Embracing the Ordinary: Lessons From the Champions of Everyday Life, by Michael Foley. Simon & Schuster, 327 pp, £12.99, ISBN 978-1849839129
We fool ourselves into believing that we live in some well-ordered, rational, meaningful world. We cannot accept the chaotic arbitrariness of our lives. This huge existential fear prevents us from living in the moment. We spend much of our lives remembering the past and anticipating the future. Instead of seeing ourselves as a dot in a linear line of history, we would be more content and less troubled if we expanded the present and lived in the moment.
The more we are conscious of being bodies in time and space, sophisticated blobs of protoplasm that are part of a wider evolving process, the more we can appreciate the beauty of the ordinary moments of our lives. What makes human beings different from other animals is that we are conscious and self-aware. This consciousness has been central to the way we evolve. It has enabled us to critically reflect about the past and anticipate, project and plan for the future. The problem, however, is that while all this reflection and anticipation brings order and control, it leads to dull, boring, monotonous lives. For example, if, as Foley, suggests you are on the way to work next Monday morning feeling like creamed shit, it may be that you are not taking enough time and pleasure in shitting. Indeed if reflection and anticipation are central to being human, it may well be that increased consciousness of ourselves as sensate bodies is related to the way we crap.
There are means and ends to a good crap. For me it begins the night before with a small feed of Guinness. The next morning, after a banana, I mount my bike and head into the Wicklow mountains. Anticipating the future means remembering to stuff a good wad of toilet paper in the back pocket of my cycling shirt. Wicklow is full of wonderful places to crap. It is usually after a coffee in Laragh that I begin to get the first sensations. The task now is to hold on and savour the imminent delivery until I am over the Wicklow Gap. The Gap itself is hopeless. It is far too exposed, too much wind, too many people. It is on the descent that the opportunities begin to emerge. The perfect spot is a small wooded glade with a small tree to lean against. The trick is to select a terrain with a slight incline so that when you crap, it rolls away from you.
The delivery of a good crap, on time, that has definite form but is smooth and creamy is probably the most inventive and creative thing that men do with their bodies. It should be part of the beauty of every day. For me, a well-planned crap comes in three quick movements; the soft mound of turd rises behind me like a little pyramid. Sometimes the form is so good and the dark chocolate colour so sharp against the green grass that I am tempted to photograph it, to save it for posterity.
Michael Foley gets around to the beauty and significance of crapping towards the end of his book. He points out that it was Joyce’s celebrations of bodily functions in Ulysses that provoked most criticism. “Intellectuals could take the sex but not the shite.” He describes the scene in Ulysses in which Bloom has a crap with Titbits in hand. He argues that Bloom had mastered the art of holding back and reading “giving a new meaning to the phrase ‘slow motion’”. He maintains: “Only when the mind is undistracted will new ideas enter the top of the body as its waste products leave from the bottom.” Joyce, he claims, comes in the middle of a long line of Irish writers who have an interest in crap. He notes that the literary history of Irish crap has yet to be written, but when it is, the title might be: Forty Shades of Brown: Excrement in Irish Literature from Swift to Roddy Doyle.
Far from being a load of crap, Embracing the Ordinary is a very funny, highly informative, insightful and challenging train ride through modern Western literature and film. Foley writes with clarity and makes the reader want to read the original author. This is particularly the case with Joyce and Proust.
His concern for shite and the beauties and pleasures of ordinary everyday life, emerged from an epiphany he had thirty years ago. He was serving on a jury, and when he came out of the court, he suddenly saw life differently.
The court building was off a shabby little high street, torpid and dim on an overcast day in October. But suddenly the street was illuminated, transfigured, a portal to infinite being. Everything became sublime – especially the little caff with its gauchely handwritten menu full of spelling errors, advertising “egg’s, sausage’s and tomato’s”. Those misplaced apostrophes tore at my heartstrings like orphan children, blessed like the first timid snowdrops of February, sparkled like a dusting of precious stones. I wanted to rush in and embrace the illiterate proprietor. To die of a heart attack from one of his fry-ups would surely be the ideal way to go to Heaven.
Almost as wonderful was a cramped, overcrowded newsagent with, outside, an ancient shackled bubblegum dispenser and a heavy rusting grill over the window, and inside a counter lined with trays of lurid, carcinogenic four-a-penny sweets and shelves packed with magazines bearing photographs of young women with astoundingly hypertrophied breasts.
This book is a sequel to his best-selling The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard to Be Happy (2010) which followed the same formula of a very witty, well-written, trawl through modern literature, philosophy, religion and science.
Foley eulogises about bodily pleasures: peeing in the bath, clipping nails (filing is a waste of time), nose picking and so forth. For him, the body is a source of many countless small pleasures – farting, fucking, masturbating, scratching – that have always been always part of human being but, in the highly rational, ordered and disciplined world in which we live (what he refers to as left hand side of brain domination), have been banished to the personal, private sector. It is time to take them out of the closet and recognise, accept and celebrate them.
Caught between puritanical polite society, crass consumer capitalism and the dismal despair of postmodernist relativity, the solution for Foley is to subvert the deeply ingrained habits and routines of our existence, to continually think and act outside the box, to recognise our restraining habits and to subvert them. Following de Certeau, one of the French architects of the theory of everyday life, he refers to these subversive practices as ruses. His approach is not just to expect the unexpected but to do unexpected things. In this respect, he can be seen as a form of cultural anarchist. His heroes, the ones from whom he gets most inspiration, are Joyce and Proust. But Henri Bergson, Alice Munro, Annie Ernaux, John McGahern, Flann O’Brien, Mike Leigh, Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace also get regular references.
Foley’s message is that the more we immerse ourselves in the world, the more we risk being contaminated. Whatever the authentic self is, and however it might be able to reveal itself to itself, there seems to be no doubt in Foley’s mind that we have fallen into inauthentic fields of being. In some respects, he is advocating a form of inner-worldly mysticism, of being in the world but not of it. We live in the world but continually try to transcend it by devising ruses to prevent ourselves getting caught in ruts.
There is much to be gained in embracing the ordinary. We are beset with ways of thinking and being that are not of own choosing, that limit and control the way we express ourselves, and prevent us from living fulfilled lives. Foley is particularly antagonistic towards the rationalised lifeworld of organisational bureaucracy. This develops anodyne, perfunctory forms of communication that strangle the possibility of enchantment and emancipation. There is much to be said, he argues, for cultural anarchism and undermining and breaking down those stultifying environments dominated by rigid rules and unquestioned orthodoxies. The more you read regularly, particularly the champions of everyday life, the more you will be able to identify and engage in ruses and, eventually, have the epiphanies which will reveal the meaning of life. This seems to echo traditional Catholic practices: if you kneel and pray in front of a statue long enough it will move, speak and reveal the meaning of life.
With the slow death of God and religion in the West, the beauty and pleasure of everyday life may be the only thing people can hold onto. With the exception of Bergson, Foley has equally little faith in philosophy or what the postmodernists labelled “grand narratives”. The only way out of the revolving wheel of postmodern relativity is to try to develop a direct experience of the world that, as much as possible, is unfiltered through language. Joyce, Proust and the other champions of the everyday can, then, be seen as exemplary prophets who can help us develop what Foucault called an art of existence. Foley’s argument appears to be that instead of trying to find or devise some ethical system that will enable us to live a good life, we would be better off embracing the contrariness and arbitrariness of life. In other words, we should be grateful that all that was once solid about modern life has melted into air.
One of the central tasks in embracing the ordinary for Foley is not to take oneself too seriously. Instead of seeing oneself as at the centre of the universe, it is better to see oneself as part of an ever-evolving process. Following Bergson, he argues that consciousness is better seen as an emergent phenomenon: “the self emerges from consciousness to provide the necessary illusion of order and control … The self is a master of self-deception and its greatest ruse is convincing itself it exists.” And yet, he argues that there is authentic experience and an authentic self. What happens in rational organisational life is that this gets colonised by the social self, by the way we portray ourselves to others: “This shallow, conventional persona eventually kills off the deeper, passionate self.” The problem, however, is how any authentic self can be developed without language and other people.
Neither Joyce nor Proust, nor consequently Foley, seem to have recognised that individualisation, and the notion that leading a full life is dependent on self-expression and self-realisation, may be the greatest myth of modernity. It is the ruse that consumer capitalist society plays on us. It has dragged us into a belief that the individual is at the centre not just of society but of the universe. It prevents us from embracing each other and forming a collective consciousness. It prevents us from identifying with other species.
The difficulty with using Joyce and Proust as champions of the everyday is that both of them lived, as Foley admits, extraordinary if not weird lives. Both were eccentrics caught up in their own worlds and their own self-importance – the last chapter contains a hilarious, imagined conversation between the two (they did apparently met once in Paris. But the real event was a disaster.) As Foley suggests, these were two huge ego trains who passed each other that night. In this sense, they were both also champions of individualisation.
It may be that engaging in ruses is, like cynicism, the last resort of the inadequate. The idea that Jesus walked on water or turned it into wine may have been a ruse to get people to break free from Judaism, but the difference between him and Foley’s champions is that Jesus left us with parables and examples of how we should live our lives. Beyond some ruses, it would be difficult to decipher the path to living an ethical, fulfilling life from the writings of Joyce, Proust and the other champions.
If the challenge is to go beyond post-modernism and to see through individualisation, then it is not just a question of being a cultural anarchist, it is not just a question of ruses to enable us to think and act outside of orthodoxies, it is also about trying to tell the truth. The task is not just to subvert meaning but to create it and develop ethical ways of being that enable us to combine pleasures with responsibilities to other human beings, other species and the environment.
In some respects, there is a sense that those who engage in ruses, who transcend the ordinariness of everyday life, are morally superior. They are able to see through life. “The shameful revelation is that in the course of an average day, we see hardly anything, hear hardly anything and understand almost nothing at all.” Foley seems to see any attempt to create and sustain meaning through conversation as meaningless: “most conversation is not communication but meaningless noise, an aural comfort blanket intended to reassure, console and soothe.” However, he adds that “the very meaninglessness of this noise should be a source of delight”. In this case, the best conversations are melodies or operas in which the form is more important than the content. It becomes part of banter and repartee, all light-hearted and good fun, all the words being poured forth to create a sense of bonding and belonging.
It is here that Foley’s cloud of disbelief runs aground. He misses out on the greatest beauty and pleasure of everyday life: loving and being loved. In his reading of Proust and Joyce, in particular, he concentrates too much on desire, passion and sex. He conflates love with passionate, romantic love. Instead of getting caught up in Joyce’s seaside girls and Swann’s obsession for Odette, he would have been better to focus on the episode in Ulysses in which Bloom prepares breakfast for Molly. In conflating love with sex he overlooks the type of companionate, agapic love that forms the basis of settled relations between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, intimate friends and others. He even seems to be contemptuous of such love, arguing that “most everyday love is petty, manipulative and devious”.
This is not to say that Foley does not have a sense of the need to see and understand oneself by attempting to know and understand through a knowledge and compassion for the other, the stranger. His chapter on the office – in which he captures how easily its inhabitants are sucked into habitual and symbolically dominating ways of organisational being – begins with a beautiful description of a bag lady walking around an office block.
Once round the building, she takes from the bag a lighter and a pack of cigarettes and, hunching in furtive guilt, lights up and hungrily, desperately, inhales. Then she resumes hugging herself against the chill and perhaps also against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. For she is obviously of no importance in the corporate hierarchy – possibly something inglorious in procurement or the mailroom, one of the rarely seen inhabitants of the dimly lit and shabby subterranean levels now known by the curious new word “undercroft”. Yet there is no resentment in her features, only a melancholy that moves me to love her. I never imagined I would want to smoke but now I have an overwhelming desire to buy twenty Silk Cut and join her.
But he doesn’t. Embracing the ordinary, in effect, is being the bourgeois flâneur who sees, reads and appreciates life from the outside but does not become involved perhaps out of fear of contamination. All that is precious about his life is revealed through non-participant observation. It could evaporate by physically embracing it. It was the same with his earlier epiphany when he wanted to embrace the illiterate proprietor of the little caff. It is as if any embracing of the other, particularly downtrodden outsiders, could destroy the epiphany. It is a very different story from that of the good Samaritan.
There is also a problem with how high culture relates to the popular culture in which most people live their everyday lives. Bloom may have read Titbits when he was having a crap, but I doubt if Foley does. Despite the claims that he makes about the accessibility of Ulysses and À la recherche du temps perdu, they are, for most people, but particularly those who live within and are inspired by popular culture, completely impenetrable. The champions of everyday life, as identified by Foley, seem to have very little to say about the lifestyle tastes or preferences of most people. There is little or nothing said about the pleasures of shopping, sport, the media, holidaying, travelling and so forth. This relates to another question which Foley does not address. How is meaning created and maintained? In many respects, he is right. It is in the ordinary but for many people the ordinary is the world of popular culture. It is through talking to others about what they have witnessed through the media, the market and the internet that people create and sustain meaning.
Foley’s call for continual subversion fails to recognise how habitual or ritual behaviour has its place in creating meaning. In an age of risk and uncertainty in which all the solid institutions of the past have melted into air, in unsettled times of tragedy and loss, rituals and habits have their place. They can provide a sense of bonding and belonging. When the world has been turned upside down, when all that was taken for granted has been shredded, there is a lot to be said for the ordinary beauty of sitting around a table with loved ones having a cup of tea.
And while he may be right about the inadequacy of meditation and escapism in achieving self-transcendence, he seems to overlook many of other ways of embracing the ordinary. While he picks up on flâneuring, he neglects the art of sitting, looking and listening. There is much to be said for sitting on public benches, in deck-chairs in parks and at the seaside, in pubs, cafes and hotel lobbies. There is much also to be said for walking and cycling in the country. It seems to me that we forget to embrace the ordinary beauty of nature. Much of the time when I am cycling in the country my mind seems to be blank. I may review and anticipate the road behind and in front of me. I may anticipate what I am going to eat and drink when I get home, but I am engaged in an emergent process of travelling through nature, time and space. But it would seem that Foley sees little in nature that is his.
This raises another important issue. I have suggested that Foley does not deal with the connection between aesthetics and ethics. He also overlooks the connection between aesthetics and the search for meaning and truth. As well as capturing its beauty, there is also an imperative to tell the truth about the world in which we live. We could even go beyond this and follow Marx’s dictum that the task is not just to understand the conditions of our existence, but to change them.
His final chapter – “The Centre for the Appreciation of Everyday Life” – seems to edge towards political engagement. However, it turns out to be Foley’s final ruse. Instead of being serious, he envisages the centre being made up of a shop that sells coffee mugs and fridge magnets with maxims such as “nothing is less known than what seems familiar”; “the ordinary is always the exceptional in disguise”; “the same is never the same”. Foley’s last advice is to take nothing too seriously, neither himself nor his book.
There is much that is funny and frivolous in Foley’s message. He wants us to laugh at life and to see the stupidity of our habits, the pomposity of our being. Perhaps we do take ourselves too seriously, but the problem is not laughing at life, it is laughing at death and grief. If life is funny, then death has to be the biggest joke of all. And yet, there are probably very few who can laugh their way to death. There are very few who laugh at those who are dying. And there are very few who laugh at the loss of a loved one. And yet, if we are to know and understand life, we have to embrace death. Death has always been the mirror through which human beings have known and understood themselves.
It is doubtful, however, that Foley ever believed that he was trying to write a guide to how we should live our lives. For me, his book is more an innovative guide to modern literature and film. It could be seen as a light-hearted manifesto that warns us how easy it is to get caught up in the illusions of life, to make mountains out of molehills and to lose sight of the meaning and pleasures of life. The only problem is that thinking outside the box of consumer capitalism and taking pleasure in the everyday is quite serious stuff, not just in terms of saving ourselves but the planet.