The Consolations

To have  a love affair in a new place is like being handed a guidebook to it, but to not have a love affair in a new place is to sit in lonely rooms dreaming of the previous love affairs in previous rooms, the rooms and lovers one doesn't have anymore for how they don't work out or how you won't let yourself.  The former continent haunts the present one. There is an eternal night quality to the days: the ghosts do not arrive as expected at midnight but now show up, jetlagged, at noon. To not have a love affair in a new place is not only to think of past loves but also to think of all the past's rooms, lonely or otherwise, and wake up with a glitch in one's  geolocation. Only a cat, when alone, can know where she is.

Unhappy love, said Kierkegaard, is "love's collision with the horror of circumstances."  If circumstances had a collective noun -- like "a rookery of albatross" or "a whisp of snipes" -- it would be "a horror." A horror of circumstances. This is not intended to be an insult to circumstances, but it probably is. Circumstances are the stage on which agency performs, thinking itself the show. Mostly I've lived according to circumstances, but lately my life has been upgraded in agency.  In other words, I chose this solitude. Then I chose to call it lonely.  

It is probably not lack of love but lack of books. I didn't even bring the ones I've written. Now I recall the appearance of certain pages I can't read in the same way I long for a face, wanting only particular editions. I luck into some books as I move through the days: The Consolations of Philosophy at a library sale, Benjamin's Origins of German Tragic Drama  at a charity shop. Each cost a pound.

In Consolations, Boethius wrote a book for our times, which is probably why no one reads it. Boethius has experienced a sudden reversal.  He's in prison, now, when once he had power, and because of this he has turned to poetry. Philosophy does not like this. The muses of poetry, she says, "do not expel the disease from men's minds, but merely inure them to its presence."  Called out, the muses, shame-faced, leave the cell. Fortune does not abandon us, Boethius learns, but instead, what has been abandoned is not "good fortune" but our knowledge of the true nature of fortune. Her wheel, definitively, turns, and it is a mistake to believe we were ever born for anything but being crushed by it.

So empires fall.  The earth warms. Species grow extinct. The storms come. The body fails. Capitalism tightens its bullshit screws. You get used to your whole life lived one way -- unlucky, poor, unrecognized, free -- then find yourself a FELLOW locked behind medieval walls.  Or I do. Or all those men whose names are on lists write outraged self-defenses in the pages of magazines seem to be ones that never learned the lessons of unhappiness long enough to distrust happiness, too. I, on the other hand, will never forget to distrust happiness, having been a student of misery's long and thorough instruction. That’s a common education.

Philosophy eventually gets very confused in Boethius, trying to cram herself into Christianity, introduces fate and providence into a world ruled by fortune and drifts into a soft, unconvincing neoplatonism.  She tried. The muses may have left the prison cell, but Consolations never gives up poetry. The book's secret is in its form.  

Form is, of course, where all books keep their secrets.  The “Epistemo-Critical Prologue” of the Benjamin book is practically like Boethius in that while making an argument for philosophy (of a type), in form it makes an argument against it, mooring and unmooring, drifting in and out of clouds of fog, offering up a vivid thing and then swaddling it in obfuscation for protection.  "The continual pausing for breath," he writes, "is the mode most proper to the process of contemplation."

If you are going to have only a few books, it is better to have unstable ones, and better, still, if they are unaware of their instability, but it probably the best not to ever mistake books for love in the first place. I've been obsessed with this thing Wordsworth wrote about Cambridge in the Preludes:

When, in forlorn and naked chamber cooped

and crowded, o'er the ponderous books they hung

like caterpillars eating out their way

in silence

And it doesn't matter. Once in a while you can actually hear the cows from here, and sometimes that weird, ugly sound that swans make. I'm supposed to be writing books, not collecting them.