You may remember the bestseller by Alain de Botton, How Reading Proust Can Change Your Life.
Maybe your life did change. Maybe you set out to finally read Proust. How about trying it again, this time with Pascal? The great French mathematician and philosopher could do for you what his famous reflections, Pensées (literally Thoughts) did for San Francisco author Thomas Fuller and his post-literate hero in Monsieur Ambivalence. Monsieur Ambivalence is a writer, "perhaps" (he says) a poet and a philosopher, too. He journeys to a remote French village to contemplate Pascal's claim that "most troubles of the world would be remedied if people were able to sit quietly in a room for one hour a day." Monsieur Ambivalence takes this as an "instruction:"
I felt missing from my life. I'd come to France to get away from the life I was living (....) I thought this was a place that had everything I didn't have, and I'd come to try to learn to sit quietly in a room by myself for one hour. (...) Maybe I'd take something I learned home with me. I didn't want to just drag my problem from one country to another, but what could I do?
This is the setup for a challenge: Will the restless American writer, who is missing from his life (a post-modern American equivalent to Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities) manage to sit quietly in a room for one hour in Pascal's country? Will he manage to appear in his life?
"Two large problems loom," he notes, "needing to be worked out: 1) I've never made a self 2) I've not inhabited a self other than the self that others have accepted as me."
Those "others" include Helena, his lover, who stays with him in the village house. "Helena walks, she's the walker I'm not, she leads by walking, walking leads her, she walks like she knows where she's going."
An intriguing triangle forms between the American writer, the great French philosopher, and the woman who doesn't feel the need for a self, a new life or instruction. Is there a hidden equation in this "fable" between ambivalence and gender?
I discussed it with two friends.
"Everything is a poetic question and a spiritual quest," Joan Gelfand said, handing me "Three Poems About Nothing" from her new poetry collection, The Long Blue Room. Joan should know. She has a lot in common with the author of Monsieur Ambivalence, being a serious meditator who appreciates that Monsieur follows his adventure of the spirit while also luxuriating in French wine and cheese. Joan has a hymn to "Coffee" and an "Ode to Toast" in her new book. We are all lovers of France, admiring the way Fuller evokes the beauty of the land and the always open, always empty village churches. He sees country life with the eyes of a poet: "It rained the first night. By morning the village smelled like a boulder in a cold river." "Out walking in a time when leaves are falling from the trees, the village looks like a place where God's been once but isn't coming back."
I asked poet and psychologist Claire Rubin, whose collection, Waiting to Be Called, is coming out with IFSF Publishing: "What do you think Monsieur Ambivalence is about?" She said, "That's easy. Ask Pascal." She pointed to one of the pensées that open each chapter of the book: "Finally, let them recognize that there are two kinds of people one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know Him." Being a reasonable person herself, Claire thought Monsieur's ambivalence was of a psychological nature. Monsieur goes on with his quest and doesn't cheat. But there is a pervasive doubt: obsessing about reaching (by minute-increments) the ominous one-hour mark, might miss Pascal's point. Pascal spells it out: "Two errors: 1) To take everything literally. 2) To take everything spiritually."
"That's what it's about," Claire said. Then she contributed a short-cut of her poem, "God in Therapy."
Three Poems About Nothing
I: The Nun In Me
The nun in me isn't very pure.
Quite the opposite. This paramour
Is a nasty seductress shaking
Up decadent cocktails of vice.
The nun in me isn't very nice.
Wandering out late, scheming,
Skating with an ethereal lover,
A faceless man with sexy moves,
Her shadowy full moon accomplice.
The nun in me isn't very devoted.
Running plotting against every angel
Who seems an obvious guide. Wanting, wanton
Stuffed full of wine and avarice.
The nun in me behaves badly.
In fact she's better on her own where there's no one to push,
No fights to incite.
She's not very good at marriage,
To be precise.
Still, the nun in me craves a warm fire, my devoted spouse
And loves our all-black kitty. She imagines her little family wildly careening
Like sightless bats through a long, dark tunnel
Flying by feeling, sensing the way home.
II: The "Nun" in me
Hebrew letters are numbers
And the inverse of the obverse is true.
The Torah is duality; calligraphed black
And all of the white space too.
And Nun has just my number--it's fifty
Fruitful and vibrant,
The gate of faith itself.
III: The "None" in me
Am I empty enough? A circle with no center?
I want nothing, really, except everything
And in small doses, and all at once.
Is the none in me empty enough?
I've said my prayers, sat on my cushion,
I've stayed alert and relaxed.
Is the none in me empty enough?
Wasn't it you who told me
The world was seamless
And that went for the lampshade too.
Later, you apologized but why?
Was that before or after you said you loved me
Once? In this lifetime,
Once was just enough.
Am I empty enough yet?
In me become the 'none?'
* "Nun" letter in the Hebrew alphabet
God in Therapy (excerpt)
On the phone his voice was deep and gravelly
He sounded uncomfortable with the whole idea
But I told him Tuesday at ten and he
Said he would come
He didn't need the address
He knew the door code
I found an old man in the waiting room
He looked upset or perhaps anxious
The way many people are when
Sharing stories with a stranger
His sweats were stained,
His shoes had holes, he talked
About his son's death years ago
With a faraway look in his rheumy eyes
Blamed himself, mumbled about murder
Did he feel he had not spent enough time
With his son, enough to keep him on track
Was he depressed, riddled with guilt
Then he talked as though his son were alive
A carpenter with little income, living in LA
He said was lonely and had no friends
I wondered if a shower and shave would help
Or perhaps joining a senior group at the Y
An early morning class of gentle stretching
Makes everyone feel chipper
He wanted to talk about the world
Saying wars and hunger were his fault
Since he couldn't get people to believe
His ten laws for good living
Something he found on the internet
Follow Renate Stendhal, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RenateStendhal