WITH BARTHES, ON BOREDOM
Fragments from a Diary of an Obscure Indian Writer
Barthes can be good company on a boring day!
And most days are boring!
Everywhere, boredom—locations do not matter! Status, not! You, ordinary; Barthes, a celeb.
The Paris of the 50s-70s; Delhi or Mumbai of 2014? It is same. So is the experience—celeb or no celeb.
Boredom is…universal. Cannot escape, be it Paris, Madrid or Mumbai. Everything—architecture-designs, lay-outs, roads, flyovers, traffic jams, multiplexes, joints—is planned identically, or almost.
That can be scary! The mutual resemblances of the planned cities. Everywhere, surging crowds full of the twins!
It breeds a sense of tedium.
Like looking constantly at a vast plain…featureless, flat, unrelieved. Creates monotony.
Life, similar, does that only.
I am with Barthes, on boredom. Endemic.
Like recession, it follows everyone, everywhere; degrees might vary.
Am working, by the way. Still feel dull. Barthes, too, worked but felt bored easily… in the middle of work, official engagements, public lectures, panel discussions, parties.
In the end, with living also. Living alone…without his mother, in his lonely home.
And then decided to let it go all….and left quietly this crowded planet.
Routine deadens…finally kills: Daily commutes, office; Sundays, week-day/week-end schedules: Endless, ceaseless chatter that can drive you crazy.
Sisyphus-like, moving up and down.
Daily- log: Stale…Predictable…Painted faces…Coffee, weak…Cold lunch…Clichéd conversations…Standardized office/party wear…Repetitive…Clock-like ticking-ticking-ticking in an empty room, in a colonial summer villa, on a wooded hill, hammering your mind by its constant sound.
Just sit in an empty school-hall and you will understand. Listen to the clock. The tick-tock-tick-toc gets amplified. And hits your solar plexus like a crashing tidal wave. Few hours, you are nuts.
We are programmed to follow a pattern, a time-table, familiar route and traffic.
I cannot stand the repetition…the same route, same faces, the inanities, the identical dresses and mobile phones, the plastic smiles on a daily basis. A torture. I want to SCREAM!
Sundays are more inane. Late-rising; late-eating; late-bathing. It starts telling on my frayed nerves.
Every item is neatly designed; every minute planned. No autonomy.
You are over-determined by the soul-less system. And by the identicalness of it.
And want to break free! Desperately!
Trapped…in a cage! Moving around restlessly…like some Dostoevsky character pacing up and down a cold floor on a dark evening.
I hear Barthes: It is the fate of denizens living in urban ghettoes everywhere in the world.
It is in-built!
Boredom, integral to modern civilization. Only thing erotic is money!
All other things are a turn-off.
Precision. Mechanical. Even conducted tours are programmed like that: You are being controlled; made to see, hear, eat, move around, sleep, wake up, go for loo-break at designated places! Things that only they want you to see and hear and eat….
The boredom basic to our culture makes us yearn…for exotic things. That is why Harry Potter is a mania, replaced by Twilight Saga vampires, The Hunger Games; the 50 Shades of Grey…
I know, I know. One cannot avoid being bored, in most lively places. I felt bored in the pricey food joint of an MNC in Mumbai.
Everything was…so trite and predictable there: Décor, service, client-attitude, arrogance of money, so-called exclusivity—everything so stage-managed and controlled…even our smile and conversations over coffee!
Market-gurus and media turn you into robots.
Barthes knew this.
Packaging! Content does not count.
It is a charade. Appearances only. We are no longer authentic. We are playing games—according to pre-determined set of rules only.
And think we are free!
Even fate can play cruel jokes on the famous!
This is the how of it:
Although Barthes kept company with the powerful and the famous—and would-be ministers and presidents—he still felt bored! After a power-lunch with Mitterrand, he decided to take a walk home and got hit by a laundry-van! He failed to see it coming on Monday, February 25, 1980. At about 3.45pm, at 44 rue des Écoles, the 64-year-old got knocked down; unconscious and bleeding in nose, taken to the hospital where he died a month later…or, almost. Barthes regretted the stupidity of the accident. Indeed! When you suddenly walk into a road, looking right and left, and not seeing a rushing vehicle, and get knocked down and hospitalized and immobilized, it sounds very stupid act. He was lucky. In South-Asia, people die of stupid accidents very fast…as medical help arrives very late! Or, never.
The absurd plot: Power-lunch. And a subsequent famous death. As if scripted by Beckett.
Logic, sadly, cannot explain all the things in your life…or, this marvelous universe!
Barthes experienced intense boredom from his childhood onwards and the state continued throughout. If you read him—The Pleasure of the Text; Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, A Lovers Discourse, Camera Lucida, The Preparation of the Novel and Mourning Diary—you find frequent references to boredom.
Only Barthes could do that!
The lucky guy!
In the developed world, and now, the developing one, boredom is a great business.
In order to neutralize it, tourists and the Parisians are enticed to museums, palaces, theatres, open-air cafes, malls, gyms and fun-houses!
In Texas, casinos are there—for seduction.
Disneyland beckons in Paris and Florida and elsewhere.
The MacDonald’s, in Delhi or Islamabad, does the same.
The list goes on….
It was, indeed, stupidest thing to happen!
But many such things happen all the time to many of us.
Since it was Barthes, people got interested and noticed it.
A power-lunch never cost so dearly!
Barthes, after attending the lunch with the future president Mitterrand, gets hit and dies—a month or so after! A high-profile lunch; a sudden decision by Barthes to have a casual walk in the afternoon Paris, meant to clear a head dense with ideas and later on, an unexpected death…so meaningless, illogical, defying any sane explanation.
But then, life does take strange turns! It is not always mathematical, strictly.
Camus too died in a car accident!
Industrialized France is not kind to its famous thinkers!
Interacting with a text is talking with its creator.
Every reading is a conversation…long, or short.
It is entering a step-well of medieval times, listening to echoes in the vine-covered area enclosed; echoes, unsettled by your cautious steps over the slippery steps.
Reading affords capturing, recording of the distant rumblings and echoes issuing forth from the deep of the verbal edifice! Vibrations moving up, slowly. You must read them carefully, these vibrations, from your current location, in order to correctly map them out.
Bathes is no exception.
If you listen… strain really, can hear those dormant sounds trapped within…finally. Escaping the deep pit. Trying to reach the surface…tentatively.
Barthesian texts are long-distance conversations…with the Undead
Mourning Diary is intense, personal, about loss, grief, remembrance, life. A tribute to memory and mundane. About a mother, her sickness, death. Barthes spent 60 years with her—a miracle! Her death depressed him…and set him off on a personal account of the aftermath of that loss and as happens with a very sophisticated mind, even such a private document becomes a rich public literary text. Becomes another sign.
In fact, Barthes is a sign for us, relevant, 32 years after his death. Of alienation. Embedded in a crass society that marginalizes and isolates brainy guys…their intellectuals.
Barthes is the reader that unravels an age but never gets fully integrated. The accommodation between market and its sign-readers, the rapprochement, is always uneasy, tenuous.
He is condemned to a reigning solitude of spirit, in a hedonistic culture.
It is a new solitude confronting a writer in a bourgeois society that isolates all of us; writers feel it more acutely, poignantly.
Loss. Of a dear mother—the only woman he knew. Diary records a private pain. Pain that cannot be shared. No mechanism, no outlet for your felt pain in public. Writing provides the only escape.
Mourning Diary interiorizes the felt pain, the persistent mood of despair and feeling of loss, in cryptic lines. Writing it out is a therapy for him.
Then, writing provides other exits also…from the boredom, ennui, repetition, ugliness…loneliness and boredom.
Sign-creators and sign-makers are conflicted. Bound to be due to the basic contradictory nature of the society.
The same solitude confronts the authors in India also!
If not all, some.
Most writing is evading the other.
The other—that is the writer, reduced to figure zero in a money-driven culture.
You pay here to get published. Not paid for your writing!
What a philistine culture!
If you articulate the Unseen, you become the great writer Dickens!
I saw the ghost of Barthes!
For a second, near the window-seat, crowded local train to the Churchgate Station, Mumbai.
It was Sunday afternoon. Travelling towards Marine Drive. While sitting and dozing, near the window-seat—a rare privilege in Mumbai—I get startled up by the horn of another local hurtling down from opposite direction and open up my red eyes—and see Barthes sitting opposite me!
His grim visage staring at me.
I get jolted by the piercing gaze.
Re-focussing, I find an Indian—bearing a remote resemblance to the famous philosopher; long forehead and nose, swept-back hair—sitting before me. A thin man; left leg amputated. A crutch propped up. Face hollow. Must be in his early 30s. The local stops at the outer signal. A mild sun is filtering inside the window, lighting up the dust-beam swirling inside in a powerful slant. I feel uneasy—always do, when face-to-face with the disabled.
Slightly guilty as well.
While shifting my weight, I accidently step on his right foot.
He winces; says nothing—used to pain.
I feel guilt again.
“Sorry!” I say.
He nods. Says nothing.
We are stuck. In the middle of a maze of gleaming railway tracks. High-rises cast their shadows that barely reach our train standing still in the heart of this maze of hot steel radiating in all directions. An urban desert.
“How come?” I ask, mechanically.
“What?” My eyes pop out.
“The serial blasts that shook Mumbai.” His voice is detached, cool, registering nothing.
“I see. I read them in the papers.” I say.
“It was the same train. Same apartment, same seat.” He opens up, suddenly. I get superstitious, ridiculously.
“Is it?” I ask.
He smiles. “Yes. The compartment was ripped apart due to the explosion in the front bogey. Bodies flew up. I flew out into hot air and landed up on the other side of the track, hit the ground and lost consciousness…”
His voice is clinical, eyes blank, as if reporting on a crime scene like a veteran reporter.
“Oh!” I exclaim, moved.
“I woke up in hospital. Then the long operation and painful recovery followed. I lost my leg, my job, my wife. Incurred debts. I wanted to commit suicide. A single event of terror has ruined my life.”
“Then?” I ask.
“One night, I hobbled down to an old jetty. I wanted to jump into the sea. There…”
His voice trails off, a bit cracking, face composed and cold. The local train is still stuck. It is humid.
I am in a different world, surreal, violent, illogical.
“On the moon-lit jetty, I see an old fisherman, his legs dangling. As I drew nearer, I could feel his calming presence. An ancient figure, coarse clothes, bearded, a cap on his broad head. He sees me and smiles and says, sit down sonny. Under trance, I sit down…You do not belong here, he says. I nod. Then, what are you doing, late hour, on this abandoned jetty? I tell him the truth. Never! The old man says. Life is precious. You are lucky to survive. There are many who died or became completely maimed.”
My mouth gapes…slightly. “Then?”
“Then…well, he places his hand on my head, smiles kindly. His gentle eyes look directly into my soul. Hypnotized, I pass out.”
“Yes. Next morning, I wake up to find some fishermen looking down at me, concerned. They take me to a nearby shop and we drink tea. I tell them about my chance meeting. They exchange looks but say nothing.”
“So, who was that old man?”
“Nobody knows. Never seen in those parts but heard often…”
“On lonely nights, known to save many young lives by talking them out of depression and possible suicide. A kind of an avuncular figure. I tried to search him, to say thanks, but could not find him again, on that jetty or nearby. He lives in his message…”
“I returned home, strangely cured and started second innings…re-building life slowly. A few angels again came into my life. Now, I am employed and commute daily on this train on Sundays. It is a therapy. I re-live the tragedy and feel courageous. Being alive is a blessing. And I remember the old fisherman for giving a valuable lesson for life on that memorable night, when an angry sea hissed and a solitary moon roamed the clear empty sky. Face your truth. Do not escape from your destiny. Stop running; you will become whole again. ”
And he smiles, this brave man, an average Indian, fighting heavy odds.
As the train suddenly starts moving, I discover a real brave fighter who has probably never heard of a great thinker and his treatise on boredom: an intellectual speculation embedded in a world of affluence and social isolation, typically French— a great luxury not available to ordinary folks like this disabled guy, the daily survivors of tough battles in an insane world of hatred, strife and mindless mayhem, in the name of religion, region, language or skin colour.
I see the ghost of meditative Barthes retreating quietly from the compartment, searching for some other place…
Mumbai-based, Sunil Sharma, a college principal, is also a widely-published Indian critic, poet, literary interviewer, editor, translator, essayist and fiction writer. He has published three collections of poetry, one collection of short fiction, one novel, and co-edited five books. His six short stories and the novel Minotaur were recently prescribed for the undergraduate classes under the Post-colonial Studies, Clayton University, Georgia, USA. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award—2012.
Sunil Sharma edits online journal Episteme:
Potrait by Ilyanna Kerr