Thursday, May 09, 2013

Darlings of oblivion

Vladimir Nabokov was wont to fall into a reverie over nail clippings, bitten-off cuticles, tufts of lint plucked off a sleeve, bits of food picked from between the teeth and spat out. After disposing of these tiny scraps of human life, no one thinks of them any more. Since matter is neither created nor destroyed, what becomes of them? They go on existing, but in a realm beyond human concern. Nabokov called them the darlings of oblivion.

After nursing two of my children through week-long stomach viruses and then watching them bounce off to school this morning as if nothing had happened, I’ve been thinking about how much of human life consists of events that are also darlings of oblivion—the stomach cramps, the headaches, the sleepless nights, the full glasses of milk that are knocked over and spilled across the clean kitchen floors, the flat tires, the dead batteries, the traffic jams, the appointments that are late. Entire days can be lost to these events; they can be, at the time, as absorbing as tragedy; then, once they have passed, they are forgotten. How much of human life disappears into oblivion like this?

These darlings almost never find their way into literature. And why is that? Does literature represent an altogether different ideology of human experience—the ideology of the dramatic occurrence? Despite all the political radicals who have written literary masterpieces, does it turn out to belong to philosophical idealism, postulating the human being not as a material creature, defined by the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, but a spiritual being who recognizes himself in the heights and depths? Is literature, in short, a relic of pre-scientific understanding, a nostalgia entirely innocent of evolutionary psychology, consoling itself with the charming fantasy that all of human behavior is not a product of natural selection? Or in a way that neo-Darwinist thought never could be (since it denies to itself the very possibility of appeal to a non-materialist mind), is literature founded upon the necessary relationship between dramatic occurrences and the darlings of oblivion?

My cancer has left me with one leg that is a half-inch shorter than the other. I walk with a cane now and a permanent limp. Even worse, my bones creak and click together when I walk—nothing painful, but a little creepy. In a word, walking is effortful. I watch my five-year-old daughter Mimi dash off to class and I sigh with pleasure. I might as well be watching the Blue Angels for all I can imagine myself doing the same thing. Every morning I forget how difficult it has become to walk—every time I sit down, for that matter—and then I get up, and every stride absorbs my full attention. No more tumbling into ditches while walking around daydreaming for me!

The darlings of oblivion are not the contraries of the dramatic occurrences, not their contradictions and cancellations—they do not represent the fundamental truth about man. But they are not insignificant either. They are the discards and shavings, the elemental remains of elemental human living, which serve as reminders—they call to mind—that man is not merely mind. They give material reality to human experience, but they are not merely matter: they are also reminders. No wonder Nabokov called them darlings. He wanted them to have meaning, and more than oblivion. They are, after all, incapable of saying what they themselves mean—just as natural adaptation is incapable of formulating the theory of evolutionary psychology. Only the human mind is capable of such self-reflection, and of transforming ordinary events into dramatic occurrences—like the day-to-day struggle with cancer, for example.


scott g.f.bailey said...

The older I get (51 this year), the more I think of my body as what's left of me, as the remains of a life. Time is unkindly letting me know that I am, after all, a fragile animal. Time is pissing me off.

And yet we go on, right? We go on.

FredR said...

"These darlings almost never find their way into literature."

Have you read any of Knausgaard's "My Struggle"?

Andrew Fox said...

David, this is a gorgeous essay. Thank you for writing it and sharing it with us. It is close enough to my own thoughts and experiences, yet also revealing of more universalistic concerns, that I will remember it for a long time... far longer than I will remember 99.999% of what I read online (instantly perishible articles and bits of news which are the "darlings of oblivion" of the digital realm).

PMH said...

You write: "They are the discards and shavings, the elemental remains of elemental human living, which serve as reminders—they call to mind—that man is not merely mind. They give material reality to human experience, but they are not merely matter: they are also reminders." Maybe you meant to cut or rephrase that second sentence, but in both sentences you say that the darlings of oblivion signify, they "remind." That means, then, that the darlings are not a part of oblivion at all. Maybe they are ignored and can pass into oblivion, but maybe one of the functions of art is to rescue these darlings so that they can signify and remind--if only to remind us of life's inescapable materiality. Perhaps art heals that breach between thingness and meaning; between the physical and the spiritual.

Anonymous said...

I've been going to the Commentary site for months and finding nothing new. Thought perhaps the cancer had carried you off. But I'm glad to find that wasn't the case.

Strictly responding to the personal, why go around limping when a properly made orthotic can equalize the difference in leg length? They're expensive -- $400-$600 dollars for the custom-made ones but worth it.

D. G. Myers said...

As for the orthotic. There are the questions of prognosis and life expectancy.

As for Commentary. Well, I don’t want to go into all that again.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this little gem.

professor yorick said...

James Joyce certainly understood the power of the commonplace. ULYSSES is a testament to that. Likewise, Chekhov and Wilder also sought to dramatize the universal through the discreetly personal.

Unknown said...

David Foster Wallace discussed this idea in his Kenyon College commencement speech - though not necessarily the connection with literature. However, I do think that Infinite Jest does celebrate the mundane details of life more than most.