Book Notes: Happiness from n+1

happiness_3_grandeI’ve been reading n+1 magazine for a long time. It gives me a flavor for the Brooklyn intellectual hipster scene. Some of the topics are too highfalutin for me but the writing usually makes me think in a new way. Their greatest hits — essays, that is — have been compiled into a book titled Happiness: 10 Years of n+1. It’s excellent. So many well written essays on literature, sex, torture, and writing itself. Below are my highlighted paragraphs/sentences. Note they come from different essays so do not necessarily make sense in order…

The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent. It’s to think. An attribute, self-satisfied and fixed, gets confused with an action, thinking, which revalues old ideas as well as defends them. Thought adds something new to the world; simple intelligence wields hardened truth like a bludgeon.

Far more effective, the torture theorists say, is to shatter the routines that make us adults without physical violence. Sleep deprivation becomes the favored tactic, accompanied by such macabre tricks as putting clocks forward or back randomly, making sure that the prisoner cannot tell day from night, irregular feeding, temporary starvation, random extremes of temperature, loud music constantly, and, of course, random responses from the captors, either rage or bizarre affection, always absurd and unmotivated. (It’s allowed, for instance, to reward uncooperative behavior, the better to induce false hopes in the subject.)…Deroutinization… At least since the Scottish Enlightenment, people have recognized that habits and chains of association make up a strong part of individual identity, but it would be a twisted view of humans that made our habits both the necessary and sufficient condition of our individual life.

Did they notice that the scene begins when Ivan Karamazov asks his brother if he would torture a child if it meant ensuring happiness for the rest of the world? We know our president’s answer would be an enthusiastic thumbs-up, as long as it’s someone else’s thumb.

Adults project the sex of children in lust, or examine children sexually with magnifying glasses to make sure they don’t appeal to us. But these lenses became burning glasses.

Now children from junior high to high school to college live in the most perfect sex environment devised by contemporary society—or so adults believe. Now they are inmates in great sex colonies where they wheel in circles holding hands with their pants down.

The lesson each time is that sleeping with strangers or being photographed naked lets the authors know themselves better. Many of these institutions are driven by women. Perhaps they, even more than young men, feel an urgency to know themselves while they can—since America curses them with a premonition of disappointment: when flesh sags, freedom will wane.

Though the young person has never been old, the old person once was young. When you look up the age ladder, you look at strangers; when you look down the age ladder, you are always looking at versions of yourself. As an adult, it depends entirely on your conception of yourself whether those fantastic younger incarnations will seem long left behind or all-too-continuous with who you are now. And this conception of yourself depends, in turn, on the culture’s attitudes to adulthood and childhood, age and youth. This is where the trouble arises. For in a culture to which sex furnishes the first true experiences, it makes a kind of sense to return to the ages at which sex was first used to pursue experience and one was supposedly in a privileged position to find it. Now we begin to talk, not about our sex per se, but about a fundamental change in our notion of freedom, and what our lives are a competition for.

At times I wonder if we are witnessing a sexualization of the life process itself, in which all pleasure is canalized into the sexual, and the function of warm, living flesh in any form is to allow us access to autoerotism through the circuit of an other. This is echoed at the intellectual level in the discourse of “self-discovery.” The real underlying question of sexual encounter today may not be “What is he like in bed?” (heard often enough, and said without shame) but “What am I like in bed?” (never spoken). That is to say, at the deepest level, one says: “Whom do I discover myself to be in sex?”—so that sex becomes the special province of self-discovery.

while our EC, ever the contrarian, complains that there is “no African novel worth speaking of” because there is no substantial African readership: writers from countries on other continents write primarily for their compatriots, whereas Africans must write for Europeans and Americans and therefore “perform” their Africanness instead of merely speaking from it.

It must trouble Coetzee that such a disagreeable writer as himself is everywhere celebrated and given prizes. But that is not the way

So even gentle Michael K is not quite a vegetarian. Diana skips ahead: “He also ate roots. He had no fear of being poisoned, for he seemed to know the difference between a benign bitterness and a malign one, as though he had once been an animal and the knowledge of good and bad plants had not died in his soul.” How beautiful and severe, as the whole book is!

 In Elizabeth Costello many of the images seem drawn from a kind of Esperanto of metaphor (e.g., “the Nazi forest of horrors”), and Coetzee’s purse-lipped tone and general attitude of strictness, much praised by the critics, do not prevent him from indulging in the more-than-occasional prefab phrase (e.g., “a mood of bottomless dejection”).

She has thought before: she should be an activist, not a writer. The thought is never serious. Still, she does not see that it avails anything to write highbrow book chat. Her reviews communicate nothing, convince people of nothing. They are a talented girl’s brittle recital, more or less pleasant on the ear. Sometimes people offer that she writes well; never do they say she has induced them to think. 

Trapped in a parody of Kafka, Elizabeth Costello must nevertheless produce a statement in earnest. Clichéd her predicament may be, but it is her predicament all the same. And so it is for Diana herself to the nth degree. The writers arriving before her already arrived late; they became a troupe of allusionists and pasticheurs. How late are you, then, when you show up after the late? There is far too much literary history for Diana ever to master it, and far too much for her ever to escape from it; it is her fate never quite to be either sophisticated or naïve. 

The way to write is not as if you have just learned the craft, at the school of the masters; the way to write is as if you have somehow always known how.

How will I explain this to Daniel? she wonders, and in the same moment, furious at him for his banality and mental vagueness, doubts whether she will marry him.

“What do you stand for! What will you do!” Legislatively? Are you kidding? Well, there is something one can do, without succumbing to the pundits: for the day when the Congress rolls up to our doorsteps and asks for our legislative initiatives, maybe it is up to every citizen to know what is in his heart and have his true bills and resolutions ready. Call it “political surrealism”—the practice of asking for what is at present impossible, in order to get at last, by indirection or implausible directness, the principles that would underlie the world we’d want rather than the one we have.

We shouldn’t have to weigh whether our money would do more good in a destitute person’s pocket, or our time do more good if we ladled soup to the hungry, or our study do more good if it taught reading to the illiterate. It always, always would. Because it is hard to give up your money, however, when not everyone else does, and hard to give up your time when not everyone else does—and nearly impossible when you have less time, and less money, than the visibly rich and comfortable—and frankly, because it’s not often a good idea to give up your true calling or your life at all, our giving is limited and fitful. It can never make a large-scale difference. 

The instructor was a sympathetic Jewish novelist with a Jesus-like beard, an affinity for Russian literature, and a melancholy sense of humor, such that one afternoon he even “realized” the truth of human mortality, right there in the classroom. He pointed at each of us around the seminar table: “You’re going to die. And you’re going to die. And you’re going to die.” I still remember the expression on the face of one of my classmates, a genial scion of the Kennedy family who always wrote the same story, about a busy corporate lawyer who neglected his wife. The expression was confused.

Our way of life that used to seem so durable takes on a sad, valedictory aspect, the way life does for any nineteenth-century protagonist on his way to a duel that began as a petty misunderstanding. The sunrise looks like fire, the flowers bloom, the morning air dances against his cheeks. It’s so incongruous, so unfair! He’s healthy, he’s young, he’s alive—but he’s passing from the world. And so are we, healthy and alive—but our world is passing from us.

One way of defending yourself against hype, with its incessant promise of the new, is to adopt a blasé attitude: whatever it is, you’ve seen it five times before.

In the 1950s, America’s first era of mass affluence, this bourgeois problem became a problem of mass taste. The art critic Harold Rosenberg referred to “the herd of independent minds.”

But there are often steals to be found among recently unloaded assets: “Why’s everybody hatin’ on the Arctic Monkeys?” says the backlash-to-the-backlash. The sophisticated trader is buying, selling, and holding different reputations all at once; the trick in each case is to stay ahead of the market. And the rewards from this trade in reputations redound to your own reputation: even though the market (i.e., other people) dictates your every move, you seem to be a real individual thinking for yourself.

The really potent work of art implies a promise to change everything—surely the world can’t bear the awareness induced by true art!—that’s always renewed and always broken. What reveals the promise as broken is that everyone’s now a fan of the art in question, and still the world goes on as before. Hence the backlash.

The Motherless Brooklyn model—which is also followed by Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, and Wray’s Lowboy—in fact attempts a synthesis between what had seemed to be two distinct and increasingly divergent modes: on the one hand, American realism, ending with the “research novel”—novels stuffed with facts, names, things, impressing the reader with the author’s store of “nonfiction” knowledge—and, on the other hand, the novel of consciousness, of interiority, of linguistic play and estranging description associated with high modernism.

“We are all afflicted at times with the cataracts of the quotidian, where routine clouds our ability to notice what we once loved about the person we live with.” – James Wood

Listen to people on first dates, old married couples, or anyone in transit between infatuation and resignation: mostly you hear the following of a tedious script. People say the things they always say, that they’re supposed to say, that other people say.

Where truth was left out or kept general, cliché filled the void. The mistake made over and over was to search for the “universal,” when (this is itself a cliché, maybe, but still) it was the specific stuff that readers wanted to know.

I usually am friends with or fuck and/or love people with a dead parent or two, bipolar or otherwise depressed people, musicians, writers, and/or pathological liars. Even so, I never know when I meet them. They always just seem to me like the best people in the world. At some point, a week or two into the friendship or the affair, I find out, but by then I’m already hooked, because the things these people do to ensure they don’t have to live in the straight world are wonderful. They turn ordinary nights into wide electric universes that snap in the head like a new beat, get and give pleasure like they’ll otherwise die, make music what music is and art what art is. Because they cannot do all the things it takes to marry, they can bring a whole marriage’s worth of intimacy into one night of fucking, and you can let that land square on you, like you’re the only girl in the world, to quote Rihanna. You’re almost definitely not the only girl in their world, but that’s the thing about addicts: they are endlessly optimistic, and they can make you believe anything. I am not unfamiliar with the reasons.

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