyday life.

Aside from the fact that I’ve never read anything that addresses this peculiar anxiety (what used to be called “bashful bladder” syndrome when I was a kid in Nebraska, something I first became aware of trying desperately to urinate beside my junior high social studies teacher), Baker, or rather his narrator, finds plenty of poetry and even philosophy in this most unremarkable of moments. One imagines that most writers would skip over this sort of thing (the awkward bathroom encounters) to get to something more epically or emotionally significant. But there it is; it is all there—the power relationships, the performances of self, the secret histories of self, the communal sharing of a private ritual—even in the corporate bathroom.

There is an obvious tension here between the scene from “Office Space” and Baker’s Mezzanine. It is a tension that has to do with either escaping or embracing everydayness. Is there any doubt that there is something intriguing to be found in the everyday? Something to be retrieved and held up to the light and turned around? This is, after all, the very stuff that life is made of: the “fabric of our lives,” as Zoe Deschanel might have it. Think of all those ridiculous hours spent on facebook, all those minutes and hours and days spent over years looking dubmly at one’s smart phone for a new message or a new game to play, commuting in a coma, refusing to get out of bed and grab the day by its short and curlies. It’s a lot of our life, this sort of thing. Yet people refuse, people escape it or transform it (and yes, I know we all think we manage this all the time, but do we really? A strong argument could be made that this is why vacations are so important to us…because we lie to ourselves about how exciting our everyday lives are…) But is it worth it, this work of retrieval and recuperation?

*****

Whether to find personal fascination with the boredoms and routines of everyday life, or to, Lefebvre-like, seek to transform them into something fresh and new. Either to find heart-breaking beauty in mundanity, or to transform mundanity into something remarkable and extraordinary.

Is this sort of thing resolvable?

Here’s Kierkegaard:

Infinite resignation is that shirt we read about in the old fable. The thread is spun under tears, the cloth bleached with tears, the shirt sewn with tears; but then too it is a better protection than iron and steel. The imperfection in the fable is that a third party can manufacture this shirt. The secret in life is that everyone must sew it for himself, and the astonishing thing is that a man can sew it fully as well as a woman.

~ Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling)

I don’t know what to make of this last clause and so choose to ignore it, but the idea that we must ultimately recognize and then resign ourselves to some fundamental mystery or absurdity, and to wear this resignation like a hand-knit shirt, seem true enough. Of course it’s difficult to fully feel or discern this mystery and absurdity in everyday life, but it happens. John Updike also has something to say on this matter, writing of the Umbrella Man.[ii] (And if you don’t know the story of the Umbrella Man, here it is, in a short, six minute documentary by Errol Morris:)

Jfkumbrella2(Morris's short documentary can be found here.)

The story of the Umbrella Man cannot but generate all manner of uncertainty about how much we can ever know, how much we understand about social reality, and most important of all, about how much the strangeness of the world outruns our categories and abilities to assimilate all those things that don’t really seem to make sense. As Special Agent Dale Cooper once noted, somewhat cryptically: “Whenever two events happen simultaneously, pertaining to the same object of inquiry, we must always pay strict attention.” Quite so. Morris and his interlocutor get to the bottom of this one, but for every magical realist moment that goes fathomed, there must be infinite others that don’t.

Here’s Updike’s gloss on the meaning of the Umbrella Man, and what it says about even the most mundane events or moments:

We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute section of time and space would yield similar strangenesses—gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for absolute truth. The truth about those seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic.
~ John Updike, The Talk of the Town, December 6, 1967

Empiricism does indeed verge on magic, most perilously, as is most evident to anyone who’s ever hung around in a basic science research laboratory and noticed the strange sumptuary rules (the white coats that, if you squint, look for all the world like some kind of surplice or cassock), the strange instruments that allow us to see the unseen, the remarkable technologies that perform alchemical reactions and mixings beyond the abilities of the merely human. It’s not just that to an insufficiently developed culture modern technology appears as magic; hell, it appears as magic to our own culture. Or it should.

****

The television is on. A couple sits in the living room, enjoying some small degree of a week’s unknotting, quietly playing the inward record of a day’s unspoken humiliations and triumphs. The remaindered aroma of dinner floats and absorbs itself into whatever fabric it can find. The couples’ bodies begin to melt into the sofa that is the center of their home. Slackjawed and riveted, the couple recedes into a moment of shared and private intimacy, sitting each beside the other, watching the same program at the same time, each with his/her own private movie of the day playing in their heads. Their fascination with the images on the tv is disrupted, however, by the sound of an odd scratching noise. A noise that is coming from the kitchen, separated by the most papery thin lathe and plaster walls. Not a natural sound. Or at least, not an expected sound.

A moment passes between them. Anxiety ripples through the room. What is that noise? What could possibly be scraping around in the kitchen?

The boyfriend, having seen a tiny, cheetoh-sized mouse with big ears in the kitchen the other day, feels a surge of masculine adrenaline. He declares that he will go investigate.

He opens the door to the kitchen, turns on the light and there, perhaps three feet away from him, is a raccoon the size of a small golden retriever, holding in its black begloved hands, a loaf of bread that had been left out.

The raccoon and the boyfriend hold each other’s gaze for perhaps five seconds. Each seems to be wondering what the other is doing there. The moment is held. Each looks at the other from across an abyss of mutual incomprehension. Then the moment is gone. The raccoon drops the loaf of bread and flees back out the open window and fire escape from which it presumably came. The boyfriend never sees the raccoon again.

The boyfriend thinks about this moment frequently in the ensuing years, trying to figure out what it means. He never reaches the bottom of it.

***

Politics is all about the creation of cultural time and space—the world we walk through every day without much thinking about it. Our being is profoundly tied to the types of practice that generate the space and time we inhabit.

The notion of resistance has everything to do with the nature of everyday life. Even those most exploited amongst us nevertheless find a way to make themselves feel at home in the world. And this world-building is fundamental…it is the substratum upon which everything else is built. To be sure, there are multiple and reciprocal forces at work here (the state and the economic system and the simple need to make money is of course going to shape one’s everyday practice), but what one can effect and shape and fashion is one’s everyday life, one’s everyday relationship to the world and to others.

Without the active application of creativity and the imagination we are lost. We follow the channels that have already been dug. We do not self-invent. We do not fear that we don’t know who we are or what we should do. Desire (a tricky one) and pleasure also figure in here. The worst case: when we think we are “free” is precisely the moment when we are least free. Free to consume and buy more shit and do what we are supposed to do. The problem is in part one of repetition: of consuming, of working, of mimicking the behaviors and attitudes of yesterday (and the day before). But it is not the sole problem, as was made clear to me Sunday morning, when I read this piece about a man who seeks to walk every street in the five boroughs. It’s an extraordinary piece that can be found here. Even more remarkable is his personal blog about his vagrancy, which consumed a good two hours of my morning and can be found here (caveat lector!): http://imjustwalkin.com/

The discoveries he finds simply walking the streets is enough to make me want to drop everything and just start walking.

The quotidian as a legitimate object of philosophical reflection… If there is an authenticity to be found in this fallen world, surely it is here, in the quotidian, in the finding or making of self in the mundane and banal. With luck, we experience what Lefebvre calls “moments of presence,” which are “those instants that we would each, according to our own personal criteria, categorise as ‘authentic’ moments that break through the dulling monotony of the ‘taken for granted’”

The contours of the everyday have to change before anything else will…otherwise old orders will merely reappear. It is here, after all, in the trenches of the everyday, that the reproduction of everything occurs: the relations of production and reproduction, the routines, the potentially cretinizing effects of social media. We find that we consent without really consenting to the existing order. We go to work, we behave in prescribed manners with others and our coworkers and our families and friends, and then we go home and buy a bunch of stuff to cook or eat with loved ones or by ourselves, & etc.

And now I begin to sound preachy and pedantic. All I know for sure is that this sort of thing is tough and hard to achieve. It defies me most days, but not always. Perhaps today will be one of those days where it doesn’t. We’ll see. Now I have to go lay out the shirt that I will wear before I take a shower and head off to work. It may be ironed but I’m pretty sure it will be itchy.


[i] I might add that this passage is chosen more or less randomly. There are far more thick descriptions of office life, but this one is intriguing to me because it suggests some of the Tom Wolfe-ian dimensions of the give and take, the private exchanges that occur even amongst strangers or coworkers in that strangest of public spaces: the bathroom. If you want a true tour de force, here it is:

On the way back, my office seemed farther from the CVS than it had on the way there. I ate a vendor’s hot dog with sauerkraut (a combination whose tastiness still makes me tremble), walking fast in order to save as much of the twenty minutes of my lunch hour I had left for reading [Ed’s note: he’s reading Marcus Aurelius…and there’s a great passage coming up…). A cookie store I passed had no customers in it; in under thirty seconds, I had bought a large, flexible chocolate chip cookie there for eighty cents. Waiting for a light five blocks away from my building. I took a bite of the cookie; immediately I felt a strong need for some mile to complement it, and I nipped into a Papa Gino’s and bought a half-pint carton in a bag. [Ed’s note…I will cut out some of the digressions upon digressions, even though I love them so…].

I placed the CVS bag beside me and opened the carton of milk, pushing an edge of the bag Donna had given me under my thigh so that it would not blow away. The bench gave me a three-quarter view of my building: the mezzanine floor, a grid of dark green glass with vertical marble accents, was the last wide story before the façade angled in and took off, neck-defyingly, into a squint of blue haze. The building’s shadow had reached one end of my bench. It was a perfect day for fifteen minutes of reading. I opened the Penguin Classic at the placemarker (a cash-machine receipt, which I slipped for the time being several pages ahead), and then I took a bit of the cookie and a mouthful of cold milk. [Ed’s note: I will skip a bit here…]

I found my place on the brilliant page and read:

Observe, in short, how transient and trivial is all mortal life: yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice and ashes.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! I thought. Destructive and unhelpful and completely untrue!—but harmless, even agreeably sobering, to a man sitting on a a green bench on a herringbone-patterned brick plaze near fifteen healthy, regularly spaced trees, within earshot of the rubbery groan and whish of a revolving door. I could absorb any brutal stoicism anyone dished out! [Ed’s note: I will stop here…you get the idea…this is an individual who observes and reflects the complexity of everyday experience back out into the world in a way that is much needed].

[ii] well worth a watch…a six-minute video made by Errol Morris for the NYTimes, and based on a book that a formerly tenured Kierkegaard scholar wrote…he apparently decided at some point that, you know what? Done with Kierkegaard. F Kierkegaard. So he became a private investigator. An amazing dude in his own right.

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