Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Walking the tight rope

Some days I just hate other people. Their obtuseness, their self-righteousness, their insistence of taking everything personally, their refusal to discuss things in abstract, logical terms, their complete inability to LISTEN. And I don't just mean random people on the blogosphere. I mean friends and family. There are days, like today, when it seems to me that the only purpose other people serve in my life is to muddy the clarity of my days with trivialities, with sentimentality, with all this flotsam of emotion. How much sweeter the solitary life seems on these occasions. To be able to read, or write poetry, or listen to music without being drawn into the inconsequential mess that other people make of their lives, their piffling preoccupation with jobs and money and clothes and houses and children and relationships and food. As if all of that mattered. As if anything mattered at all - except maybe that feeling of absolute peace, that sense of having briefly glimpsed an untroubled perfection - that one can only find in art and intellect, and only alone. Wordsworth called it "the bliss of solitude". How right he was.

It's on days like these that the idea of renunciation, the notion of sanyas, the vision of Thoreau's exquisite Walden begins to seem incredibly appealing. Because the point of Walden, to me, is not about the questionable economics or the bucolic nature worship - it's the breaking free, the leaving of the quotidian behind. All through my teens I was the most anti-social person imaginable - I had barely 2-3 friends, I never went to parties or interacted with people my own age outside of school, I spent the bulk of my life locked away in my room reading or listening to music. Over the years I've become more social (though most people would still consider me fairly withdrawn), and have generally come to see that there might actually be something to this interaction thing, but on days like today I bitterly regret having ever abandoned my cocoon and wish that I could go back to it. "I was serenely independent and content before we met / Surely I could always be that way again" Higgins sings in My Fair Lady. There are times when I am dismayed by my own desire for human contact, by my inability to be the closed off person I used to be. [1]

But isn't that closer to the truth, though? Isn't it true that what I hate about these interactions with other people is the way they hold up a mirror to the things about myself that I find most unattractive? That they serve to remind me that I, for all my talk about the purity of the intellect and the search for the absolute through art am just as petty, just as self-aggrandising, just as spiritually weak as everyone else? That I'm just as prone to be in denial, just as susceptible to cognitive dissonance and the attribution error? Is it not the recognition that I too can be this dense, this stubborn, this ridiculous that frightens me, makes me turn away from other people? And isn't this fear itself, a kind of defensiveness - isn't what's really scaring me the idea that sometimes, just sometimes, they may be right?

What truly annoys me about my interaction with others is the way my own emotions betray me, the way I find myself becoming defensive or angry or envious inspite of all my principles, all my resolve, all my best intent. It isn't just that other people distract me, it's that I, knowing full well that they are nothing but a distraction, still let them get to me, let them distract and diffuse me, crave these contacts that make me less than I believe I could be. Is this what Kundera meant by the unbearable lightness of being? "Obstinate are the trammels, but my heart aches when I try to break them" goes my favourite part of Tagore's Geetanjali. Exactly.

At the very beginning of Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche tells the story of a rope dancer who is making his way across the high wire when a buffoon comes up behind him, and jumps over him with a loud yell, sending him plunging to his death. In my quest to be more than I am, to advance even one tottering step closer to the Superman, other people are the buffoons who send me plumetting off the thin wire of my own certainty. There are times when I hate them for this, times I complain bitterly about having to put up with them. But deep inside I know that the person I'm really disappointed with is myself - for letting them make me lose my balance, for letting them make me fall. The day I manage to ignore other people the way I want to, the day I manage to experience them as irrelevant instead of just thinking of them that way, will be a truly great day for me.

[1] Somebody asked me in the comments to yesterday's post what I have against marriage. Does this answer your question? If talking to people for a few hours, even people I genuinely like, can make me this unhappy, can you imagine what having to live with someone else will do?

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Anonymous said...

There are times when you put in words a lot of things I have felt, but haven't articulated, rather haven't tried to articulate. And this post is the perfect example. Although I can't claim to have felt the same level of intensity, I do relate to all that you've written about here.

To me, the worst is when others win in convincing you -- only momentarily though -- that you are no worse, and that you better stop trying to become "Superman", and it takes so much to shrug it all off, and start walking the tight rope again.

Wonderful post. Especially the part where you say, "But isn't that closer to the truth, though? Isn't it true that what I hate about these interactions with other people is the way they hold up a mirror to the things about myself that I find most unattractive?" -- couldn't agree more.

Thanks for writing this. "Enjoyed" it.


neha vish said...

This post found a lot of resonance on this side.

The evoking of some authors bring a certain mood with them. Kundera - I think has a sense of amusement, a languid one if you will as he look at the world. His characters are achingly real - because their solitude is.

This need for solitude, and to be able to shut out others - is almost physical on some days. Almost a violent need I think.

Or something like that.. :)

ozymandiaz said...

Or perhaps you are jealous of the buffoon (as people are often jealous of me)? You will never reach you goal of the Superman by ignoring the trellis of idiots that line your path. You must be aware without judgment.

Heh Heh said...

"What truly annoys me about my interaction with others is the way my own emotions betray me, the way I find myself becoming defensive or angry or envious inspite of all my principles, all my resolve, all my best intent."

Feel like this a lot. not qualified to make judgments about intensity, but there. My annoyance, which, as you know, is an emotion that I am quite acquainted with, is usually at myself for having let another person disturb my peace (peace might be the wrong word to use in this context.. more like a party that goes on in my head)

Crp said...

Well there's another way of dealing with life's little humiliations. Since we are on Nietzsche let me quote from "The Bite of the Adder":

One day had Zarathustra fallen asleep under a fig-tree, owing to the heat, with his arms over his face. And there came an adder and bit him in the neck, so that Zarathustra screamed with pain. When he had taken his arm from his face he looked at the serpent; and then did it recognise the eyes of Zarathustra, wriggled awkwardly, and tried to get away. "Not at all," said Zarathustra, "as yet hast thou not received my thanks!"

In other words, you must thank the buffoons for giving you the opportunity to rise above them.

Neela said...

actually Falstaff, marriage is wonderful for the solitude-seeker. You don't have to make conversation at ALL - so liberating! and you can avoid every other annoying social contact and people think that you two are spending quality time together, so sweet!

oh and this is in addition to all those trifling benefits I've spoken of earlier: hot food, coffee each morning, vaccuming and cleaning and subsidizing student lifestyles...


Falstaff said...

RS: Thanks.

Neha: Thanks. I've always thought of Kundera as more ironic, than amusing - someone who's interested in the way life is so often contradictory. I think there's a point in good writing where if you show a human being in sufficient detail you're able to bring out what's ridiculous about him or her in a way that makes it amusing. Chekhov, Gogol, Marquez, Calvino - all of them do this.

Oz: Ah, but that's exactly what this nebulous peace, this not letting them get to you is about. To get to the Superman you have to be able to shrug your shoulders at these idiots and keep going - not get caught up in judging them and being annoyed because your judgements don't seem to deter them.

heh heh: yes, I thought you'd understand.

crp: Nice. But same response as Oz's point - it would be great if I could do that, it's the fact that I let them get to me that makes me mad. And that only means that they're getting to me more. Which makes me madder. It's a vicious cycle.

Neela: Ya, ya, rub it in, why don't you? Who are you trying to fool with this - Oh, look at me, I'm so independent, I never talk to my husband act. Like I don't know that you're one sati savitri devoted wife who spends some four hours commuting every single day just so you can be closer to hubby dearest! :-).

Neela said...

touche. but i never spoke about independence. only about the need to make conversation with one's spouse.

for whatever its worth, the train thing is marvellous. you can can read in the train and when you get home, you say "i'm sooo exhausted traveling, I don't want to say/hear another word". which is taken at face value...(lack of logical connection notwithstanding)


Anonymous said...

Tell me dude, is it ever possible to be completely honest, even to yourself? Maybe we need those buffons too, show ourselves our true faces, our true selves? No?

I have been antisocial most of my life, locking myself among books and music. I am more social now, perhaps it is born more of need, now I am older than an inherent desire to be social. But yes, there are times when I crave human company, so I will come close to someone and then that ''intense desire'' for soltitude hits and I withdraw myself in the shell. This has resulted in imperfect relationships, as the other person does feel betrayed, having shared her angst and happiness with me, which I wont. Maybe that makes me selfish..

On a sidenote, tell me something. How are you so prolific? Not for once I am implying you dont have a job or anything but to write such a high quality stuff with such regularity-its amazing!

btw, you mite have gone a little easy on Shivaji on the IIM fees post. The poor guy didnot understand what hit him!

Keep rocking!

Crp said...

Of course, Nietzsche's theory like all good theories is completely useless in real life. The real point about that theory is to keep you from thinking about real life :)

Veena said...

You do realise that there is a huge degree of difference between asocial and antisocial right? Surely you mean the former?

And I agree with Neela. Marriage affords you all the 'asocialness' you will ever want.

Crp said...

Confused: I don't know how much time Falstaff spends writing but I think it's second nature to him now, like breathing out and breathing in... (Apologies. Couldn't resist)

MockTurtle said...

Maybe you should lean away from Nietzsche and towards string theory instead.
There are no rope dancers and no buffoons. We're all just interconnected energy waves and your brain simply makes up stories as you go along... kind of like Alice in Wonderland.
Enjoy the ride and quit fretting the details.

Falstaff said...

Neela: Ah, but I can spend all the time that I'm not travelling in trains reading. And when I'm done with that, there's no one to say "I'm tired, I don't want to talk" to.

Confused: Probably. Though theoretically, in a world where one could not interact with other people at all, one wouldn't need to be honest with oneself. One could live in one's own little dream world and not worry about reality at all. That way madness lies.

As for being prolific - it's mostly about lack of sleep. though the fact that my work isn't exactly demanding probably helps.

crp: good point. bad joke. But points given for relevance. :-).

Veena: I don't believe this. You've actually MET me and you still think I'm only asocial, not antisocial. I'm touched.

That doesn't mean, however, that married people like you and Neela are going to sacrifice me on the altar of your own self-justification. I'm reminded of a friend who got suckered into watching Dude, where's my car and then went around telling everyone it was the best movie EVER.

MT: I am trying to enjoy the ride. It's just that sometimes the compartment seems really, really crowded.

Cheshire Cat said...

"There are times when I am dismayed by my own desire for human contact..."

I have wondered a lot about that too. To think I might never be truly anti-social again... It's a terrifying thought. Do you have an explanation for your inability to be closed-off nowadays?

For myself, I can only imagine that the Romantics were right. That life grows less and less authentic, more and more second-hand, as we grow older...

Patient Portnoy said...

I like MT's "quit fretting the details". Easier said...

Falstaff, you Fool, how can you mistrust a buffoon? :-)

Jokes apart, you never know, the buffoon might make you more resolute and focussed, might steady the rope for you, might even reach out when you lose balance

dazedandconfused said...

Thanks falstaff for the affirmation. As a most-of-the-life-misunderstood-introvert (haughty, bore, superior, lazy, stupid) it helps to know that there are probably some people around who wouldn't think one going to the movies or to a nature reserve alone is abnormal.

Neela said... have to be REALLY dazed and confused to get affirmation for your bad behavior from falstaff!!

cheshire cat, the explanation is called motivation. if you want to be antisocial you will. if you are not antisocial, its probably because you dont' want it. although you like to think you do. alas, you are doomed to a life of first hand, authentic mediocre sociability and the sooner you accept it the better. then like all of us (except for badly behaved falstaff of course who weeps into his blog) you will get married, cook dal-chawal and have three children who you will swear bring you the greatest joy you have ever known even while they throw up on you and make you watch dora the explorer. ;)

peace to all


Anonymous said...

I will quote Einstein here:"one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one's own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from the personal life into the world of objective perception and thought."

Though I have had an uncannily similar existence as you describe here, I keep asking myself this question: is it because I cannot bear to face the complexity of real life that I find myself turning to pure thought? Is it because I lack the courage to face truth about myself that I create these ideas of purity of thought and absolute logical consistency?

At the same time, since the world is my representation, is the difference mainly that of beginning with a different representation or what amounts essentially to different set of axioms? That is how I tend to view these things, when the burden becomes too much to bear. People seem to have different inherent assumtions about the world and themselves and as long as they are consistent with them, it should not matter what the axioms are. But it is the lack of internal consistency in people that usually annoys me the most.

Anonymous said...

"What truly annoys me about my interaction with others is the way my own emotions betray me, the way I find myself becoming defensive or angry or envious inspite of all my principles, all my resolve, all my best intent. It isn't just that other people distract me, it's that I, knowing full well that they are nothing but a distraction, still let them get to me, let them distract and diffuse me..."

So true. Though I'm not an introvert at all, I wonder whether more than a few people know the "real" me.

Crp said...

Excuse me neela, but I'm rolling on the floor here at the thought of cheshire cat cooking dal-chawal. I used to share quarters (also dimes and dollar notes) with the cat and our cooking prowess was well known. e.g. Anyone inviting us to a pot-luck party would politely add, "It's okay, you don't have to bring anything."

Also I think people are confusing the issues here - who says that the Superman/Wonderwoman ought to be single, or even a loner ? Such fantasies exist only in the minds pre-pubescents like Ayn Rand and her devotees.

~SuCh~ said...

Hey falstaff...
But you need some one to say "I'm tired, I don't want to talk" to...
Cos, that makes it all the more fun... ur world becomes more precious with your growing cognizance of what you shut out..
I wouldnt say solitude is supreme solace... But nevertheless , i would always like it better if i were the one to define the boundries of any relationship i get into... The ickiness of intimacy gets to my nerves.. All one needs is one's own space in this world.. just that mine is a little wider in all dimensions..

You need people around you, afterall a lonely compartment can get scary... People do have a threshold for monotony, even if its of a thing they love to do... Books alone cant hold one rapt for a lifetime...

Your post reminds me of a song i m forced to sing to console myself often.. "i m a rock.. i am an island.. i have my books and my poetry to protect me..a rock feels no pain.. and island never cries.. " -- S and G
Though i wish i could sing it less oftener..

Cheshire Cat said...

Neela, indeed, that's a pretty picture of domestic bliss! Though I would substitute "dal chawal" with "thayir saadam".

Come to think of it, therein lies the explanation? I became less antisocial when food stopped appearing magically on the table. In which case marriage would be the solution, could help me retreat into my shell.

Seriously, the advantages of becoming more social are too obvious, and too banal, to be worth remarking on. However the experience of transition from semi-autistic (complete and utter blank, a blank that can utter and that is all, it is) to something resembling a human being is also tinged with loss. Judging from this post and the reactions to it, not a singular phenomenon. Requiring further enquiry -"Motivation" begs the question.

(No more unwitting self-parody. Self-absorption is sickening, isn't it? Conversations with the sun are so much better, for mind and body alike.)

Tabula Rasa said...

and to add to neela's point that you will "...get married, cook dal-chawal and have three children who you will swear bring you the greatest joy you have ever known even while they throw up on you and make you watch dora the explorer"

"... and thereby themselves get socialized hence connecting the circle."

let's face it -- there are two types of people" us the introverts misfits and unrecognized geniuses on the one hand, and the people whose blogs we don't like to read on the other.

Falstaff said...

Cat: Do I have an explanation? There's probably some truth the life becoming less authentic, less second-hand argument - I'm definitely more jaded, have less attention span for stuff than I used to. I don't know if that's getting older in general, or a function of the society we live in. But I don't think that's all there is to it. FWIW, my theory is this that are two other factors at play: a) Declining marginal returns to art / literature / music - there's still tons of great stuff out there, of course, but nothing promising that I've read in the last year has come close to the kind of visionary shock I experienced reading (say) Woolf or Eliot for the first time. Part of that is me, of course, but part of it is also, I suspect the poetry / writing itself. b) Improving quality of people - as I've got older, I think both my ability to select for like-minded people and the general quality / intelligence of people around me has improved. I could never have imagined hanging out with a group of people from my high school because, frankly, they were all a bunch of twits. Even people I was fond of then, now strike me as being hopelessly dull. On the other hand, I can imagine (and do) hang out with colleagues in the PhD program because I'm confident that there's a certain base level of analytical ability, breadth of reading, etc. that they'll bring to the table. Of course, that may also be a function of age - as people get older the variance in their life experiences increases, so talking to them is more likely to help you get perspectives you didn't have before.

Patient Portnoy: True, true. But the fact that I need them to steady the rope for me at all annoys me. I shouldn't need that kind of help.

d&c: you're welcome

Neela: Hello? at what point did this become about bad behaviour? Going to movies by yourself is just sensible (it means, for instance, that you don't have to spend ten minutes anxiously waiting outside while certain people you're watching the movie with tell you they'll 'just be there'). Plus, I don't see what cooking dal chawal has to do with this. I can cook dal chawal too. That doesn't make me want to get married and have children. Also, I shall not weep into my blog. I shall laugh my manic laugh at the sight of you trying to cope with three Chicken Pox infected brats. Hah!

anon: "It's the lack of inherent consistency that usually annoys me the most". You took the words straight out of my mouth. I don't have a problem with people who clearly state that they trust their own instinct over logic. It's people who pretend to be analytical and objective and then can't keep up with logic who pain me.

crp: True. Just so we're clear - I wasn't trying to imply that all paths to the Superman involve being alone. It's obviously a matter of temperament. J.S. Bach managed to have some half a dozen children and still be as prolific as he was. So it can be done. Just I personally don't see myself being able to think / create and deal with other people at the same time.

soliloquist: Ah, the 'get into a relationship so you can break it off as a reaffirmation of your solitude' trick. Nice. Close cousin, of course, to the notion of the only reason to get into a relationship being to see how this one falls apart. You're probably right - it's probably true that we're all too deeply conditioned to be social to shut out human contact entirely. And that, to me, is just another thing to be upset about.

tabula rasa: :-). Of course, one good reason to be asocial is that it steals the initiative away from people not recognising your genius. It's not that people don't understand me, it's just that I'm my own best kept secret.

Anonymous said...


Though I think the piece is decent, I think it can be improved by removing the parts where you're (perhaps) conscious of the reader and just showing off your vocabulary

Cheshire Cat said...

"declining marginal returns to art/literature/music"

Now you've just ruined my day - you and your coldblooded analysis...

Tanuj said...


i must commend you on your writing, though i must confess i have a hard time understanding it.

but i must congratulate you on getting the weirdest people to comment on your blog. or maybe they are all stoned when they visit your blog. do you always have this effect on people?

by the way, what kind of tadka do you like on your dal?

Falstaff said...

anirudh: Hmmm. I genuinely wasn't trying to impress anyone with my vocabularly - I was just trying to use the words that more accurately described what I was trying to say. Certainly, I could make the post a more natural read, though.

cat: my apologies. On my more optimistic days, I tend to think of it as palate cleansing - coming out of your cave to talk to people is good way of refreshing yourself so that you go back to poetry / art / music more open to its influence and more conscious of its pleasures.

tanuj: thanks. never thought of it that way before. Maybe I do have that effect on people. Just think - I could be standing on a street corner somewhere hustling conversations with me. Plus think of what being elevated to the status of a narcotic substance could do for my dating life. Personally, I've always thought that Lucy chick was hot, for instance, even though she's probably high maintenance, given all those diamonds.

Oh, and if I tell you, do you promise to eat it?

Alex said...

After i dug this post out from your archives, how itchingly i opened the comments to write
..there you've penned all that i wanted to express..
but to see there are tens who feel the same, disappointment comes... i'm not so unique afterall :(

Anonymous said...