The Pathos of Things

Oliver Burkeman, “Happiness is a Glass Half Empty,” The Guardian 16 June 2012

In an unremarkable business park outside the city of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, stands a poignant memorial to humanity’s shattered dreams. It doesn’t look like that from the outside, though. Even when you get inside – which members of the public rarely do – it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to what you’re seeing. It appears to be a vast and haphazardly organised supermarket; along every aisle, grey metal shelves are crammed with thousands of packages of food and household products. There is something unusually cacophonous about the displays, and soon enough you work out the reason: unlike in a real supermarket, there is only one of each item. And you won’t find many of them in a real supermarket anyway: they are failures, products withdrawn from sale after a few weeks or months, because almost nobody wanted to buy them. In the product-design business, the storehouse — operated by a company called GfK Custom Research North America — has acquired a nickname: the Museum of Failed Products.

This is consumer capitalism’s graveyard — the shadow side to the relentlessly upbeat, success-focused culture of modern marketing. […]

There is a Japanese term, mono no aware, that translates roughly as “the pathos of things”: it captures a kind of bittersweet melancholy at life’s impermanence — that additional beauty imparted to cherry blossoms, say, or human features, as a result of their inevitably fleeting time on Earth.

[…] Behind all of the most popular modern approaches to happiness and success is the simple philosophy of focusing on things going right. But ever since the first philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, a dissenting perspective has proposed the opposite: that it’s our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve certain goals, that is precisely what makes us miserable and sabotages our plans. And that it is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness — that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.

Yet this conclusion does not have to be depressing. Instead, it points to an alternative approach: a “negative path” to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions — or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them. […]

[Photograph: Kelly K Jones]

After Literature

“Literary Melancholy: Lars Iyer Interviewed by David Winters,” 3:AM Magazine 15 November 2011

… For me, the truth about Montano’s sickness is that literature, what is called ‘literature’, has very little to do with our world. Something has happened. Something has come between us and the world of literature we admire. And that ‘something’ has to be acknowledged if literature is to avoid becoming a kind of repertoire routine, like The Nutcracker at Christmas.

… Much supposedly ambitious literary fiction seems to have similar characteristics. In attempting to distance itself from our marketized, neoliberalized, liberal-democratized world, it has become as stylized as bad high-fantasy. I want to read books that are commensurable with this world, in content and form, books that have abandoned a whole repertoire of literary gestures but which still, in some way, respond to what literature once was. I want to read books that make a problem of their inheritance, a problem of coming somehow after literature. I want to read books that register a sense of their own belatedness. … [F]or whatever reason, and we can speculate about this, it is not only a certain literary style, but literature itself, that is no longer believable.

Montano’s Malady is not a lament. It is not heavy-handed, like Austerlitz. It isn’t Solemn or Serious in a kitschy way. It is swift and light. It is funny. It belongs on our side of the great divide that separates us from figures like Kafka. But, for all that, Montano’s Malady does acknowledge this divide. It does negotiate its relationship with Modernism, with the past. It does situate itself with respect to Old Europe and the ‘narrative voice’ of Old Europe’s great writers. And it does all of this in the present, in our present.

… But, for me, Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s polemics are remarkable not only for their particular prescriptions for the novel, which remain exhilarating, but also for the very fact that they felt able to prescribe a future for the novel at all. For me, their prescriptions for a new novel can only, in the end, be so many more exhibits in the museum of literature. Their essays belong to an almost-unimaginable past in which such ideas mattered, a past which had a real stake in the future of the novel.

Sometimes, I wonder whether my making claims of this kind is a result of my literary melancholy! Shouldn’t it be possible, if one only tried hard enough, to dream of a fabulously new novel to come, of a nouveau roman newer than the nouveaux romans of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, of an eternally nouveau nouveau roman which would always belong to the future? Mightn’t there be some fiery rebirth of the Modern in some faraway place, among writers who write new manifestos in the dream of restoring a revolutionary purity to their endeavours? But I can only say that it seems to me that literature has, in some fundamental way, run its course.

… But for me, for whom literary melancholy is not a merely personal issue but a condition of writing in our time (and this is why I admire what I have read of David Markson, who thoroughly understands this point), no novel, least of all Spurious, could be a nouveau roman, and much less a nouveau nouveau roman! My novel, like all novels published today, is a roman after the roman, a novel that comes after the novel and after literature.

A Fallen Book of Prophecy

“Literary Melancholy: Lars Iyer Interviewed by David Winters,” 3:AM Magazine 15 November 2011

…Perhaps W.’s and Lars’s awareness of their failure does give them a kind of ethical wisdom. On the other hand, W.’s and Lars’s awareness of failure consists in very little more than an endless acknowledgement of their failure. They do not act, like, say, Mascolo or the Italian philosophers they admire. They might know that they have fallen short of their constitutive messianism, but they have done very little about it. If they are, considered from the perspective of the tradition of the thinkers they admire, at the beginning of wisdom, ethical and philosophical, then they do their best to ruin this beginning. W. and Lars have failed — they know that. But they will only ever fail, over and over again. Every beginning is a false beginning. This is why Spurious never settles into what we would normally understand to be a plot, instead revolving over and again around the same concerns. The novel can only take the form of an endless circling around failure. It can only take the form of spuriousness…

But that might be its success. If the characters fail, Spurious, I hope, succeeds in remaining with that failure, preserving a distance between W. and Lars, and the traditions of thought they admire. ‘Since the destruction of the Temple, the divine inspiration has been withdrawn from the prophets, and given to madmen and children’, it says in the Talmud. W. and Lars are these madmen, which is to say, fallen prophets (though not false ones, perhaps). And Spurious is a fallen book of prophecy — the only kind of such book there can now be. …