• January 28, 2023

The Depressive Realism of “The Life of the Mind”

A valued former editor of mine used to say a koan-like saying, “Ideas make you stupid,” he would remind me from time to time. I never asked him to elaborate on it because I was afraid that the resulting ideas would actually make me as stupid as this dictum seemed to relate – so obsessed with the perception that I would stop actually noticing it, so focused on the concept that I’d neglect the actual, troubled world. I was afraid to ask, in part because that way I was kind of stupid, like many people I knew, as well as anyone who is great at analyzing their life but terrible at experiencing it. In some areas – science, media, Twitter – this talent can feel ubiquitous and more or less appropriate. How exactly can you take full advantage of your experience at a time when three and a half billion of us share our thoughts on the internet, 26 billionaires are as wealthy as half the world’s population and climate catastrophe threatens to be the end of us all? Add to this the usual, minor humiliations of living in a busy sack of meat endowed with heart and ego, and the answer is, often we don’t.

Consider Dorothy, the narrator of Christine Smallwood’s jewel of a debut novel: “The life of the spirit. “She’s an extra English teacher at an unnamed school in New York City, and is pushing her way through her thirty. Your bank balance only delivers panic; Meanwhile, her best friend considers a ten thousand dollar couch a bargain. “Other people had jobs that kept them away from chewing gum troughs,” muses Dorothy, seeing a university fountain. An English Ph.D. With no career prospects, Dorothy is stuck teaching books she doesn’t like to students she doesn’t care, as life quietly separates her from her sense of promise like you would pull your covers out from under a snoring neighbor on an airplane. “She vaguely recalled a time when wanting to do the job she’d trained for wasn’t too much to want,” writes Smallwood. “Now shortage was a thing of the past. She lived in the epilogue of needs. “

By the time the novel begins, Dorothy is on the sixth day of a miscarriage and shits in the library’s coveted single-use bathroom. She overlooks the “thick, coagulated thread-knots” emerging from her. The miscarriage is “less than a trauma and more than an inconvenience,” she thinks; Like everything in her life, pregnancy was neither wanted nor unwanted. Dorothy looks at her body with distant interest. She cannot and does not discuss the miscarriage with a narrative framework for her life – not with her respectfully distant partner Rog. not with her lively, selfish, rich friend Gaby; not with their therapist; Not with the backup therapist she was looking for to discuss her need for a backup therapist. These are the only people Dorothy talks about herself to, and even with them Dorothy most of the time thinks things over and goes mute. It is too much to communicate about life. Being alive is too complicated, especially nowadays, she decided. “It would kill you if you faced the agony and joys of the crowd in a single subway car,” thinks Dorothy. “Every person with their disappointments, their millstones, their joys, their loved ones.” The “only option was to somehow hide and escape the cacophony of pulsating, repulsive existence.”

Like many of the people who will love this novel, Dorothy is either hugely depressed and dysfunctional, or completely normal and doing pretty well. “Was she tired? How should a person feel? “She wonders. She lives in the privacy of her own brain, silently tubing adventures through the rushing white waters of her mind. Dorothy doesn’t do much out in the physical world. Smallwood generates an abundance of humor from the chasm between things who have favourited Dorothy thinks (that a group of imaginary children clinging to rafts in the apocalyptic future will judge them when they explain that their lack of climate activism was due to their need to “prop up” the boundaries of my self, the attacked by digital media to the point of porosity ”) and the kind of things it does (swipe back to front).

Journalist and critic Smallwood has a PhD. in English from Columbia University. The subject of her dissertation was “Depressive Realism” and she analyzed the work of authors presenting “different degrees of detention or wounding and different strategies for tolerating or rejecting ambivalence”. (The term depressive realism comes from the work of psychologists who have assumed that depressed people see the world more clearly.) On page three of this dissertation, Smallwood begins a sentence by writing, “I am not saying that the scientific endeavor is necessarily critical a vain one. “This feeling, which is extremely funny in context, is applied even more sharply in the novel, where scientifically critical endeavors are both Dorothy’s primary approach to understanding the world and the process by which she constantly distances herself from it. On the subway, Dorothy ponders how her fellow passengers can effectively become a group while they are addressed as a group by a milky-eyed man who shouts his life story (“so, thought Dorothy, is the power of a speaker”) . When the man talks about a past staph infection and knows he will have to stay in town on September 11th, Dorothy has a revelation about “The rime of the old seafarer“A poem she doesn’t like -” Resistance was the aesthetic experience, “she concludes. Another day, after a silent meditative spiral on climate change, Dorothy loosens hardened spaghetti from the bottom of an unwashed pot and tells her friend how” Even though you had to look for habitable land, you couldn’t be blinded by geographic strategy to the power and machinations of luck. “Adds Smallwood,” The spaghetti was tough and crispy too. “

The same disjunction is present, but less funny, how Dorothy handles her miscarriage. She’s shy and confused and curious – a beginner when it comes to her body, like a kid. She examines the gelatinous, jewel-red blood on her panties, rubs the glop off, tries it, and imagines she is in a fancy restaurant and goes to bed with the lingering taste of her own tissue in her throat. Bodies are strange and unspeakable: Dorothy prefers simpler subjects like the plight of human civilization or the psychologist Silvan Tomkins’ concept of shame-humiliation and contempt-disgust. In precisely those moments that seem most conducive to her lost pregnancy, she slips into abstraction. Looking at the ultrasound of her stubborn uterus, she thinks of the “synaesthetic paradox” and Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”. Even so, her mind repeatedly presents her images of the primacy and the casual monstrosity of the body: a dog she had once known, so full of tumors it felt like a “sock filled with gravel”, and a friend who did it had a cyst on her elbow that was tucking her hair in a ponytail when suddenly “white confetti poured in”.

“The Life of the Spirit” belongs to a growing family of fictions about highly educated white women trying to understand the coexistence of privilege and precariousness. At the reunion, Smallwood’s book would be a second cousin, calm and dressed in black. Other newcomers are Lynn Steger Strong’s “Want, “With a protagonist who faltered after being rejected by science; Sheila Hetis “maternity, “In which the narrator, like Dorothy, is deeply passive and genuinely ambivalent about reproduction; and Jenny Offills “Weather, ”Told by a university librarian who nests in esoteric knowledge and cannot stop thinking about climate change. In these novels, women yearn for the clarity of the crisis but will do almost anything to avoid it. Suppressed anger and social frustration are usually within reach. Dorothy experiences severe irritation on occasion, usually caused by uselessness or excess. She fears these qualities, which she has cultivated in her chosen field. She once goes to Las Vegas to give a lecture at an academic conference. “What does this intake mean? Thus began a long passage, ”writes Smallwood,“ a passage that ultimately resolved the meaning of nothing but was indicated by certain very long excursions into the Eucharist, baking, nineteenth-century digestive discourses and the cholera epidemic to imply that the forever deferred and desirable meaning was profound. “On the plane, she looks at a book by the literary theorist Franco Moretti and imagines that it curses her severely for the excess of her work. The “21st century problem is a waste problem,” the book grumbles. “Don’t you know anything, you humanist joke, you walking fat mountain of consumer debt?” The flight attendant interrupts him and offers peanuts.

“The Life of the Spirit” captures Dorothy over a period of about a month and a half, about as long as her mysterious miscarriage takes to complete something. It is tempting to view the miscarriage as the novel’s central, reverberant metaphor – for Dorothy’s lost potential or her inability to identify what that potential was in the first place. “It must be that other people were more confident in their power to explain when and if a life was human,” she thinks. “If you wanted it, it was a baby and you could email it to your friends. If you haven’t, then it was an act of violence to be asked to see. “But in this novel, miscarriage is just one point among many similar ones: crises that move so slowly that you don’t know how to react to them, experiences that feel like life and death at the same time, various proofs of invincibility and failure . At a party at Gaby’s million dollar apartment, guests start playing karaoke, and Dorothy ponders how even this once reliably ecstatic ritual can now get them into funk. She feels “the fragility of her declining youth and the sweet pain of the joys she had known or missed”. She also feels “another funk” of loneliness and sadness:

And sometimes these two funk melted into an overwhelming pain of life and death in which Dorothy saw the smallness of their interaction with the great, incomprehensible whole of everything else. Great passions were expressed and mourned. She would come home wound up like a clock, pulsating with all the sung and unsung songs, running with fear and regret, being overwhelmed and disappointed, wanting more and wanting a lot less.

The part of me that doesn’t like all of my stupid ideas wants Dorothy to turn off her brain for 30 seconds, say “Go Your Own Way,” and achieve fleeting animal pleasure. But then this paragraph, like the rest of Smallwood’s casually tormented and abundantly satisfying novel, offers just the kind of thrill that can only be found through obsessive thinking. Why live in the moment when you can dissect it like that?

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