Holden Battles the Summer Doldrums: Post 12 - My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Being and Nothingness, Part Two
At several points in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh’s narrator shoots biting remarks at a subgenre of person: Wall Street frat boys, sorority girls, New York artists, her friend, herself, and so on. One remark in particular bit me: “scholarly, charming, intellectual brats” who read Nietzsche, Proust, and David Foster Wallace, and carry a black Moleskine notebook around to record their brilliant thoughts. I carry one of those notebooks around to make to-do lists and outline these posts, so I thought, “Ouch! But not far off the mark.” Then I thought, “Wait… You live in a place where people read in public, and no less, they read Nietzsche and Proust (I don’t care about David Foster Wallace)?” I also don’t think I’m a brat.
Look, I get it. There are plenty people who read The Genealogy of Morals, get the gist kind-of, and then set out to actualize themselves, or whatever they think Nietzsche is telling them (and yes, them personally!) to do. Those people bug me too. I try to be open-minded and receptive to other people’s readings and viewpoints, but at what point do I get enough degrees to convince the dude who ‘understands’ Nietzsche via some Internet personality that reading the primary text will show one how insignificant the Übermensch is in our mustachioed philosopher friend’s corpus? So, I understand our narrator’s caustic claim. Those dudes suck. Yet, at least she lives in a place where reading philosophy in public is a regular occurrence, let alone reading in public at all.
Our narrator is privileged in many regards, and aware of it too, but this doesn’t diminish her disdain or her suffering. She’s set out to sleep for an entire year, enabled through a crackpot psychiatrist she found in The Yellow Pages who enthusiastically prescribes large doses of several different types of sleeping aids. She herself cannot pinpoint one event that led to her year of rest and relaxation, and she doesn’t spend much time thinking about what led her to this decision. The story details how she tries to sleep, what she does to fall asleep, what interrupts her sleep, and events in the past that may or may not have led her to her sofa, high on trazodone and enjoying a Whoopi Goldberg film. This is a funny book.
And it meshed quite well with Part Two of Being and Nothingness. The last two weeks of pairings did not click together so well, but Sartre’s inquiry into what type of beings humans are enriched my experience with Moshfegh’s narrator.
Before I dive into that, let me gather the bits and pieces that catalyzed this enrichment. Part Two is titled “Being-For-Itself.” As a person conducts themselves in any regard, they are a being-for-itself. If you read last week’s post, you’ll recall that a being-in-itself is sheer plenitude; it is an object whose essential character one cannot know. This keyboard is a being-in-itself because I can understand it only in relation to myself, i.e. as a writing tool, as a surface that I felt needed cleaning a few minutes ago, and so on. I will never wriggle myself inside the keyboard’s essential being and understand everything about it, including how many molecules it is made up of, where it’s been, every hand that has touched it, and so on This keyboard just is; it is a being-in-itself. In contrast, I am a being-for-itself. I have the ability to discern that some things are not, but could be. I am especially aware of what is lacking in me and can act to abolish this lack. For example, I wish to be a professor, but I am not a professor right now. I lack “professor-being,” but can act to abolish this lack, to realize what was lacking and alter my being.
Sartre calls this process “transcendence.” Far from its usage regularly, transcendence here does not mean moving higher or achieving and altered state of mind, allowing you to peek into the essential character of existence. No, transcendence is mundane; I transcend what I lack to realize that very thing at some later moment. A being-for-itself is for itself because it prolongs its existence for no other reason than it can and desires to. A being-for-itself can understand the world only in relation to itself. It’s purpose is only for itself. Whether that’s subsistence or luxurious yachting, the being-for-itself grants purpose to its own activities and does them only because they have to continue living or they value an activity. At least, this is how I understand the term.
A being-for-itself understands itself and the world through lack. An example 'in the self': as above, I lack “professor” and act to fill this gap. An example 'in the world': the crescent moon is not incomplete in-itself; it’s just spinning in space. Yet it is incomplete to our human eyes because it lacks the complete disc of the full moon, thus we delineate between crescent, quarter, half, and full states of the moon.
This way of thinking relies on a triad of beings for Sartre: First, the “lacking.” Second, the “existent” who witness that something is missing and designates something as lacking. Third and finally, the “lacked,” that thing which the existent hopes will complete the lacking, a synthesis wherein the meaning of something’s existence becomes crystal clear. Of course, Sartre does not stop here. No, no! Nothing is never complete. The moment I synthesize one lacked with the lacking, another lacking will appear. This constant desire of the for-itself can be consuming, daunting, and seemingly insurmountable. It may even make life seem absurd. Or, it illuminates what makes life worth living. Value springs from my actions, my look, my interaction with the world. The perhaps joyful fallout of Sartre’s ontology is that only I can grant my life purpose and meaning. I do not need a life coach, money, or an adoring partner to complete me; I need only realize that I will never be complete and that I will always be running towards an ever-receding horizon. Whether this is absurd, sad, or joyful is up to you, yet notice what you do to determine this value. Do you squirm, scream, or passively look into space when you hear that life has no ultimate meaning other than what you grant it?
Now as I said, asking myself what it was that Moshfegh’s narrator saw lacking in the world, in other people, and in herself enriched My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The dust jacket summary carefully dodges the word “depression,” opting for “alienation” and existential ennui,” which are after all more descriptive of the narrator’s situation. There is not one cause for her state of mind; she is not simply depressed. But no one is “simply depressed”! Maladies of the intangible kind cannot be explained away by chemical imbalances alone. No, there is something missing and the trouble may be that Moshfegh’s narrator does not know what it is. To formulate her situation in Sartre’s terminology: As an existent, the narrator is barred from witnessing what is lacking and what or whom the lacked is. In a brilliant, quixotic way, Moshfegh illustrates what the struggle to overcome this situation can look like.
I wonder if this post will strike some as scholarly, charming, intellectual, and/or bratty?
Being and Nothingness rivets me. I look forward to Part Three. My Year of Rest and Relaxation swept me up and I enjoyed every part of it. I highly recommend both of these books.
This week I’m reading Being and Nothingness, Part Three and Nicotine by Nell Zink.
I have decided that the final account of my battle with the summer doldrums will be August 29th. If I meet my goal in subsequent weeks, I will have read 24 books this summer. Not too shabby!
Anyways, until next week, happy reading!