Thursday, August 10, 2017

There is a Story Here: On the Book of Disquiet

There is a story here. I know it doesn't look like a story, that it doesn't have the plot you expect from a story or the characters you expect from a story or the relationships you expect from a story or the arc of events you expect from a story, but I assure you it is a story. It is a story about the course of consciousness, the nature of thought, the self's consideration of the self, the existence of the brain in the world. It is a story about figuring shit out, about our inability to figure shit out, about the mechanisms of understanding both the grand abstract concepts that drive art and philosophy and the bullshit your boss does in the office, and it is a story about the limitations of those mechanisms, the gears of the mechanisms, the grease of those mechanisms.

The thing is, unlike most stories, we all experience this story every day. We all think about the shit that happened to us and we all think about the best way to think about the shit that happened to us, and sometimes we come to conclusions and sometimes we don't and sometimes we come to different conclusions later that make those first conclusions look really fucking stupid. This is a story about how we are and how we become meaningful. But to see The Book of Disquiet as a story, to see it as distinct from a fictional diary or collection of disconnected musings you need to learn to read it as a story.

Not all books can or should be read in the same way. This is one of those ideas that sounds strange, but once put into context, is almost obvious. You would read a collection of poetry differently than you would read the next installment in your favorite fantasy epic; you would pay attention to different details, keep different types of information at the forefront of your mind as you read, and react to your own reactions differently. You read a collection of essays differently from a collection of short stories, a work of literature differently from a work of entertainment, a work you have some doubts about differently from a work your best friend swears by. Furthermore, you can even read the same book differently, depending on the context. For example, you read a book differently when you read it for a class or for a book club from when you read it for fun. Some books, the books I often consider the greatest books, need to be read differently from every other book, and one of their responsibilities and one of the definers of their greatness is that they teach you how to read themselves. So The Book of Disquiet, rather than starting with some kind of introductory passage that would try to frame this as a collection of diary entries or, at least, as a collection of distinct units, begins with a story. A story about how the “author” came to meet “Vicente Guedes,” the “writer” of everything else that will follow. Furthermore, the opening image of the first “entry” is of a “hidden orchestra” and a “symphony” or, to put it another way, of a particular type of human expression in which a series of distinct acts come together to create a unified experience.

This is a story because, directly and indirectly, through confronting the concept and through atmosphere created by the prose, the book returns again and again to one particular idea, and explores how that idea describes the narrator's experience with the world. The narrator may not change, the events may not change, the rising and falling action we associate with a plot might not happen, but the nature of this idea changes and does go through the rising and falling action we associate with a plot. In a way, the book feels almost like someone worrying at a loose tooth, but that is a story. There is conflict, there is tension (will the tooth fall out?), and ultimately, there is resolution. The concept, of course, is disquiet. Disquiet is a mercurial idea, and the narrator rolls it around in his hands, bending and stretching into different shapes, but, if I had to define it in some kind of, uh, definite way, I'd say that Pessoa's disquiet is the parallax created by the separation between existence and observation, from the fact that observing what happens and how you feel about it is distinct from what actually happens and what you feel about what actually happens. Disquiet names the perpetual Heisenberg uncertainty principle that is an inherent aspect of consciousness itself. There is a synapse between us and the world and disquiet is the emotion we feel when we think about that synapse.

This is a story about disquiet in the exact same way that In Search of Lost Time is a story about memory. The difference, of course, is in the angle of approach. Proust takes the long way (perhaps, the absolute longest way), showing the accumulation of memory over the course of a life and how the force of memory guides and shapes a life as a way to consider the ideas that describe memory. It is a long, slow build up that climaxes when a small moment triggers the emotional experience of what the fact of having memory means. It takes Proust thousands of pages to set up this climax because memory is a book with thousands of pages. (I, for one, think it's worth it.) Pessoa just goes right at it, his narrator confronting the idea directly and rarely with any kind of “real world” connection. In a way, this makes The Book of Disquiet read more like a work of philosophy or even of literary criticism (there is a lot about the act of writing in here as well), but, in a way, you can arrange any good work of philosophy into a story about an idea if you want to.

But, just because this is a story doesn't mean you need to read it as a story. Along with teaching you how to read themselves, great books also support multiple reading methods, giving readers the power to find their own best experience with the text. You could also read The Book of Disquiet as a devotional or a book of hours. You could keep it at your bedside to read upon waking or before going to sleep. You could read it front to back like a story, or you could wander through it. I think you could also get tremendous value out of it, even if you never finish it, even if you just keep circling back to the passages that most resonated with you. The Book of Disquiet is a story, but it is a story that gives your the freedom to read it as though it is not.

I've dogeared hundreds of passages. I have had my breath taken away hundreds of times. The primary motivation for writing this post wasn't necessarily the argument that the The Book of Disquiet is a story (though I think it is and I think that argument gave me the chance to have some interesting thoughts about how we read and what we consider a “story”), but that when I experience this kind of brilliance in a book I want to write about it. But I didn't want to just essentially string of bunch of blurbs together and call it a post. There can be a kind of diminishing return when you gush about a book. At some point you don't really add to your argument and at another point people can start getting suspicious and at a similar point you can set expectations so high a first impression of disappointment will follow them throughout the rest of the book. The Book of Disquiet is a masterpiece, a cornerstone of much twentieth-century fiction, an often perplexing but also delightful book, and as much as it deserves praise, as much as it deserves blurbs and handsells, it deserves essays more.

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