The pre-modern form of askesis was all about giving up desires. The Greek stoic, the Tuscan saint, and the Chinese Confucian sage all agreed on this point. Epictetus wrote a manual on the “exercise of not exercising desire”. Epictetus would have seen viagra as evidence of the negative path of our civilization. Is this what we use our wills – our voluntas – for?
Modernity said goodbye to all that training. It was training more appropriate for the era of the Malthusian trap than for the era of continuous growth. The wheel of fortuna was a much better image of prosperity and poverty than any upward trending curve on a graph in pre-industrial societies. The revolution of capitalism + industry has had a spiritual result: Epictetus has been replaced by the invisible hand.
Desire is a good entry point into experience, that wild country. When we are children, our experience always tastes a little new. The bicycle we learn to ride, division, oysters – all these new things we learn to like or not like, do or not do. The background is filled in with clumsy giants, adults, who hector and coax. As we grow into cars, trig, and sex, we become clumsy giants ourselves, but not exactly adults. Who knows when the fatal equator is passed? For each it is a different age. And then, on the downside, we remember, we eat our oysters, we forget, we wonder how we constructed that geometrical proof, and we take vacations. Desire remains, but experience, that wild country, sometimes seems to empty out. The great headlining experiences of our twenties, where our nervous system was always writing headlines in lightning strokes (COME BACK! I LOVE YOU! I’M A FAILURE! I’M A WINNER!), seems somehow diminished (RAINED TODAY!).
Writers have a peculiarly intimate relationship with experience, since their own experience often provides the content for what they do. This is not so different from doctors, or teachers, but whereas the latter are all about extracting a techne from experience that they can apply in the future, the writer is about rendering experience itself – in a poem, a story, an essay, a novel. Of course, this rendering comes in various degrees of abstraction and projection, but its first tottering trials often use direct experience – the parents, the girl and boyfriends, the classroom, the road.
My own sense of the writer’s task is not wedded to the rendering of my own experience – far from it. I like writing as a sort of voyage into the Other. Of course, like any other adventure, that voyage has a colonialist subtext – my ego is continually colonizing any Other that I find. On the other hand, I didn’t make that ego myself – it is pre-eminently a shifting product of this body’s commerce with the world, a body as neuronally charged by the sensuround as a vacuum cleaner is to a power source. I is an Other is sound science. Still, my experience is always going to companion even my wildest leaps of empathy.
I’ve been wondering, lately, at my own current “paucity of experience”. That phrase emerged, entire, early in the Victorian era, and has been used, according to my own internet search on the Internet Archive, hundreds of times to describe a low level of experiencing. This gets us to a paradox endemic to categorial terms: experience, it would seem, always has the same level. Whether it is filled with violent sensation or filled with drowsiness shouldn’t make a quantitative difference: a thermometer is not more of a thermometer when it records a higher temperature. Yet one does feel that an experience that is perpetually drowsy is not “used” to the extent it could be – is, in fact, wasted. One wants to shake the drowsy experience and say, let’s see what this baby can do! I often felt like that in my twenties and thirties. I liked the phrase of Blanchot’s: the experience-limit. I wanted to test experience. In the literature of the 20s, and of the 60s and 70s, there is a sense of this urge to test. That testing is not so different from the Stoic askesis, which sought to find the point of maximum alienation from the normal pleasures. In Carlos Ginzburg’s essay on the genealogy of the literary device of estrangement, he quotes Marcus Aurelius’s example of stoic mental discipline as a sort of alienation cure, a way of dissecting experience to get to the delusions of desire:
“Surely it is an excellent plan, when you are seated before delicacies and choice foods, to impress upon your imagination [phantasia] that this is the dead body of a fish, that the dead body of a bird or a pig; and again, that the Falernian wine is grape juice and that robe of purple a lamb's fleece dipped in a shell-fish's blood; and in matters of sex intercourse) that it is attrition of an entrail and a convulsive expulsion of mere mucus. Surely these are excellent imaginations [phantasiai], going to the heart of actual facts and penetrating them so as to see what kind of things they really are. You should adopt this practice all through your life, and where things make an impression which is very plausible, uncover their nakedness, see into their cheapness, strip off the profession on which they vaunt themselves.”
Ginzburg remarks that this passage reads strangely to a modern reader. Perhaps it does, but I think the strangeness is not in the stripping down of the cooked to the raw – this is the central modernist impulse – but the idea that this will give us some kind of contact with the truth. Aurelius’s distant descendent, Leopold Bloom, is introduced to the reader in Ulysses like this:
“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
The fine tang of faintly scented urine is not presented as a downer, a rebarbative, a way of breaking the hold of phantasia, but, on the contrary, a property to be relished, a coming attraction, an entertainment. Bloom, that inner organ eater, is a modern man, to whom experience is not an alien servitude. The tragedy for such a man is a “paucity of experience”. Or perhaps the idea of tragedy here is archaic. The horror at the end for such a man is flatness. What is at stake is the heightening or flattening of experience. And that is where I shake hands with Bloom, in my tentatively post-covid crouch, wanting a little heightening to shake up my ... sixty some inertia.
Experience with relish, the relish of experience – that’s what I want.