"Cioran? Oh I’ve not read that one," says the girl in the bookshop, "I like him though. A bit like Marcus Aurelius on downers, I always think."
"Ha ha ha," I laugh. No, I’ve not quite got the pitch right, it doesn’t altogether sound convincing: “ha ha ha ha ha.”
She smiles and puts the book in a paper bag. They always do that here. Elsewhere they usually ask you, "Do you want a bag?" and I always say, "No, it’s okay, I’ve got this," and I awkwardly signal to my rucksack, shrugging it upwards on my shoulder, on occasions knocking several items off a shelf nearby. But here they don’t ask you. They place the book straight into a paper bag and tape it closed. Sometimes the bags are patterned, sometimes they are brown. I think that indicates that they do quite a good trade here, to go through so many bags, although I know for a fact that many books on their shelves have remained in the same place, unsold in all the years I have been coming here. I like the shop though, I like this girl who is often at the counter. She always comments on what you have bought, and though I never find the correct words to answer her, I appreciate the gesture especially as she has not yet given up trying with me.
I laugh again and leave the shop. I’m still smiling as I walk along the street, until it strikes me what an odd leap of association it was from Marcus Aurelius to E.M. Cioran. It’s a rather fun leap, I take her point, but I’ve never really thought of the Meditations as a cheerful work, their general message being one along the lines of "Oh well, mustn’t grumble." Perhaps it’s not what she was saying, but by the time I’ve got home and taken the tape off the bag with my book in it, I’m wishing I’d gone back and asked her:
"Sorry, do you think Marcus Aurelius is cheerful, then?"
I’m annoyed for not asking. The thought continues to hamper my routine. I make myself a cheese sandwich but find myself unable to eat it, so frozen have I become by this nagging doubt. We sit together, the three of us; myself, the book and the cheese sandwich and morning turns, without any of our movement, into the subsequent afternoon.
There is something that Cioran says in On the Heights of Despair (not the book I bought today, as I’ve clearly not read it at this point) that keeps coming to mind:
Since I will not die right away, nor regain my innocence, going through the same routine motions every day is sheer madness. Banality must be overcome at all costs and the way cleared for transfiguration. How sad to see men bypass themselves, neglect their own destiny instead of rekindling the light they carry within them or getting drunk on their own abysmal darkness!
Of course the girl in the bookshop is right. He’s a cheery old brute, is old Cioran, but what is this ‘banality’? My sandwich is banal. Look at it. I took a photograph of it to show you. Look. The bread’s okay but it’s nothing special. The cheese is fine, but it’s not the nice cheese we have in the fridge from the shop in Chester. Why didn’t I make it out of that? I think I’ve put too much butter in it, but I like a lot of butter.
Poor sad sandwich.
This photograph is the last document of its existence, because shortly after taking it I eat it. Next to it you’ll note the book in the bag, still unopened, and beyond it the fire which clearly needs cleaning out. But won’t clearing out the hearth get in the way of my own clearing, for transfiguration?
Best I just sit still.
Probably shouldn’t have eaten that sandwich either, it’s sitting uneasily on my soul.
Now, I don’t want to mock Cioran, I bloody well admire him, but I’m just left thinking about Amelia Opie’s novel Adeline Mowbray. In it, Adeline is born to a bluestocking, declared by all that know her as a genius. The mother raises the child entirely by theory, missing out on the majority of the girl’s formative years because she’s too busy writing a tract on how a child such as Adeline should be perfectly raised:
Another great object of anxiety to her was the method of clothing children; whether they should wear flannel, or no flannel; light shoes, to give agility to the motions of the limbs; or heavy shoes, in order to strengthen the muscles by exertion […]
‘Some persons are of the opinion that thin shoes are most beneficial to health; others, equally worthy of respect, think thick ones of most use: and the reasons for these different opinions we shall class under two heads…’
‘Dear me, ma’am!’ cried Bridget, ‘and in the mean time miss Adeline will go without any shoes at all.’
‘Do not interrupt me, Bridget,’ cried Mrs Mowbray and proceeded to read on. ‘In the first place, it is not clear, says a learned writer, whether children require any clothing at all for their feet.’
At this moment Adeline burst open the parlour door, and crying bitterly, held up her bleeding toes to her mother.
But you see; buying shoes is surely the most banal occupation ever. Especially, I imagine, for children. That’s why shoes have to be so beautiful, because if we ever stopped and actually thought about what they’re there for, we’d die of the most excruciating boredom imaginable. I don’t buy shoes very often. In fact at the moment I wear a particularly unattractive pair. I’m not proud of this fact, I hope people don’t notice, but this isn’t some kind of higher life. These aren’t ascetic shoes, they’re Clarks. They’re the kind of shoes your mother would make you buy a week before term starts. I hate my shoes. No, I own ugly shoes precisely because I am banal. Of course I want to own beautiful shoes, desperately and sincerely I want them, but I find the process of locating ones I like so difficult that it’s easiest just to grab anything and make do. The theory of shoes is too difficult for me to get right. Bloody shoes. I hate shoes.
Sorry. I wandered from my point slightly then. The wonderful thing about Adeline Mowbray is that it disproves what appears to be its own theory and as it progresses seems to readjust to the things it started out in denying. The first part of the book has a simple logic: (Cioran take note) it is impossible to live a life of theory. It shows a binary between the mother who bases everything on theory thus missing out on the child’s life, and the grandmother who in effect raises Adeline and who bases everything on experience and feeling. The mother is shown as ridiculous, the grandmother hearty and wholesome.
But of course this is its own kind of theory, and the book buckles under its own weight of this reason. A life of experience requires experiences to have been had; else it is a life of naivety, and so Adeline is almost corrupted in a library of unsuitable books. It is a book about readjustment: of squaring banality with transfiguration. Adeline develops a theory which discounts the need for marriage, but how to reconcile such opinions in tricky social settings once you are living in sin with the rhetorician who wrote the text you have based this thinking on? (The book is written in 1805)
Cioran might say that it does not matter, that tricky social settings are the banality of existence that must be wiped out. But life is comprised of tricky social settings, of sandwiches that need eating; of girls in bookshops trying to be friendly; of shoes that need buying, and wearing, and suffering the aesthetic trespasses of their man-made/leather-mix uppers. This is life. It is reality. Adeline must negotiate the path between the internal ideas and the reality of living.
I make myself a cup of coffee, and here things become unstuck, because although Opie’s novel does seem to prove that theory is invention and banality can be limiting, it remains— and I hesitate to say this as the majority of my world is given over to this stuff — a fiction, and as such is, in its own way a theory of a different kind. It is one scenario, Cioran’s Heights of Despair, another. Neither ends up being more valid than the other, but Opie’s apparent realism makes the novel harder for me to disprove. I can relate to what seems to be an accurate rendering of real life, whereas I cannot relate to Cioran staring into the void. It’s a funny situation. I believe the work that I know to be invention, because it displays a world and events that I recognise as real; but I disbelieve the work that purports to be truth, because I cannot connect with the theoretician of despair.
So I am left frozen once again, this time in the kitchen, over a cup of gently cooling coffee, trusting in that which I know to be fiction, and disbelieving what tells me is truth. Look, I took another photograph. There’s my coffee. There’s Adeline Mowbray.
So what becomes banality? There seems little to trust in, other than experience itself. Both theory and fiction are merely notes of guidance to it, which we’re perhaps best to moderate a path somewhere between. Perhaps I’ll go back to the bookshop tomorrow and if the girl is there, ask her what she thinks about Marcus Aurelius, but I’m not sure I will do, as she too is a fiction. As is the bookshop, and my behaviour today. I’ve been too busy reading Crabbe and then writing this to have actually done any of those things, and though the photographs may appear to give proof to my story— that, I am afraid, is a different cheese sandwich, and that, another cup of coffee.
Man should stop being — or becoming — a rational animal. He should become a lunatic, risking everything for the sake of his dangerous fantasies, capable of exaltations, ready to die for all that the world has as well as for what it has not. Each man’s ideal should be to stop being a man. This can only be attained by absolute arbitariness.
E.M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair