Thursday, April 17, 2014


When philosopher and author Yannick Haenel found himself unemployed, unable to pay the rent on his Paris apartment and eventually evicted, he began living in his car. It was 3:00 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and the car was parked by the sidewalk. Cherry petals twirled in the air and came to rest on his windshield. It was his good fortune that the car was parked on rue de la Chine, one of the last Parisian streets that didn’t charge for parking. He had in his possession three cardboard boxes packed with laundry and books. The apartment had been furnished. The car belonged to a friend in Africa who’d not yet made plans to return. He had no idea what to do. He had no other but to sit in his car and muse on the vagaries of life. He was outside the protective walls of daily stability. The odd thing was, he felt serene. He felt a peculiar sense of well-being. This was a new chapter in his life. A life which suddenly felt delightfully disengaged, free of the usual domestic hassles and responsibilities.
It was, at first, an odd sensation, being behind the wheel of a car, pedestrians walking by paying no attention, but with nowhere to go, no reason to start the engine. Just sit. Sit and gaze. Sit and think. Sit and muse. It was like falling into a hole.
But the hole he dropped through landed him in what he referred to as an interval, a feeling combined of joy and what the French call d├ęchirure, of being ripped, wrenched, torn. It is, he says, hard to describe. It’s one of those feelings that elude definition and is a mixture of contradictory emotions, but more than that, it extends meaning into the void.
Yannick turned the key and the radio came on. It was the news concerning the national election for a new president. It did not matter in the least to him. He had long since begun to feel disconnected from politics. I know the feeling. After having voted for Obama in the first election, and watch as he pursued policies even more violent and diabolical than those of the Bush administration, I realized that George Carlin had been right. Voting is useless.
France and America are not that different, at least not when it comes to politics. There is the same corruption, the same empty platitudes delivered to appease the populace, the same deceptions, the same elite class running things for the banks and corporations.
The least link connecting him to society felt absurd, remarked Yannick. Amen, say I.
In music, an interval refers to the distance in pitch between two notes, which is expressed in terms of the number of notes of the diatonic scale which they comprise (e.g. third, fifth, ninth) and a qualifying word (perfect, imperfect, major, minor, augmented, or diminished).
As Yannick noted (so to speak), there are intervals in life as well. Spaces between the major notes of our histories, our engagements, our chronologies that may be described as those perfect or imperfect, major or minor, augmented or diminished spaces where the theme goes somewhat awry, where the sound turns strange, chromatic, and a little uncertain. Diana Raffman, author of Language, Music, and Mind, calls it “nuance ineffability.” Music is structural, it has a grammar and proposes a meaning. When something is felt or heard that violates our semantic expectations and as such cannot be explained in language, it is a nuance ineffability. We recognize the melody and rhythm but the pitch deviations may elude our notice because they’re not entirely within the range of our hearing. We hear minor sixths and perfect fourths, but the more fine-grained discriminations escape any categorical identification. They’re relational. Their existence is purely imagined, or felt. They’re anisochronous, outside the time interval separating any two corresponding transitions and not related to the time interval separating any other two transitions. Tonal musical stimuli are heard against the backdrop of a richly structured, albeit pliant, mental grid. They exist as a kind of evanescent aureole scintillating around the structural organization of the work.
Such intervals occur in my life when my usual patterns are disrupted and I’m waiting for something, a plane flight, a bus, a dentist, a doctor, a train. These are small interludes in which, freed from my general tasks, I have a space in which to daydream or take in phenomena that might otherwise elude my attention.
There have been longer interludes, ones more similar to Yannick Haenel’s homeless situation in his car. Long periods of unemployment in which I had nothing to do between appointments or interviews but sit in a car and read or ponder the weightier issues of my life. Existence feels a little more raw on these occasions. There are no daily rituals to encompass or structure our day. Improvisation and spontaneity and openness to new experience are more to the fore.
I experienced a very deep sense of disconnectedness upon graduating from college in 1973. I’d been divorced the previous year, which added to my sense of detachment. I would not characterize it as “footloose and fancy free.” It was more like being marooned on an island.
I wasn’t entirely homeless. I lived with my father and stepmother for a considerable amount of time, months, in fact, before I found a job and was able to rent a small apartment. I spent long periods in my car at the time. The car itself was not a car of my own choosing but had been given to me by my stepmother. It was a six-cylinder Dodge dart, silver in color, I continue to wince to this day when I think how poorly I cared for that car. It had been remarkably reliable even though the dismal income my menial job provided did not permit me to finance the kind of care the car  -  any car  -  requires. Change the oil, clean the air filter, check the cooling system, etc. Cheap things, I know, but my wages were gulped by rent, food, and (it shames me to confess it) booze.
Drugs make intervals much more interesting, but it is not necessarily something I endorse. Marijuana is legal in Washington, more or less, and I’ve always perceived that particular drug, which is a plant, as natural and relatively innocuous when it comes to addiction and the health of the body. It’s a cheap, relatively benign high, but I never liked marijuana. It always made me feel weirdly claustrophobic, as if I were trapped in myself, underwater. I don’t know why it made me feel like I was underwater. This had nothing to do with breathing. It was a sense of being immersed and overwhelmed by social phenomena that I had difficulty comprehending. My general reaction to marijuana was always one of fear and paranoia. Not fun.
I find that it is in the nature of the interval itself to bring about an altered state of consciousness. Travel does that. I’ve always noted my mind is more active when I travel. Novelty is ever present and one’s responsibilities are far away and tucked away at home.
Coffeehouses make a nice location for those temporary disruptions in one’s activities, though I enjoy them far less now that everyone is gazing into smartphones and laptop computers. I feel offended by it. I know it’s not rational, but there it is: I feel violated.
Perhaps it is my life-long devotion to books, to magazines and newspapers, to the print media in general. What offends me is the mental laziness of people and the fickleness of their attention, the degradation of their absorption, their scrutiny and thinking. I feel the grid tightening. I see a corporate groupthink running rampant and taking root. I could easily become a Carrie Nation of the coffeehouse, tearing people’s digital toys and apparatus out of their hands and crushing them with my feet.
The world’s intervals are fast disappearing. Time is at a premium. Idleness has acquired a dirty name. Who remembers Walt Whitman’s lovely declaration: I loaf and invite my soul, I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
Now there was a man of intervals. 

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