Give me monotony!

by Charlie Huenemann

“Monotonizing existence, so that it won’t be monotonous. Making daily life anodyne, so that the littlest thing will amuse.” —Bernardo Soares (Fernando Pessoa), The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith, section 171

Senhor Soares goes on to explain that in his job as assistant bookkeeper in the city of Lisbon, when he finds himself “between two ledger entries,” he has visions of escaping, visiting the grand promenades of impossible parks, meeting resplendent kings, and traveling over non-existent landscapes. He doesn’t mind his monotonous job, so long as he has the occasional moment to indulge in his daydreams. And the value for him in these daydreams is that they are not real. If they were real, they would not belong to him. They would belong to others as public resources, and not reside in his own private realm. And what is more, if they were real, then what would he have left to dream? Far better, he thinks, “to have Vasques my boss than the kings of my dreams.” It’s more than that he doesn’t mind his monotonous job. On the contrary: the more monotonous his existence, the better his dreams.

This is, of course, mere escapism from the crappy life he’s stuck with. His attempt to justify his monotonous existence by saying that it allows for better daydreams is as see-through as an 8-dollar verification program. He’s just coating his own unremarkable existence in cheap veneer. Soares, one might judge, should have the courage to make his life really better, to find something worth doing, worth taking pride in, and something of some value to others. He should dare to live dangerously. Maybe he could start a book club. There’s nothing wrong with daydreams, okay, but they should serve only as an occasion for a busy person to “recharge” and then return with greater focus to an active, productive life.

But as one gets older and realizes that most of life’s good stuff is contained between two ledger entries, one sees that if it weren’t for dreams, for stories and for art, for inventing personas and writing books through their hands and eyes, life would be insufferable. This is because our brains are too big. We are overpowered for the tasks modern life assigns us, and if we narrowed our focus to just what’s actually before us, we would find ourselves on the road with Estragon and Vladimir, surveying a bleak Beckettian stage, haunted by a vague sense that wasn’t there supposed to be something more, someone showing up who would make a difference?

Only a fictional keeper of sheep (with no sheep) like Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa, again) could possibly live with only the surfaces of things:


To think about the inner meaning of things

Is superfluous, like thinking about health

Or carrying a glass to a spring.

The only inner meaning of things

Is that they have no inner meaning at all.

(“To not think of anything is metaphysics enough,” translated by Richard Zenith in Fernando Pessoa & Co., Grove Press, 1998.)

It’s not that existence is painful. (Some find it to be so, but shut up, it’s not your turn right now.) It’s that it is not as good as we can imagine. Not even close. To shear off daydreams from life and live only in a blissful recognition of what is would be a great loss. Life’s nourishment is found between those ledger entries when we have the chance to dream something else.

Of course, Pessoa lived his life this way, endlessly inventing new persons who had their own biographies, personalities, interests, and writing styles. They wrote to each other about each other, and sometimes about Pessoa. Pessoa invented soccer leagues and asylums for them. In each idle moment, and there were many, new worlds and new people poured out from his mind in bewildering complexity and detail. His daydreams were far richer than anything he found in what some call life.  

“Give me monotony —” Soares declares, “the dull repetition of the same old days, today an exact copy of yesterday—while my observant soul enjoys the fly that flits past my eyes and distracts me, the laughter that drifts up from I’m not sure which street, the liberation I feel when it’s time to close the office, and the infinite repose of a day off.” The joy of a flitting fly (God, I hope that’s metaphorical, somehow) or a loud bar laugh–and, perhaps, the stories it suggests–punctuates a change in the otherwise monotonous backdrop of our lives. An opportunity to engage in a bit of fantasy allows us to truly live, in contrast to what we get paid to do. (That’s some Marx thrown in, no charge.)

I have found, for example, that I enjoy going into the office, partly because I like the people there, but also because if I put in a full day of thoroughly monotonous work, sheer word-processed drudgery, then I have the great joy of coming home and—and here I know I am supposed to say “lose myself in novels and poetry” or something impressively artsy like that, but in fact I will say—playing fantasy video games. I am a barbarian, a world leader, a tomb raider. (Pessoa, far more impressively, manufactured his own virtual realities.) Staying home all day and playing these games would not be nearly as pleasurable as escaping into them from between two ledger entries. I live, I work, I monotonize so that the escape is so much better.

And I hasten to add (lest anyone think favorably of me) that it’s not as if I feel I am doing valuable work during the day, and that I am somehow earning the right to have some mindless fun. No, I am free from any illusion of earning anything through my allegedly meaningful labor. I value the worthless crap I do because it is monotonous and makes the pleasure of escape all the greater. I’m pretty sure that’s what Soares/Pessoa was/were getting at.