David Foster Wallace on dealing with boredom

The underlying [key to life in a bureaucratic world] is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.


It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.

(The Pale King 440)


home as time, not space


This post, which I’ve been meaning to write for some time now (I’ve kinda let this blog atrophy from neglect), is inspired by a line from a song by the hipsterly-named folk band Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros called “Home.” Here’s a link.

The line goes: “Home is whenever I’m with you.”

(If you know the song, you may recall the line as “Home is wherever I’m with you.” I don’t hear an “r.” Different lyrics websites understandably vary in their renditions of the line. Metrolyrics is adamant that it’s “wherever”/”where” in every instance of the line. AZLyrics thinks it’s “wherever”/”where” in most cases but does have “when” in some instances. Genius.com (how flattering) agrees with me and has “whenever”/”when” in each case. In any case, the consonant is vague, and the listener is free, I guess, to hear it as he/she wants to. And besides, this isn’t the point of my post.)

The line appears not to make any surprising claim, but it actually does. For those who have grown up in a house/houses, the concept of home is inextricably tied to a space. It’s somewhere we go to, as opposed to something we, I don’t know, exist in.

(I mean exist in that hazy sense that we use when we in despair or boredom or some wonderful combination of the two say “What does it mean to exist?”. What I mean is I’m keeping exist from its [good-and-proper] entailment of being in a space. Of course humans normally exist in a space. It’s just that they also exist in a time. This latter point is the side of the coin that I want to focus on in this post.)

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros (henceforth ES&TMZ) construe “home” as a time. This is not to say that they construe it as a time exclusively. Other lines in the song mention spaces: “Alabama, Arkansas,” “the park… the jungle,” “moats and boats and waterfalls,” etc. This is natural and inevitable. But this doesn’t weaken the claim of home-as-time. In fact, the plethora of spaces mentioned throughout the song implies that the two lovers (I should have mentioned this: the song is sung by a man and woman representing two lovers)—the song implies that the two lovers can be at home regardless of the space.

Read that last clause again, it’s important.

ES&TMZ’s claim means something to me, who of course associates “home” with a “space” but finds it extremely helpful to think of “home” as a time. At this particular moment, I think of a house with yellow/orange-ish tones and stairs and a nice countertop and many bookshelves. When I’m at college abroad, I sort of think of my dorm room as my home, but there is a dissatisfaction in calling it so. The reason, I guess, is that the dorm room (both as space and, although it’s weird, time) doesn’t mean the things I’ve come to associate with “home.”

And when I say “come to associate,” I drag in the experience of having lived in all the houses my family has inhabited so far (17 houses, I think, by my count). “Home,” considered not from the discreet present but from the reflective, total, and terribly abstract perspective of my life as a whole lump, for me can’t be tied to a single house, which is to say it can’t be tied to a single space—although I can do so and can’t help doing so at particular points-in-time.

(As a sort of counter-argument:

Insofar as “space” is concerned, we, who live through particular points-in-time, inevitably associate home with a particular place [or if you have multiple houses, places]. Also, you can’t do things from that “abstract perspective” which considers time as an accumulated sum. Pity, but it’s probably for the best.)

What do I do then? Construe home not only as space, but also as time. Which is weird but also makes sense in a way. Thanks, ES&TMZ.


(edited. from my old blog. a sort of synthesis of Homer and Jorge Luis Borges [“The Immortal”])

Burned by the middle-sun, we came unto a city
Walled as if by thoughts,
Awaiting still the Sack, when she would
Scream. We came unto those unwalls and found
The Gate-elders, whose craniums were on the verge of bursting.

We approached those languid kings and
Inquired: “What is this city called? who rules it?
Who built it? who are you?
Where are we? do you understand us?”
So said we, to whom one swollen, wrinkled mouth:

“This city, we knew its name
Once. Who rules it, we know no longer.
This country, this strand beside the sea
Of the world, this earth: now it is as if foreign
To us, wizened into abstracted cadavers.

We understand your speech, but the memory
Of it already dies away and floats
Into that ancient Argive’s void. We have lost
Our bearings; we are as children lost
In the undulations of faceless monsters.

We were consumed and excreted by the present,
And now are ever pressed by the question: ‘Where is mother?
Oh, where, where, where, is mother?’
We cannot retrace our steps, can only move forward,
Our god is Progress, whom we revile—no other to protest.

The walls, I think, are sound, as your speech is.
A tune three thousand leagues away to the west hints
The foundations are sound also.
This city was built on terrifying rhythmic drum beats,
Or the blare of a mad poet’s voice.

We are haunted not by sound—the walls crumble—but
By black letters on pale parchment, and,
Of late, by pictures and by moving images,
The memory of movement, the soundless swells
Of torpid river-torrents of shields, spears, and scrolls.”

His feeble voice resumed: “Before I forget entirely—
I am Priam, Laomedon’s son, or was Priam;
Or was I Atrides Agamemnon?
Or Menelaus? or the father, Atreus, Pelops’ son?
I am too old, too old.”

His finger pointing near imperceptible to the right:
“This is Achilles, man-slaying son of Peleus—”

His once long and glorious beauty
The sorry hairs of an overused broom.

“—He is Achilles, and look!
Look at his hands—” his voice’s timbre was unchanged

“—The blood on his hands!” We looked, but
Pelides’ hands were the brown of ancient paper—

Whether it was the blood of Priam’s sons, or the atrophy,
We could not tell. The smell gave away nothing.

We thought we saw a crystal tear run down
Priam’s face, muddying itself in its course.

Pointing to the left: “Nestor, who has slept since, since…”
The pallid head was flung back; the great mouth lacked every tooth.

Pointing farther: “Ajax the Giant, and Ajax the Lesser,
But who is who, I can no longer tell.”

“That sea-faring king, Odysseus, left us long ago.
I miss him, I miss him, or do I hate him? Neither that can I recall.

That is Idomeneus, and that Aeneas—
But he left, too, didn’t he? He left as well…”

We said, in reply: “Are you not all dead?
Why are you unsure of who you are?
Why do you sit side by side, who were
Warring enemies, who wept because of each other’s
Brutal, bloody work?”

The decrepit megacephalic: “I am…Priam. I am dying.
I would like to be dead and not dying—indeed, all of us—

But that thread, a single capillary, has not run its span.”
(A decade later, we realized we were the reason.)

“There,” pointing to a figure sitting solitary, “is
Hector, breaker of horses,” and, unprecedentedly:

“We are all overladen Hector,
Murdered, violated.

And we are all Achilles,
Murderous and doomed.

We are all Priam,
Ragged, filthy, and hungry.

We are all Agamemnon,
Slain by treacherous dagger.

We are all Menelaus,
Whose wife was stolen way.

We are all Paris,
Who is execrated by all.

We are all Aeneas,
All Odysseus.

We are every soldier
Whose blood poured itself forth in the sight of these walls.

No one who has stood on this cursed soil
Stands in and of himself.

I am vanishing—” he croaked an attempt at a laugh
“—We here all live this lengthy, evil process of dying.”

We stood silent, being able to do nothing else.
Priam’s eyes glistened, as they did at Hector’s rape.

“We all returned here, to this burnt land;
There was no other country who’d keep us.

We took the gods by the hand, we found
We were a match, we drove our spears straight through their mouths.

We slew the Olympians together, in the name of
Progress,” said the king, who before our sight visibly wasted away.

“It did nothing. Father Zeus’ brood were phantoms
In the end. Other gods had risen with the new sun.”

“Proceed, if you wish,” he continued.
“You will find multitudes inside.”

After a solemn, motionless, darkening hour, we did so.
With a faint “Halt who goes there” dogging our steps, we walked
Into the fading, torn-paper streets, ascended
The hellish rungs of descent. After years, we found
Ilus, son of Tros, erector of the city, a skeleton on his toilet.

Black Friday 2015

How this empire will lie when
in a century or so
it laughs its last choking joke
and flies farther than angels ken.

The waves of both maria,
maria vostra, not mine,
bring sad legs to these templa,
shrines of strange gods with pretty shine.

Their tired missionaries
take the gospel of self to
other shores. After one, two
years, they take off, leaving us to ourselves.

In this particular mound
of brown and black, I wander
lone, and not one spoken sound,
one whiff of skin, is tender
strange, without being familiar.

How does one live the life
of self in a community of selves?
It is a severed life
in the land which these people delved,
foundations for the sacrifice of speech,
the awkardification of the meeting of eyes.

(I realize in writing this I am angry. I want in. There is tension in being intentional against other good news—and you, reader, read my fingers in their natural state.)

How does one be in but
not of this religious
swimming pool of all worlds?

Day before Thanksgiving, 2015

I am listening to The xx and Daughter. Daughter is a emo-folk-rock band, emphasis on “emo.” The xx is super minimalistic. Solo guitar intro most of the time. Singing in the lower register. Bass is intermittent. Not minimalistic in the sense of, say, Philip Glass: repetitive and relatively simple thematically; rather, a “stripped-down” minimalistic. Bare-bones. Minimum.
The xx could easily be a perfunctory band, but what do you do when you get enthralled in a world of crepuscular understated-ness, and find that it’s beautiful, in a way? What do you do?

There are no bird’s nests outside,
not that I could see, and I see
for miles. The world is ready for
death again, as it has been ready
for floods and ages. In its little
microcosm of the grand story
of the quiet execution on
the bald hill, which was not
even a mountain, the ground
drinks up the promise of life,
and is dead for another
eternity. But not yet. And that is why

I guess the point of my writing this is that I am bored. Not just the everyday “Oh-I-am-so-bored-whatdoIdowithmylife” bored. It is boredom at a fundamental level. It isn’t like general boredom, which shows itself at the surface, but knows that there really is something to be done. This boredom, i.e. mine, stems from the palpable fact that there is nothing to do, and hence, everything to be done, if that makes sense. I suspect it doesn’t. How do you learn how to be at leisure?

a supposedly fun thing etc. – part 2

There is something bugging me about this blog, which might be the same thing that has been bugging me about most of my writing lately. I think it’s that I’m doing this whole Cool-Ironic thing with writing, and it’s really pretentious now: it’s the 21st century; the Ironic writers are done. You don’t see the Cool-Ironic in bookstores really now, except in the work of Lemony Snickett and some others.

I don’t know why it bugs me.