On the Aesthetics of Despair

TWO FRENCHMEN IN THE ORIENT

Part 3

Since I have been abroad, quite a few travelers have gotten in touch with me. Whether friends who had promised (often in vain) to pay me visit, or complete strangers, they show an enthusiasm that reminds me, not without nostalgia, of my early days here. [Yes indeed: nostalgia did not exactly start from reading my diaries.] No need to mention them, the complete strangers, in fact: my four sisters and tens of cousins generally betray a sense of envy and a certain steady awe at what I am doing with my life – that is, for when they dare reassuring me that I am not forgotten. In one of the sadly numerous farewell parties of my summer 2009, a rather distant acquaintance, senior to me by eight or ten years, had told me that “it takes balls” [“one must be truly courageous”] to do what I was about to do. I was flattered but unable to really see the fuss of my project. Sadly, enthusiasm and (self-) admiration had long ago left my ship. A sense of proportions forbids me from authoring a really theatrically tragic discourse on my own existence, but I cannot deny that I am familiar with a certain pessimistic portrayal of myself, and of my experience here. I probably have a taste for it. Undoubtedly, there is a certain aesthetics of despair in the heart of the writing traveler.

Barely ten days in my not-so-pathetic Pahar Ganj hotel and improvised co-travelers invited me for a two-days tour to Agra. Again, my sublime cultural ignorance forbad me from seeing the cliché of the situation. And it became the occasion to confirm my unsurprisingly negative bias towards anything touristic. I had become le touriste malgré lui. I was bound to roam around and visit places. It was almost a social pressure. Back home, certain relatives kept telling me that they had heard of this or that remote religious town or such-and-such marvelous natural reserve. And around me in Delhi, there were also these double faced students: college-going in the week and frenzied nomadic expatriates on weekends. If I wanted to keep pace with them, I too had to visit Rishikesh-es, Dharamsala-s and other Benares-es. But one year down the line, and already a dozen of cities on my counter, as I (strangely) found myself in Vientiane, capital of Laos, my initial indifference was virginally untouched:

“I fear boredom, the fatigue of movement, and the lack of interest. Especially since the “big” cities of this small country opening to the world, already appear to me to be quite touristic, synonymous of a double disinterest: the loss of a local authenticity, and the omnipresence of cultures and values that I already know.” 1

My complaints were hardly surprising, hardly original. Sixteen decades earlier, another French man kept grumbling all day long. His main companion, the photographer Maxime Du Camp, did not spare him in his Souvenirs Littéraires:

“Gustave Flaubert shared none of my exultation; he was quiet and withdrawn. He was averse to movement and action. He would have liked to travel, if he could, stretched out on a sofa and not stirring, watching landscapes, ruins and cities pass before him like the screen of a panorama mechanically unwinding. From our very first days in Cairo I had been aware of his lassitude and boredom: this journey, which he had so cherished as a dream and whose realization had seemed to him impossible, did not satisfy him. … The temples seemed to him always alike, the mosques and the landscapes all the same. I am not sure that when gazing on the island of Elephantine he did not sigh for the meadows of Sotteville, or long for the Seine when he saw the Nile.” 2

[I only hope that my occasional pals were not filling their online travelogues with analogous comments.] The complaints of the (writing) traveler may reveal two things. First is his bourgeois disdain for the futility of the touristic enterprise. I realized, along with Gustave, that starring at thousand-years old ruins or being shown around the foreground of an ancient and complex culture was like pretending to study arithmetic while double-checking one’s amount of fingers. Even though Edward Saïd and his partners of the post-colonial critique had undoubtedly, yet unconsciously, reached this worldview by the late 20th century, I feel that Flaubert too had a sense of the ridiculous spectacle that takes place around the foreigner when he is in such a different country. Only an authentic exploration of the local culture, in length and with time, would appease the (healthily?) self-critical spirit of the foreigner.

Nonetheless, this type of comment reveals more intensely another aspect of the traveler. While this point cannot be said for all travelers, it would not be an adventurous move to assert that it was definitely shared by both Gustave and I: boredom. The fearsome ennui. Roaming around Abu Simbel, Flaubert acknowledges his most profound feeling: “Reflection: the Egyptian temples bore me profoundly. Are they going to become like the churches in Brittany, the waterfalls in the Pyrenees? Oh necessity!” 3 It is just as well a recurrent theme in my own discourse. I have grown versed in explaining that it is boredom towards my own (French) culture, and a certain depressive feeling at the prospect of dragging my life further there, which led me to leave everything and start anew abroad. I was Sartrian, and Camusian, well before I knew those names. And even long after I had decided that these two were “too Western” to be like-minded to me. I was also very Schopenhauerian: ‘life is an old clock fluctuating between boredom and pain’ had become my favorite motto during my late afternoon saunters in tiny and tidy jardins publics of Angers. (Such a contemplative walk was actually also one of Schopenhauer’s signature daily activities.) Boredom had appeared as a rather suitable concept to describe the almost permanent angst of my adolescence, when the void of inactive days only contrasted with social situations that I immediately found vain both in their form and content. Studies had kept me a bit busy, and allowed me to discover also more optimistic worldviews; but when their effects started fading, the international migration seemed as the drastic, but only effective solution. Some migrate to avoid genocides or poverty. I migrated to avoid boredom. Tragic pettiness of the existentialist, middle-class Frenchman.

Studies, and life abroad, did indeed keep me busy for some time. It took me a bit more than a year to see this mind-occupation fade. Joining ‘the infamously most dysfunctional department of Delhi University’ (according to some of its own administrators) was not the smartest move for my emotional life, but a move which, still today, I manage to justify. Slowly, I managed to keep my sanity through the weeks of Buddhist talks by non-Anglophone teachers and classmates, of inexistent research life and of stressfully growing unionist waves… but good old boredom showed its familiar face just a few months later. I was less worried by the amount of rote learning to prepare for exams than by the prospective of two utterly boring weeks to memorise them: “Thus, ‘Indian style’ exams, or at least those I got to know here, are a big dose of boredom for only a pinch of difficulty. In other words, one better be disciplined and balanced to not make of these revision periods a torture during which time is unbearably long.” 4 [Second tragic pettiness of the French contemporary existence — in passing: his daily angst is made of Buddhist Studies exams.]

Nonetheless, the foreigner’s boredom is not a futile, supplementary aspect of his privileged background and permanently unsatisfied psychology. Or rather: it is so, but that is not worthless of any empathy.

“We return via the desert. Camped at Philae Saturday, Sunday and Monday. I don’t stir form the island, and am depressed. What is it, oh Lord, this permanent lassitude that I drag about with me? It followed me on my travels, and I have brought it home! Deianira’s tunic was no less completely welded to Hercules’ back than boredom to my life! It eats into it more slowly, that’s all. … Oh Nile! Like your waters my sadness overflows, and no one can say whence it comes. It was in the heart (the middle) of my summer that the flood came rushing, but nothing will grow on the silt that it leaves behind.” 5

guill top right

Despair is a solid aesthetical choice, because it instantly triggers emotions in the reader; it can easily be improvised upon; and it is less shameful and naïve than dwelling upon utterly happy and optimistic accounts.

guill bottom left

This kind of travel writing reveals the almost unalterable, and unfortunately widespread, sadness of a part of the world – let us call it for now: France. I have always sensed that this feeling was linked to a national heritage, and that it could be explained as the combination of two things: first, the shame of one’s own social position and privileges within French society, and in relation to the rest of the world, and second, a sense of discouragement with regards to the plenitude of political, social and cultural projects which, in the past, have all shown their defect and excessively idealistic foundations. The Frenchman is left meandering in unpopulated cities, most of the year ice-cold, and, once in a while, in a dusty, burning and surprisingly welcoming Orient. But the same Frenchman is nonetheless a writer. And what could he write about? His despair! Great theme. Deep intensity. Appeal to a universal emotion, equally trendy both in the 1850s and in the 2010s. By remaining disheartened, the foreigner makes sure to ignite one of these classical artistic emotions – the Indian Karunyam rasa – while being safe from the accusation of self-confidence, cultural supremacy or ideological belief. Despair is a solid aesthetical choice, because it instantly triggers emotions in the reader; it can easily be improvised upon; and it is less shameful and naïve than dwelling upon utterly happy and optimistic accounts. If he surrenders and accepts to fall in one of the extremes, the writer prefers excessive defeatism over its opposite. A few pages before the aforementioned passage, I had written the following:

Three years of printed diaries on my desk

Possibly the most depressing reading

I have managed to make of myself a nostalgic man.

Greatest irony of all: a few pages down the line, I would show how the diary was not “the most depressing reading” as it precisely sets upright an incorrect view of my own past. But I kept these lines. They sounded good. Sorrow sells. This is certainly what Gustave had in mind when he attempted to conceptualize – and encourage! – the matter thus:

“We left Koseir that afternoon at four, very sadly. My eyes were wet when I embraced our host and climbed back on to my camel. It is always sad to leave a place to which one knows one will never return. Such are the mélancolies du voyage: perhaps they are one of the most rewarding things about traveling.” 6

Flaubert was not afraid to say the word: even if that meant to pay the price for it, the traveler-writer has to look and dwell in dolefulness. It is what will form the aesthetical nuggets of his work. And a touch of sarcasm, in passing: “The caves of Ibrim, on the riverbank, eight or nine feet above the waterline, are a good joke: they contain absolutely nothing, a discovery that kept me cheerful the entire rest of the day.” 7 Sadness itself becomes an amusing trope.

The uncertain feel of both Flaubert and my discourses is also to be linked with a larger anxiety: the future. Unsurprisingly, the Frenchman who already struggles to overcome boredom and sadness in the present does not conceive of the future in a particularly confident manner. The travel notes and epistolary archives of Flaubert are full of discussions, in particular with his mother, on his professional future, once back in France. The critical disapproval of his draft of Saint Anthony, by his close friends Douilhet and Du Camp, had discouraged him of furthering his literary efforts, while the perspective of any ‘real’ profession had become synonymous of anxious boredom:

“When I think of my future (that happens rarely, for I generally think of nothing at all despite the elevated thoughts one should have in the presence of ruins!), when I ask myself: ‘What shall I do when I return? What path shall I follow?’ and the like, I am full of doubts and indecision. At every stage in my life I have shirked facing my problems in just this same way; and I shall die at eighty before having formed any opinion concerning myself or, perhaps, without writing anything that would have shown me what I could do. Is Saint Anthony good or bad? That is what I often ask myself, for example: who was mistaken, I or the others? However, I worry very little about any of this; I live like a plant, filling myself with sun and light, with colors and fresh air. I keep eating, so to speak; afterwards the digesting will have to be done, then the shitting; and the shit had better be good! That’s the important thing.” 8

“You are never at a loss for things to torment yourself about. What is the sense of this: that I must have a job—‘a small job,’ you say. First of all, what job? I defy you to find me one, to specify in what field, what it would consist in. Frankly, and without deluding yourself, is there a single one that I am capable of filling? … When one does something, one must do it wholly and well. Those bastard existences where you sell suet all day and write poetry at night are made for mediocre minds—like those horses that are equally good for saddle and carriage, the worst kind, that can neither jump or ditch nor pull a plow.” 9

Luckily, for all her flaws, my mother has never been as forceful as Gustave’s. My parents always left me with the choice to conduct my life as I pleased – the existentialist letter bomb: freedom! It is my own sense of responsibilities that took the role of guardian angel, of good conscience over myself. For every abandoned project, a new idea within a few days. I had become the best start-up in ‘future planning.’ In the last years, I imagined my future as a French teacher in Russia, Thailand, Japan and Brazil, as a Masters student in Stanford and as a scholar in Holland. And for each decayed dream, an immediate substitute. But a few months back, I already smelt the news coming: “It is not very healthy to live by proxy, in the wait of an idealized professional and romantic future, which will reserve without a doubt its own headaches, both initial and permanent.” 10 Now fully back to realities, I find myself pensive, certain nights, contemplating Gustave’s prose:

“And from the past I go dreaming into the future, where I see nothing, and, what is worse, no ambition. Something—the eternal ‘what’s the use?’—sets its bronze barrier across every avenue that I open up in the realm of hypothesis. Traveling doesn’t make one gay. I don’t know whether the sight of ruins inspires great thoughts, but I should like to know the source of the profound disgust that fills me these days when I think of making myself known and talked about.” 11

In these kinds of moments, despair seems the single real karmic law of the universe, and only the assent of a buried Orientalist, such as Flaubert’s on me, brings a bit of warmth…

[placenotes]
References

Image courtesy: Scoop Empire

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Footnotes

  1. Samuel Buchoul, “Déambulations Improvisées,” Indianasam (blog), June 15, 2010, http://www.indianasam.net/fr/2010/06/15/deambulations-improvisees/.
  2. Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt, 140.
  3. Ibid., 142.
  4. Samuel Buchoul, “Bercé par la houle,” Indianasam (blog), April 26, 2011, http://www.indianasam.net/fr/2011/04/26/berce-par-la-houle/.
  5. Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt, 151-152.
  6. Ibid., 203.
  7. Ibid., 144.
  8. Ibid., 74.
  9. Ibid., 107.
  10. Samuel Buchoul, “Espoirs,” Indianasam (blog), January 29, 2013, http://www.indianasam.net/fr/2013/01/29/espoirs/.
  11. Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt, 197-198.
  • Ken Hurry

    As an English ‘ex-pat’ for 50 years, I entirely sympathise with your feelings, though why a young man like yourself should have such ennui and lack of ambition, I’m not quite sure. Perhaps what’s missing is a love-affair (either with a flesh-and-blood person, or with an art, a philosophy, or a science). I shall be interested in following your developments, and wish you success in whatever you choose to do.

    • s.buchoul@gmail.com

      Thanks Ken for your sympathising comment 🙂 – fortunately this text is some 2,5 years old, and in the meantime I have had the chance to renew or find all sorts of love-affairs – humans and others! Keep reading 😀