Topical Guide 63
Dispiriting Tedium of Repetition Versus the Vivifying Shock of Novelty, the
Comforting Familiarity of Repetition Versus the Troubling Turbulence of Novelty, the
There are conflicting views on this topic.
None of the domestic arts was ever an interest of Eliza’s, because, she said to me once, “Not one of those activities gets you anywhere. After cleaning a house, you’re merely back to where you were before the place got dirty. After you’ve cooked, eaten, and cleaned up after Thursday’s meal, you can’t say that you are anywhere but where you were after you had cooked, eaten, and cleaned up after Wednesday’s meal.”
Little Follies, “The Static of the Spheres”
An artist does not “age” because he repeats himself, for repetition is the power of difference, no less than difference the power of repetition. An artist “ages” when, “by exhaustion of his brain,” he decides it is simpler to find directly in life, as though ready-made, what he can express only in his work, what he should have distinguished and repeated by means of his work. The aging artist puts his trust in life, in the “beauty of life,” but he gets no more than substitutes for what constitutes art, repetitions which have become mechanical since they are external, frozen differences which revert to a substance which they can no longer make light and spiritual. … In art, substances are spiritualized, media dematerialized. … The revelation of essence (beyond the object, beyond the subject himself) belongs only to the realm of art. If it is to occur, it will occur there. This is why art is the finality of the world, and the apprentice’s unconscious destination.
Many false conceptions are held concerning the nature of tedium. In general it is thought that the interestingness and novelty of the time-content are what “make the time pass”; that is to say, shorten it; whereas monotony and emptiness check and restrain its flow. This is only true with reservations. Vacuity, monotony, have, indeed, the property of lingering out the moment and the hour and of making them tiresome. But they are capable of contracting and dissipating the larger, the very large time-units, to the point of reducing them to nothing at all. And conversely, a full and interesting content can put wings to the hours and the day; yet it will lend to the general passage of time a weightiness, a breadth and solidity which cause the eventful years to flow far more slowly than those poor, bare, empty ones over which the wind passes and they are gone. Thus what we call tedium is rather an abnormal shortening of the time consequent upon monotony. Great spaces of time passed in unbroken uniformity tend to shrink together in a way to make the heart stop beating for fear; when one day is like all the others, then they are all like one; complete uniformity would make the longest life seem short, and as though it had stolen away from us unawares. Habituation is a falling asleep or fatiguing of the sense of time; which explains why young years pass slowly, while later life flings itself faster and faster upon its course. We are aware that the intercalation of periods of change and novelty is the only means by which we can refresh our sense of time, strengthen, retard, and rejuvenate it, and therewith renew our perception of life itself. Such is the purpose of our changes of air and scene, of all our sojourns at cures and bathing resorts; it is the secret of the healing power of change and incident.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter)
You might try this experiment. See which, if either, of the following songs becomes your earworm today. One finds (or pretends, ironically, to find) stability, lack of change, “nothing,” hellish. The other finds (or pretends, ironically, to find) stability, lack of change, “nothing,” heavenly.
Potential; Hopes and Fears; Foreshadowing
“You know, Al,” I said to her, “this is just like the moment when Guppa has all the parts of the radio lined up on his workbench. I have the same anticipatory feelings, the same mixture of excitement, eagerness—and fear. I sense, in all this cute stuff you brought home, what I should sense in the parts of the radio when they lie in ranks on Guppa’s workbench—the presence of a potential magnificence, something that I’ve found in the parts of other things before they’re assembled. The components might be—oh—a clutter of memories, boxes full of thin slabs of basswood and slender dowels, or ranks of vacuum tubes, resistors, capacitors, transformers, and the like. Sleeping in these things is the capacity to become a book, a dollhouse, or a shortwave receiver. One has the feeling that merely by gathering the parts, one has made a step toward realizing the end.
“‘Ah,’ one is tempted to say, ‘the pieces are all there. Now all I have to do is put them together.’
“But—” I said, dramatically, “—it may be better, sometimes, to leave the pieces as they are, unassembled, for the potential book crackles with wit, the shutters on the potential dollhouse are straight, and the signals picked up by the potential receiver are clear and strong, but the actual book is going to have its passages of half-baked philosophy and weepy sentimentality, some of the shutters on the actual dollhouse will hang at odd angles, and the receiver may bring in nothing but a rising and falling howl muffled by a thick hiss.”
Little Follies, “The Static of the Spheres”
May 31: Incredible that any novel should be so hard—each morning dreading it. Do I fear finishing it? Is that it—fear that it is not the masterpiece I planned? Do I fear the usual applause and meaningless praise with no sales or support or even the customary decencies of reward? I thought last month it was moving along. Daily financial and personal frustrations bring home how futile my work is—even when done it accomplishes nothing, proves nothing and terrifies me.
June 4: More depressed last week or two over novel and inadequacy.
[more to come on Tuesday, August 10, 2021]
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It is remarkable how many points of reference we have in common. For many years I was obsessed with the work off Giles Deleuze the Fugs are one of my favorite bands. As
I mentioned in an earlier post I am a great admirer of Jerome K. Jerome as well.