Auster 1997

Cover of
Cover of Hand to Mouth

Tough news to-day: Home Depot is slashing 6000 jobs; Sprint Nextel is cutting 8000 jobs.  There are so many job cuts that it is hard to even remember which ones are imagined and which accurate.  I could just guess a company’s name and probably be accurate: Over the weekend a sous chef for a fairly popular Minneapolis Mexican restaurant was even downsized.  So I doubt it is any comfort to provide the following quotation from Paul Auster.

I recently began to read Hand to Mouth (the good friend knows that ‘reading’ ought to be read as ‘procrastinating’), which is about his lean times as an aspiring writer.  Unlike most famous writers who moonlight with other careers, Auster chose to be a full-bore writer.  This book chronicles those times as he plied his craft trying to become as acclaimed as his ego felt he deserved.  In these lean times, and soon to be lean times, the book hopefully serves as a tome about optimism.

My parents valued money, and where had it gotten them?  They had struggled so hard for it, had invested so much belief in it, and yet for every problem it had solved, another one had taken its place.  American capitalism had created one of the most prosperous moments in human history.  It had produced untold numbers of cars, frozen vegetables, and miracle shampoos, and yet Eisenhower was President, and the entire country had been turned into a gigantic television commercial, and incessant harangue to buy more, make more, spend more, to dance around the dollar-tree until you dropped dead from the sheer frenzy of trying to keep up with everyone else.  (p. 11)

This passage strikes me in a couple of ways:  First, despite my attempt to paint a happy impression of the book, I am saddened.  This description sounds like the current times.  Auster is depicting the struggles of a family with capitalism, but these days this very struggle seems to be universalized, or at least widened in scope beyond the perpetually-poor.

Second, I have to ask, why do people do this?  Sure there is analysis of false consciousness and internal colonialism, but there is something else amiss.  I am prone to believe that people are aware of their plights and how they suffer vis a vis others.  And yet they continue.  These past few months have shed some light on the topic for me: I am bored.  My job requires little of me, definitely nothing close to what I can do.  There are plenty of other things for me to do, ways to make demands of my time.  And yet I do not engage many of those opportunities.  Why?

My best guess is because there is no risk on those things.  If I undertake another volunteer mission and I am no good at it then nothing is lost.  If I fail to show up for a day then nothing is lost by it.  I am beginning to believe this is why so many of us choose to dance around the dollar-tree, because there is risk in it.  There is a risk to not being able to pay the rent, or to paying the electricity bill.  It’s not that we are all gamblers, living for the thrill of the game.  Rather risk denotes importance, gravitas.  Nothing is so humbling as to know that your absence from the volunteer position is unnoticed.  So I find it sometimes better to bumble around the city in the cold of winter, watching and observing.  Reading books is another way of deferring self-improvement.  Even if it is a book for which I can craft a convincing argument for its educational value.

Two other books are brought to mind: Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Fromm’s Escape from Freedom.  I have yet to see the Mendes adaptation of Revolutionary Road to the big screen and I feel as though I have been living Fromm’s masterwork.  And no sooner do I finish typing this drivel of self-deprecation disguised as erudite reflection do I hear a woman at the bar tell her colleague “…when my mother died.”  Over and out.

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