Part v: Inertial

Yamamoto Masao - 841


[Continued thoughts on readings and experiences from my trip to Vancouver]


I've been reading The Waves and thinking about the processes of life, of perception and consciousness, of storytelling and revision. All actions and activity. But what about the space between actions? The moment of pause between every moment of activity? The Waves is just as much about space -- it's about the things unsaid -- with every 'speech' there is something not told, there is the action unseen -- we hear what happens in between actions, behind the veil, beneath the surface. We hear about the process up to the present -- the penumbra surrounding what comes to be. These stories are just as much about not-telling as they are about telling.

And in catalepsy and a dead trance I studiously held the quick of my nature. [Villette]

In the latest issue of Cabinet there is an essay by Marina Van Zuylen called 'Fatigued.' She focuses mostly on Emmanuel Levinas' 1947 book Existence and Existents, which I have not read, though hopefully I'll correct that at some point this summer --

The point of Levinas' book, and of this article (and also of the
Sloth conference which I mentioned earlier), is to show that fatigue, inertia and ennui are essential to the thinking process -- essential to action. Van Zuylen says:

From Pascal to Baudelaire, from Proust to Levinas, the French tradition has been particularly sensitive to these uncomfortable threshold-moments, making them a central ingredient in their definitions of the human. Levinas makes fatigue, and particularly 'dead-time,' one of the cornerstones of the thinking process, pairing it with the benefits of insomnia, and pressing us to consider it as our chance to be optimally alert to our condition. Against all logic, he invests fatigue with a moral dimension, seeing it as a heightened state of consciousness, a wakeful mission that will rekindle and seal our contract with ethics. While weariness spells out our refusal to exist, and while indolence postpones any sustained mode of engagement, fatigue gives us a chance to take stock of our 'hesitation to live.' To Levinas, it is incumbent on the philosopher 'to put him or herself in the instant of fatigue and discover the way it comes about ... And to scrutinize the instant, to look for the dialectic which takes place in a hitherto unsuspected dimension.'

The difficulty seems to be in maintaining the activity of mind during these moments -- or, rather, what does activity born of fatigue even look like? It's not the 'busy idleness' condemned in an earlier essay by Daniel Rosenberg ('The Young and the Restless') -- 'busy idleness' is an inversion of activity -- the garbage busywork handed out in classrooms to keep children occupied -- the little diversions we construct in the process of procrastination. Desultory, frenetic dissipation.

It's something else, this sort of fatigue -- is it the state of the flâneur? Is it Isherwood's 'I am a camera' mode of being? Is it the state created by Beckett's fiction? a weary wearing-down of language, erosion of all obvious meaning until one can't help but see, finally, what is actually going on? A descent into the darkness of inaction and inertia -- the darkness being the natural image of the core self -- as-yet-unrealized, hidden potentials and possibilities. This descent then reveals clarity?

Not 'busy idleness' says Van Zuylen, this is 'idle attentiveness.' Imagine Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet standing for 'busy idleness' -- such a supremely thorough example of this -- 'idle attentiveness' is at the opposite end of the pole, it eschews the false virtue of busyness and favors a descent into unbearable fatigue -- fatigue to the point of pain -- insomnia.

I suppose I understand the opposition, but I don't really have any understanding of what it means to work in and through fatigue [which points to the fact that I'll just have to go and read Levinas]. Van Zuylen describes Baudelaire's harsh criticism of hashish-eaters, saying that he believed this chemically-induced ennui was a shadow of what should truly be sought. The fatigue that Baudelaire and Levinas described was one born of effort and hard thought -- fraught with anxiety, doubt, discomfort. Beckett's states of waiting, the descent into annihilation --

I don't really know what I'm writing about here -- the trouble with trying to write about something I don't know --

What do I know of this sort of fatigue? Fatigue as the threshold-state -- the gap between actions, the inevitable, impenetrable pause between waves --

I remember a phone call late one night from a good friend who lived far from me. She was hysterical -- she couldn't sleep, hadn't slept all night. She felt insomnia creeping up and bolted like a hare, she decided to run and run through the night to try and wear her body down. But that did nothing to quiet her mind. When she called me at 5 am we were both getting ready for morning swim practice. I had slept, she had worked herself to a fevered pitch. She was hallucinating, hysterical, crying. I could do nothing -- I had no idea -- not yet. I don't know anything else of insomnia -- I can't understand this extreme.

But I've known anxiety -- I've known the crucial 'fatigue of being oneself.' A state described by Van Zuylen as 'a curiously stretched fatigue, one that hovers between lucidity and despair, on the verge of becoming a philosophical entity in its own right.' I think I know something about this -- I know something about the thin feeling -- the feeling of despair when one calls for a certain self and has to wait, breath still, wondering who will come. But that's not quite what Baudelaire and Flaubert and Levinas are working on -- it's perhaps more Proustian -- it's perhaps the sort of fatigue that is unexceptional, unnoticed -- the shifts and starts of daily life. The present as it is swallowed by fore and aft -- it's that delicate pause between inhale and exhale. These moments are trampled by experience -- they're smothered by thought and reflection. Perhaps even Isherwood's snapshots ruin these moments -- too encapsulating, ossifying. Can these moments be shared? Can one write of this? sing of this? represent this?

Van Zuylen finds this additional sort of fatigue, one which I know very well -- this is the fatigue that is pure space, pure absence -- it is the sigh inherent in every breath:

Where is the liberating fatigue that catches us off-guard, fending off the mindless stimuli of the everyday? As gratuitously perfect as the smoking of a cigarette, it is the delicate threshold separating sleep and non-sleep; it is that second or moment stolen from time and space -- our private access to the sublime. Too fleeting to be over-examined, it has nothing to do with Baudelaire's fatigue-as-death-wish or with Levinas's ponderous reflexivity. Its unpredictable jumps and starts, the sudden thoughts it unleashes and steals back, restore us to ourselves as we slip in and out of the accidental and inexplicable joys of momentary unconsciousness.