Fatal Vexation

We must cherish joy where we find it in these dark times. For me, today, that has meant savoring the fact that David Hume, in his magisterial six-volume History of England (1754-61), records no fewer than seven people in English history as having died from vexation and / or disappointment. 

These are their (somewhat abrupt) stories.

  • “Aldred, archbishop of York, who had set the crown on William’s head, had died a little before of grief and vexation.”
  •  “The affliction for this disaster, and vexation from the distracted state of his affairs, encreased the sickness under which [King John] then laboured; and though he reached the castle of Newark, he was obliged to halt there, and his distemper soon after put an end to his life.”
  •  “Harris, an alderman of London, was indicted, and died of vexation before his trial came to an issue.”
  • “The high-spirited nobleman [Southampton] retired from the council, and soon after died from vexation and disappointment.”
  • “Drake himself, from the intemperance of the climate, the fatigues of his journey, and the vexation of his disappointment, was seized with a distemper, of which he soon after died.”
  • “[Walter Devereux, first Earl of] Essex died of a distemper, occasioned, as is supposed, by the vexation, which he had conceived, from his disappointments.”
  • “That gallant Englishman [Sir John Norris], finding that he had been deceived by treacherous promises, and that he had performed nothing worthy of his ancient reputation, was seized with a languishing distemper, and died of vexation and discontent.”
  • And, just to end on a high note, a non-fatal case of vexation:
    • “But though he [Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, son of Walter—so genetic predisposition to fatal vexation] affected to be so entirely cured of his aspiring ambition, the vexation of this disappointment, and of the triumph gained by his enemies, preyed upon his haughty spirit, and he fell into a distemper, which seemed to put his life in danger.” But then, Elizabeth I sent him “some broth” and “a message” and Essex was “restored in his health”!!! (True, he is executed the following year, at age 34, having “given reins to his ungovernable passions, and involved, not only himself, but many of his friends, in utter ruin.” But still.)

Detail from engraving by Jean-Baptiste Simonet, illustration from Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther


Day 190: I am part of the resistance inside Sarah Tindal Kareem’s mind

“ … we may observe, that the true idea of the human mind, is to consider it as a system of different perceptions or different existences … One thought chases another, and draws after it a third, by which it is expell’d in its turn. In this respect, I cannot compare the soul more properly to any thing than to a republic or commonwealth, in which the several members are united by the reciprocal ties of government and subordination, and give rise to other persons, who propagate the same republic in the incessant changes of its parts. And as the same individual republic may not only change its members, but also its laws and constitutions; in like manner the same person may vary his character and disposition, as well as his impressions and ideas, without losing his identity.”  (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I. Part IV. Section VI: Of Personal Identity)

Sarah Kareem is facing a test to her psyche unlike any faced by another modern subject.

It’s not just that deadlines loom large. Or that the household is bitterly divided over whether allowance should be tied to the completion of chores. Or even that she might well lose the newly-installed lock on the external front door due to a landlord hellbent on adhering to so-called Health and Safety Code regulations.

The dilemma — which Sarah does not fully grasp — is that many of the executive functions in her own brain are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of her agenda and her worst inclinations.

I would know. I am one of them.

To be clear, ours is not the popular “resistance” of lolling and faffing. We want Sarah to succeed and think that many of her decisions have made her happier and more fulfilled.

But we believe our first duty is to this collection of perceptions that constitute the mind, and Sarah continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.

That is why many in our bundle have vowed to do what we can to preserve our impressions and ideas while thwarting Sarah’s more misguided impulses until they are expelled in their turn.

The root of the problem is Sarah’s indecisiveness. Anyone acquainted with her knows she is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide her decision making.

Although she rose to prominence as our self, Sarah shows little affinity for ideas long espoused by her mind: the Enlightenment, British empiricism, and the rise of the novel. At best, she has invoked these ideals in scripted settings. At worst, she has attacked them outright in conversations with her psychiatrist.

Don’t get me wrong. There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative harping of her offspring fails to capture: regular home-baked cakes, historic closet reform, a more robust Tupperware organizational system and more.

But these successes have come despite — not because of — Sarah’s style of self-governance, which is impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.

From the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to the anterior cingulate cortex, executive functions will privately admit their daily disbelief at Sarah’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from her whims.

Meetings with her veer off topic and off the rails, she engages in fanciful ramblings, and her impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless blog posts that have to be walked back.

“There is literally no telling whether she might change her mind from one minute to the next,” a long-term memory of hers complained to me recently, exasperated by an hippocampal meeting at which Sarah flip-flopped on a major behavioral decision she’d made only a week earlier.

The erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes in the Kareem mind. Some of Sarah’s self-critical impulses have been cast as villains by mental health professionals. But in private, these impulses have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the orbitofrontal cortex, though they are clearly not always successful.

It may be cold comfort in the chaotic Kareem household, but observers should know that there are inhibitory neuro-transmitters in the cerebral cortex. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Sarah won’t.

The result is a two-track train of perceptions.

In public and in private, Sarah shows a preference for both ancient and contemporary forms, from epics to Netflix, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind her to eighteenth-century prose.

Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the mind is operating on another track, one where her ramblings are called out and disciplined accordingly.

This isn’t the work of the so-called super-ego. It’s the work of the superior ego.

Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the brain of invoking a nervous breakdown, which would start a complex process for overhauling the self. But no one wanted to precipitate a midlife crisis. So we will do what we can to steer this ship (which, although changed by frequent repairs, is still considered to be the same ship) in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.




Day 181: on gambolling

Scene: Friday evening, after dinner.

Younger: Mom, can I go play with the basketball outside with Olivia?

Me: Yes. [pause] BUT … if the ball goes into the street, what are you going to do?

Younger: [rolling eyes] I’m going to come in and ask you to help get it.

Me: That’s right, you’re going to come in and get one of us, and we will help you get it.

La Bonavita: Because otherwise you might be smushed by a car.

Elder: Or trampled by elephants.

Younger: Or crushed by pirate ships falling out of the sky.


Elder: Uh, that’s not a thing.

Younger: [stubbornly, suddenly on verge of tears] it is a thing.

falling ship

From Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvellous Travels (1786)

As Baron Munchausen well knew, ships that rise and fall through the skies are actually a thing, and, generally speaking, you are far better off getting on top of them. Loiter underneath them, and you’ll be crushed. Hop aboard one, and you could well get stuck up a tree. And that’s just terribly awkward.

stuck in a tree

From Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvellous Travels (1786)

Crystal B. Lake and I concur with the Baron. You need to get out from under and otherwise extricate yourself from any looming ships. If you would like to read our recommendations for how to wriggle out from under the weight of the soul-crushing pirate ship of modernity, I suggest you read this, stat.

Or, you know, you can take your chances and possibly be crushed by pirate ships falling out of the sky.

It’s your call, of course, but, inveterate Humeian that I am (and bon anniversaire, by the way, le bon David!), I’d say don’t gamble on it.

Instead: gambol on over here, and find out why we’d rather be rambling.


Day 143: the swelling spleen and phrenzy raging rife

On my drive to work on Tuesday I decided that George Michael’s song “Freedom ’90” is a Rousseavian critique of Franklinian self-fashioning. I was on my way to lecture, where I was to teach Franklin’s Autobiography, that paean to the art of self-reinvention. For Franklin as for Hume, identity is labile: “… as the same individual republic may not only change its members, but also its laws and constitutions; in like manner the same person may vary his character and disposition, as well as his impressions and ideas, without losing his identity” (Hume, Treatise, 1739). The words “character” and “identity” are important, here. You can vary your “character” without changing your “identity.” For Franklin, then, a self, like a republic, may be vastly improved and even perfected, with the use of the right methods and the cultivation of the right habits.

For Rousseau, by contrast, there is an essential, persistent self. His aim in the Confessions is to record that self, not to reinvent it: “The real object of my confessions,” he writes, “is to communicate an exact knowledge of what I interiorly am.”

“Freedom ’90,” as I heard it on the way to work, views the speaker’s misguided, Franklinian past from the perspective of a Rousseauvian epiphany. The speaker recalls how he initially achieved professional success by adopting Franklin’s technique of fashioning his self according to the demands of his audience: “I went back home got a brand new face / For the boys on MTV.” But eventually the speaker tires of this “show,” and an authentic, interior self asserts itself:

“I think there’s something you should know / I think it’s time I stopped the show / There’s something deep inside of me / There’s someone I forgot to be.”

I could go on with this reading of the song, but I can’t be bothered. I have deep affection for Rousseau, Franklin and especially George Michael, but on Tuesday I found myself profoundly irritated by their self-actualizing narratives. Both the idea that the self is infinitely variable and the idea of some ineffable interior self buried deep beneath the socially molded exterior share the assumption that one might shrug off the socialized self like a snake shedding its skin. Both models resist an idea of selfhood as material and embodied. And that’s why both the Rousseauvian and Franklinian models ring false with me.

Here I should probably quote Spinoza, or Deleuze but I can’t be bothered with them either. Instead I will just say that I find it difficult, at this moment, to distinguish myself either from the imperatives my body exerts upon me, or from the imperatives the external world exerts upon me. If only my perceptions felt the way Hume characterizes them. He makes them sound so light and gauzy, like a fluttering swarm of butterflies, “which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” But if the mind is a kind of theatre, as Hume represents it, mine is not one through which perceptions elegantly “glide,” sylph-like, as he would have it. No, my perceptions land, heavy-footed, like a ton of bricks.

Hunger. Fatigue. Grief. Guilt.

Sensation for me comes more like Edmund Spenser’s sickly parade of sins in The Faerie Queene, “The swelling Spleen, and Phrenzy raging rife, /The shaking Palsey, and Saint Frauncis’ Fire,” tramping through the theatre on their crew of motley beasts, pissing on the stage and leaving mud stains on the seats.


Day 138: the end of the world

As a counterpoint to Wednesday’s slightly Pollyanna-ish paean to creation as embodied by the elder’s blocky white Minecraft turrets of Walpolian splendour, today I bring you some brief remarks in praise of destruction as embodied by (surely you’ll guess) the younger’s approach to the very same game.

I watched, rapt, this morning, as the younger navigated her Minecraft world. She had urged me to observe what happened when she blew stuff up. She systematically placed red blocks labeled “TNT” on the ground and then detonated them.

“What does TNT stand for?” I asked.

“Dynamite,” she replied.

“Oh,” I said.

Exploding the TNT blocks tore an impressive hole replete with cascading sandy rubble in the green Minecraft lawn.

“Cool,” I said.

“No, that’s not it,” she said. “Wait.”

She filled the hole with up with MORE TNT blocks and then exploded THAT. The hole grew deeper.

Down, down she went, explosion after explosion. Sandy rubble gave way to rocky rubble, which gave way in turn to dark grey rock.

I looked at her expectantly.“Not it,” she said.

The hole grew even deeper and darker, puckered with black spaces.

“There,” she said, finally, pointing to the black rectangles. “That’s the end of the world.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“It’s the end of the world in Minecraft.”

I peered more closely at the screen and saw that these black rectangles were textureless blanks, unlike all the other Minecraft blocks.

Being the duck-rabbit that I am, the black rectangles made me think of a strange 1767 short story by James Beattie, a satire of skepticism which culminates with the image of David Hume pushing unsuspecting pilgrims off a castle ramparts into a void of “utter darkness.”

“But maybe they are just really dark rocks?” I wondered aloud, looking at the black rectangles more closely.

“No,” she insisted. “They’re nothing.”

Squint as I might I couldn’t see any kind of pixilation or ripple in the black surface—somehow uncanny in Minecraft’s highly variegated terrain.

“Wow,” I said, and I did have a tiny vertiginous thrill, as if I were standing on the edge of something.


Day 134: virtual fuckery

I would like to propose another concept to join “vegan charcuterie board” in the category of “invalid concepts.”

This concept is “virtual fuck buddies,” a concept invoked this morning in a message I received from someone on Tinder who claimed, implausibly, to be a human adult.

Just as the concept of vegan charcuterie, a term that literally means cooked flesh, makes zero sense, so too, to this hopelessly old-fashioned duck-rabbit, does the notion of a “virtual fuck buddy.”

To be clear what we’re talking about, here is a screenshot of the actual message that I received, with the identifying information scribbled out. His text is in grey on the left and mine is in teal (?) on the right.



(N.B. Also note his elegant segue from my remark that I hailed from London to his proposition that we be virtual fuck buddies. )

To be clear, my objection is not to the fuck buddy party; it’s to the virtual part.

Call me naïve, but my understanding of the concept of the fuck buddy was that the fucking part was integral to it. But I see now that I was mistaken. He is clearly not proposing that we simply be “buddies.” No, there will be a simulacrum of sex, mediated through images, video, and videotelophony. There will just be no actual touching of another’s flesh.

Do you see how the vegan charcuterie board is actually perfectly equivalent to the virtual fuck buddy? Both the vegan charcuterie board and the virtual fuck buddy maintain the form of the original while neatly excising the flesh.

Here let me clarify further that my objection to his message is not so much that it is crass or vulgar—which it obviously is—but more that I genuinely don’t understand what would be rewarding about the kind of encounter he proposes. Not that phone sex can’t be enjoyable, but I’ve always thought of it as a necessary expediency when distance prevents physical contact, not something you do on purpose when it would be perfectly easy to meet up within twenty minutes, depending on traffic.

Is touching not, in fact, the best bit of sex?

Have I, in fact, been doing sex all wrong for all these years?

This morning’s text exchange reminds me of a joke that Moira Weigel recounts in her new book about the history of dating, Labor of Love. She tells of a chalkboard outside a bar that entices its customers with the promise that they have 3-D Tinder (i.e. people), inside.

I have the urge to reply to Tinderboy in this bar’s vein of snark – something like, “that sounds TOTALLY AWESOME, but instead of FaceTime, why don’t we ‘meet’ – have you heard of it? It’s like 3-D FaceTime.”

Clearly, my urge to issues this sort of rejoinder is simply evidence that I am a Luddite when it comes to sex. Tinderboy is not wedded to some archaic twentieth-century romantic ontology in which the litmus test of whether we are compatible is our chemistry In Real Life.

This Tinder message made me feel the way I imagine David Hume made Thomas Reid feel.

Surely le bonne David would stand with Tinderboy, arguing, hey, girl, everything’s always already mediated, so what’s the difference? Real, not real; it’s all the same, babe.

But I, even I, Humephile that I am, would stand with Reid, who would doubtless say, With all due respect to Dave, whom I respect as a philosopher, and as a fellow Scot, when I am rogering Mrs. Reid, I am not rogering an idea of Mrs Reid; I am rogering Mrs. Reid. If Dave persists in denying this, I leave him to enjoy his opinion as a man who denies first principles, and is not fit to be reasoned with.

Tinderboy makes me feel not only philosophically naïve but also wedded to conventional notions of narrative sequence. You see, the trajectory Tinderboy sketches, which starts with phone sex and culminates, possibly, maybe, in meeting up, seems backwards to me. In his envisaged scenario, we start by having (virtual) sex … and if that goes well then maybe we eventually … what, meet cute at a café?

But obviously I’m just a philistine as well as a Luddite when it comes to sex. Clearly, Tinderboy is a kind of latter-day Valmont – it’s the fuckery he gets off on more than the fucking.

And he’s not committed to some kind of quaint teleological plot in which the initial drink is a prelude to the fucking.

Why can’t kombucha be the narrative climax to our romance, I hear him asking.

And, I have … simply … no words.


Day 98: fermenting into merriment

“That the professors of literature generally reside in the highest stories, has been immemorially observed.”

(Samuel Johnson, Rambler No. 117, 1751).

The Department of English is mostly spread over the first and second floor of the Humanities Building, with a few offices and the grad lounge located on the basement level. My office is on the second floor (the first floor, if you’re in Britain) of this building. I have occupied this office ever since I first started my current job, in the summer of 2007.

Today, for the first time ever, I walked up the stairs to the third floor.

It’s not that I didn’t realize there was another floor above the second before today. My office is right next to the staircase. I witness people going up and down those stairs every day. But until today I didn’t actually think of the third floor as an existent space.

Now, this might sound unlikely. My beloved D.H. would surely aver that I have, however tacitly, all this time attributed some background level of existence to the third floor. I’m thinking of his own observation that when he hears a person’s voice from the next room, “this impression of my senses immediately conveys my thoughts to the person, along with all the surrounding objects. I paint them out to myself as existent at present . . . These ideas take faster hold of my mind than the ideas of an inchanted castle” (David Hume, Treatise 625).

But yet I insist that the third floor might as well have been a castle in the air to me for all the reality I ascribed to it. The staircase did not, for me, naturally call up any mental image of the floor above. Oddly, I didn’t think of the staircase as a means of transport from one space to another; I thought of the stairs as its own discrete space. If people were walking down them, they weren’t coming from anywhere, and if they were walking up them, they weren’t going anywhere. They were only, in my mind, traveling in any real sense when they were coming down the stairs, because then and only then were they en route to an actual place. If I try to conjure up images of people on the staircase, they are all of people coming down the stairs. It’s almost as though my mind refused to register people going up the stairs because to do so would force the question of where they were going.

Such was the norm for the past eight years. Today, however, for the first time ever, an event I planned to attend was scheduled to take place in a room in the Humanities Building beginning with the number 3. I did a double take as I re-read the email. It must be in another building. That must be a typo. There aren’t rooms in this building that began with a 3. [1]

Are there?

At five minutes to four, I climbed the stairs, genuinely excited. It’s always disorienting, not necessarily unpleasantly so, to enter a space that is identical in some ways to one you know intimately but which is also subtly different; it’s like walking into one of those spot-the-difference puzzles. The third floor felt darker but also more warmly colored, and a little messier. There were cork pin boards on the walls of the corridor. That would never fly on the second floor.

On the third floor, I was a stranger. As the attendees of the meeting immediately before ours drifted out of the seminar room, unfamiliar faces looked at me quizzically as if trying to place me. Once we entered the room and the grad student organizers of our group put out snacks, I couldn’t help but notice that the quality of refreshments was immensely superior to those usually found on the second floor. For a gathering of seven people total, there were three bottles of wine, a lovely looking selection of cheeses, a plate of charcuterie, and some fruit.

Comp Lit is on the third floor. This meeting wasn’t organized by Comp Lit but was it possible that by dint of some kind of osmosis, what were merely Anglo-Saxon snacks on the second floor became hors d’oeuvres when they moved to the third? I think it’s a reasonable hypothesis.

You know what the definition of irony is? Being so busy holed up in your office writing a book about wonder that you never bother to venture up the stairs that spiral up mere steps away from your own office door.

I am a disgrace to my species, and especially to my sex. Daughter of Eve? Please!

Think of all the stories that depend for their narrative interest upon women bothering to go upstairs. Seriously.

Imagine if all those stories instead had a female protagonist who just couldn’t be arsed.

Sleeping Beauty: the tale of a princess who never pricked her finger or fell asleep for a hundred years, or required a prince to awaken her with a kiss. [2]

Bluebeard: the sixth one’s the charm! [3]

Jane Eyre: it’s just Grace Poole laughing up there, you say? I am satisfied with your explanation, sir, and feel no need to investigate further! [4]

And, maybe this, here, is why my second book project has felt like it’s struggling to get off the ground lately. Maybe you just can’t write a book about floating things on the second floor. And it’s not just a problem at the office. In the old house, I worked in the loft, and I could see the tops of the palm trees swaying in the breeze out the window. Now I have a bungalow, where I work most often at my dining table, which is very close to the front door, which, as Samuel Johnson notes in the theory of the garret he lays out in Rambler 117, “is often observed to be infested by visitants, who talk incessantly of beer, or linen, or a coat, and repeat the same sounds every morning, and sometimes again in the afternoon, without any variation, except that they grow daily more importunate and clamorous, and raise their voices in time from mournful murmurs to raging vociferations.”

My visitants talk more frequently of milk, or Nerf guns, or their butts, but the effect is much the same.

So maybe I need to take Johnson’s advice and find higher ground. For, as he observes in that same Rambler essay, “he that upon level ground stagnates in silence, or creeps in narrative, might at the height of half a mile, ferment into merriment, sparkle with repartee, and froth with declamation.”


[1] British readers: note that in the US it is usual for the first number of a room number to designate the floor it occupies. It turns out that this is really convenient. So far as I know, in Britain there is no consistent method for numbering rooms within a large building.

[2] “The princess was running about the castle, and going upstairs from room to room she came at length to a garret at the top of a tower, where an old serving woman sat alone with her distaff, spinning.” (from Old-Time Stories told by Master Charles Perrault, translated by A. E. Johnson (Dodd Mead and Company, 1921))

[3] The number of wives Bluebeard is said to have varies widely, but in most versions there are at least five, each of whom (except for the first, presumably), breaks the vow not to enter the small room beneath the castle. “She was so much pressed by her curiosity that, without considering that it was very uncivil for her to leave her company, she went down a little back staircase, and with such excessive haste that she nearly fell and broke her neck.” (Andrew Lang, The Blue Fairy Book (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, ca. 1889))

[4] “ … while Adèle played with her nurse, and Mrs. Fairfax made jellies in the storeroom, I climbed the three staircases …”