‘It is my idea of the significance of trivial things that I want to give to the two or three unfortunate wretches who may eventually read me.’
If these newsletters were to have a mission statement it would be something like the above quotation. Yes, I have called this The Commonplace Newsletter for a reason, because as well as drawing from my own personal Commonplace I also believe that commonplace/ordinary/quotidian things are important. Vitally so. They are what life is made of.
This is not a popular message. Largely because it is hard to sell people consumer goods off the back of it.
Advertising, as well all know, is predicated on the idea of a better tomorrow, on the idea that you are one purchase away from ‘happiness’ - a weasel word that becomes murkier the more that it is diluted by misuse.
But of course tomorrow never arrives. The consumer keeps running on the Hedonic Treadmill and his footsteps power the machine that we call the economy.
See, for all the mindfulness apps and meditation retreats, for all of the inelegant Carpe Diem tattoos and posts about being ‘present’, for most of the time we are all off somewhere else. Because the grease that keeps the treadmill gears runnings smooth is escapism, whether it be drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, travel, pornography, Netflix or our old friend Twitter.
And the cure for escapism is to embrace ordinariness, that cousin of boredom. If you accept that you can’t escape, then you stop doing stultifying escapist acts. (Or using neutral things in an escapist manner). And if you stop doing these things, you paradoxically rise above this dreaded everydayness.
Transcendence comes via immersion.
Allow me to explain...
The Ordinary Canon
A theme that I hammer home again and again (and that I will continue to hammer home forever more) is that people should read fiction, particularly those classics from the Canon which call to them.
Again, this is not a particularly popular message. I suspect I am fighting an uphill battle against the intellectual PTSD that comes from years of being made to close-read Measure for Measure and the like, close-read them at a glacial pace while the sun tauntingly shone outside the classroom window and the moulded plastic chairs made your young spine age.
But I’ll persist because I’m right.
One thing that great fiction does is capture detail, and in capturing detail it heightens your real life experience of the phenomenon in question.
You read a just-right description of birds in flight or rain-slick suburban streets and suddenly you find that your evening walks transform. You read the interior thoughts or an unexceptional man going about his unexceptional business and you feel less alone. You read the cringe-inducingly accurate dialogue of a marriage falling apart and you start cutting your spouse a little more slack and begin attempting to be a more attentive listener.
Through such recognition life becomes re-enchanted, little by little.
By contrast, lowest-common-denominator blockbuster films have a disenchanting effect. How many meaningless, unrelatable, decontextualised on-screen murders have I seen in my life time. Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? More? This surely must have a dulling effect.
Now we could argue all day about what art is for, and it is such a monumental and fundamental part of humanity that I doubt we would barely touch on a satisfactory answer, let alone a comprehensive one. Things of such stature are ends-in-themselves and to theorise about them is to miss the point.
But I stand by the enchantment hypothesis. At least as a facet.
Life is ordinary, whether we like it or not, and art that deals with this (Cezanne and Vermeer, Joyce and Proust, William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson) gives us a lens through which to see the panorama of existence.
Exceptionalism is a false hope, a chimera. Though I’m somewhat loathe to quote it, Fight Club’s Tyler Durden was on to something when he said that:
We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact.
Yet, rather than be dismayed at the realisation that this escapist media dream is a lie, I say that rejecting this is the path to a richer life.
And I don’t think I’m the only one...
Enter The Plague
I try to avoid getting too specifically contemporary for fear of writing thoughts that age poorly. Most people drown riding the waves of the zeitgeist, only a skilful few can surf the crest. But the current moment needs to be addressed here.
See, the disenchanting, escapist culture that walls us off from capital R Reality is dying.
As I write this in August 2020 the cinemas are just reopening after having been closed for months. Television is running on fumes. And celebrities have largely disappeared from the collective consciousness, their world ending with the sad whimper of a cloying and nauseating rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine.
I’m not sure if it’s in good taste to celebrate the silver lining of a still ongoing pandemic but the decline of bread and circuses is definitely something to reflect on.
It means that we can rub the crust of sleep from our eyes and get on with the business of living. The unglamorous business of work and family and food and conversation, the stuff that fuels the great novels and paintings and ceremonies that bring context and meaning to our brief lives.
‘Our goal is to discover that we have always been where we ought to be.’
I try to avoid giving advice because, after all, who am I? But when backed into a corner the one piece of advice I would give to everyone (and which I constantly remind myself of) is to pay attention.
What you attend to shapes your experience, what you experience shapes yourself.
The problem with unrealistic escapist media, with Silicon Valley apps, with all of these things that I moan on about here is that they rob you of your attention.
The fantasist, just like the drunk or the dopamine addict, sleepwalks through life. Everything passes them by. The days drag but the years go screaming by.
Through all of their precious and only life everything passes them by because they were too busy fantasising, brooding, pining, blaming and denying to actually stop and smell the metaphorical and actual roses.
This is a tragedy.
So after all these words, words, words, what I’m saying, or trying to say is this. And I say this to myself as much as to you. Don’t try to escape, embrace. Don’t dream, wake up. Don’t project or reflect or regret. Just try to take in this ordinary day in your ordinary life and enjoy it for what it is.
Until next time,
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Thomas, excellent piece and spot on. What fiction would you recommend?
My mom taught me how to embrace the ordinary. A few years ago I lived in East Boston. My neighborhood had above ground power lines that I hated. I thought my street had too much concrete, too much trash littering the sidewalks, and too many fading and crumbling facades for it to be lovable. Then my mom came to visit. I expected her to disdain it like I had, but when she saw my street she was actually in awe over how beautiful it was - even and especially the hideous power lines! She gushed over my ugly street and I was shocked. But my mom is incapable of an inauthentic emotional expression so I looked again. All at once, I saw the charm and the loveliness of my very ordinary street. I felt like I gained a superpower that day.