Last week I finished Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Platform, and this week I am reading Peter Stamm’s On a Day Like This. Both are about alienated, bored middle aged men living dull, routine lives in Paris, who then make radical breaks. I’ve had these two books on my shelf for over a year, but only felt the impulse to read them now. I had forgotten what they were about, and can’t remember what inspired me to borrow them in the first place. I also reread Catcher in the Rye last month. But I’m enjoying the middle aged failures much more than young Holden Caulfield.
Houellebecq’s protagonist found a brief redemption through love. It was a love rooted in good sex, the only activity that could still motivate him. Stamm’s protagonist, so far, only has memories of one youthful love. Sex does nothing for him, although he keeps seeking it.
Reading both novels, I kept thinking of my daughter. What happens to the wonder and enthusiasm of youth as we grow old, that sense of exciting potential and newness? I already see bits of it slipping away as she affects jaded attitudes and dives for the TV when she gets home (thankfully, she is still much, much younger than most other 8-year-olds). Will she, too, eventually get pulled into the quicksand of routine and boredom? Or lost in that nervous denial of obsessive busyness? Or consumed by the competitive accumulation of status? It seems inevitable and tragic.
I also think of my graduate students. Some come in still riding those last waves of youth, so enthusiastic about the exiting things they will learn. Others come already plotting and worrying about their careers. The latter group will do fine. They seem to expect no more than the constant struggle to advance and find security. They may even feel pleasantly motivated by the constant awareness that there is always something more to achieve, that somebody else has attained some prize or recognition that they don’t yet have. This means they will always have targets and goals to strive for, to spur their creativity. It is the enthusiastic group that makes me a bit sad. These are the ones who are more likely find careerist competition to be poisonous, the ones who will feel ground down by the lack of fulfillment in the daily grind that their jobs will become, who will regret the decline of their curiosity. A few may accommodate to their fates, whether because they really enjoy teaching or because they still manage to nurture and feed the spark of curiosity. Many will not. They will become bitter or else obsessive workaholics, frantically trying to avoid the disappointment and great hole in their souls.
And of course I look at my own life. I identify to some extent with the protagonists of the novels. Since my teens, I have shared their cynicism and basic inability to enjoy the things and routines that seem to satisfy most other people. But I have never fallen into their swamps of futility and boredom. I’ve waded there a bit, but always pulled myself out with some new project or new curiosity. But the idea that I’m basically a loser like those guys still haunts me.
As I expected, my commitment to quit my job has begun to waver since the semester started. As I increasingly live within the day-to-day concerns of my job, it becomes harder to recall what I expected to do without my job. I still have those frequent experiences that I detest so much: yet another conversation about academic politics; students wallowing in fear and insecurity; somebody getting touchy and angry when their intellectual convictions are challenged; the constant drudge of applications and peer reviews; the utterly predictable theorization and interpretation; and students trying to recreate themselves in the image of some appropriately professional persona that they imagine other people want to see (when I usually want to see exactly the opposite).
It is on those days when I am most tired and unfulfilled, days with a dense concentration of those bad experiences, that I most begin to doubt my intention to quit. Those are the days when I think that I will just become more isolated after quitting, and stuck in some even worse job. They are the days when I think it is foolish to give up my security and status, that I am just giving up. In short, they are the days when I am falling into the patterns of the protagonists of my novels. I take the misery of my current circumstances and project them as the basic characteristic of my entire life.
Interestingly, I am most enthusiastic about my decision to quit on the days when I enjoy my job. These are the days when I find new interest in the material I am teaching, or had an interesting discussion with a colleague or grad students (although the best discussions are usually more about personal lives than academic ideas). They are the days when I can see students have appreciated something that I have done for them. They are the days that make me feel like I have had a successful career. I feel willing to move on with my life, able and excited to try something new.
But I have to keep reminding myself what I will do after quitting my job. It is harder and harder to commit myself to the search for enlightenment that I was starting to embrace in the summer. The rationalistic and practical thinking required for my job just makes the whole awakening thing seem silly. But it is precisely this silly idealism that keeps me from being one of the characters in these novels.
So, I am signed up for massage classes–following the realization in my ayahuasca sessions that I should develop my sensual self. I also keep meditating and doing some tantric exercises. I am a bit frustrated with the meditation. I am pretty bad at it, and can’t shut off my chattering mind. And I can’t help feeling that it is only another variation of my academic life–ritual self-discipline and the suppression of life force. I much prefer the tantric exercises–breathing and yoga mixed with meditation. They are premised on the idea that you should use the energy of your desires to awaken yourself, not try to suppress them.
The tantric exercises are much more effective in producing those physical sensations and images that take me beyond my mind and remind me of how much we don’t know. These are the experiences that make the future look like a new adventure, a reason to leave my job. I especially look forward to practicing tantra with Luna. Maybe those promises of extended orgasms and physical bliss will come true (I agree with Houellebecq that, for me at least, sex—especially with a woman who really enjoys it–is the one thing that can penetrate alienation and boredom. But it still takes effort to stop sex itself from declining into routine and boredom). And perhaps even enlightenment–although at this point I have to concede that I am building new attachments rather than heading towards nirvana. . . . But wherever I’m heading, I should just jump in and not worry about it. I’ll get nowhere by just staying where I am, except to have more of the same.