Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself, PART I

I've had a poster of Picasso's Blue Nude on my wall since sophomore year, initially thumbtacked and now (thanks to my pseudo-adulthood) framed. I've kept this poster around for a number of reasons—mostly because I like its colors and textures, its interesting combination of figurative and feeling, and that it reminds me of the beauty of the lines of a woman's back—but for the past two months or so I've been paying more attention to it than usual.

I began to really notice my Blue Nude again back in March, I think, right about the time that I last wrote in this poor, languishing little blog. At that point I was knee-deep in a swampy malaise composed of late-winter slush and never-ending, largely joyless work. It was a slog and I was a drag and for awhile I could barely see more than three feet in front of me (to loosely quote Andrew Bird). Then one day I came home from work and someone had posted this audio recording of David Foster Wallace's now-famous 2005 Kenyon commencement speech—published in 2008 as This is Water—and I sat down on my tiny couch and listened to it all the way through.

There are so many things to say about this speech (and so, so many more things to say about DFW, at least a few of which I'd one day like to write about in here), but what most struck me that night was his call to awareness: his insistence that meaning can be found in the conscious decision to pay attention to other people.

"The so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings," DFW said,
"because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it.

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom."
Or in other words, kaBLAM! went my stupid, selfish little self, because David Foster Wallace simultaneously kicked me in the stomach and karate chopped me in the back of the neck, and I was left a quivering pile of human almost-crying on a tiny couch, one who at some point glanced up from her quivering and saw the Picasso print on her wall as if for the first time. Because it suddenly looked a lot like her: blue and bent and vulnerable.

[Vulnerable; adj. Meaning "susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm." From the late Latin vulnerabilis, from the Latin vulnerare ("to wound"), from vulnus ("wound").] Not a state that I like to find myself in; or, more accurately, not a natural condition of humanness that I like to acknowledge as inclusive of me.

As I subsequently worked at following DFW's advice, though (meaning getting out of my own head and really paying attention to other people), I started to extract myself from the malaise and to think about vulnerability in a new way—and, by extension, to radically reframe how I perceive my relationship to other people, and to humanity in general, and even to the UNIVERSE AS A WHOLE! All of which sounds ridiculously lofty, but it happened very simply. Example: I leave the office and take a walk during lunch. Rather than being annoyed by the slow people shuffling along in front of me on the sidewalk (who I can't pass due to the giant crater in the street which is somehow always there because Milwaukee Ave is somehow perpetually under construction), and screeching "Move it or lose it!" in my head, instead I direct my thoughts to the shopping bags in their hands, and how their feet are probably tired, and how maybe I could learn something from their example and slow down and feel the sun on my face and remember how awesome the wig store's front window display is, and really consider buying a pink wig sometime soon because Nicki Minaj is a perpetual inspiration.

....To Be Continued (In Part II (As Soon As I Get Some Sleep))


Nanette said...

Hello Alissa! This is a great post. Along these lines, DFW pursues this same theme of attention (with dullness) in his unfinished posthumous novel, The Pale King. The recent NYTimes book review quotes him: "Perhaps, he writes, “dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there,” namely the existential knowledge “that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back”(http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/01/books/the-pale-king-by-david-foster-wallace-book-review.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1). Paying attention, even to dullness, is a way out of the deeper type of pain, and it's a bit charming and also kind that DFW wants us to pay attention even to dullness, which might make us more kind (if not charming!). Hope your noticing is going well. -Nanette xxxx

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