Biophilia in biblio
The summer after I finished high school, I turned my part-time job at the second-hand bike shop into a full-time one. Long hours aside, it was a good job. We were paid hourly, so the wage was decent. My boss was a fairly traditional Calabrian man who believed that his female employees’ role was to service the phones and checkout, clean the store, and make cups of coffee for customers while they waited to have their inner tubes replaced. As a female person, I wasn’t permitted to sell bikes or fix them. Course I recognised the sexism going on, but I didn’t challenge it. Because there was a loophole: if the shop was clean and no-one was around to make coffee for, I was allowed to sit at the counter and read.
I was not going to be a martyr. I read Crime and Punishment that summer. I read a bunch of probably very average novels I don’t remember. The mechanic I worked with stormed around muttering about my indolence. But the boss’s rules went. When he got back from a holiday, he gave me a souvenir leather bookmark with FIJI embossed on it.
This was the first and last job, including book shop, where I was tacitly allowed to read. To the surprise of nobody. Reading forgettable novels during work hours does not make anyone any money. Reading through the protracted hours of the retail universe does not suitably crush the spirit the way that work is supposed to.
Reading in capitalism makes no sense. It produces nothing. It prepares you for nothing. If you have access to a public library, it costs nothing—except time, which everyone is encouraged to believe is in short supply (which is, for some people, in short supply). Reading costs the economy money, I think, I argue, I contend, because if you’re reading you’re not spending money on crap or earning money to spend on crap or paying tax, nor are you promoting a lifestyle that anyone, really, can profit from. Except those who stake it to their identity—that increasingly capitalist thing—, an Instagram bookshelf kind of identity.
Reading is a non-activity: outside time; immaterial; passive and active; politically potent and also just banal.
It’s possible, I guess, to professionalise reading. Become an academic or critic. Solve the mysteries of the text. It’s possible, too, to read with a spirit of competition—set targets, keep fastidious records of ‘achievements’, consume in ways that alleviate the ordinary senselessness of reading. But if things are supposed to have a ‘point’ (and they are), reading is pointless. Reading requires time and attention that could be spent on other people’s needs and profits; on preparing your body for another day of work. Reading, then, is an exercise in freedom. No one hands anyone freedom, or time, on a platter. It’s a thing that has to be taken by force, and taken again tomorrow.
I like this. I like the tone of my own propaganda. I almost even believe it: that it’s an act of great political resistance to lie in bed most of the day reading.
When in fact lying in bed reading is just a nice way of not doing what I am supposed to be doing. Which is honouring my commitments. Work commitments, study commitments. Commitments to others. Which I intend to honour! Just not today. Today I am ‘being in the world’ (being in my nightie, reading).
In my not doing—which I shouldn’t publicise, but here I am—I read Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. I read The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde. I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. And I am now dipping in and out of a Penguin Classic, Epicurus: The Art of Happiness. These are I suppose wildly different books but because of a paranoiac sensibility they have collectively machinated to confirm my present outlook: that the world—‘The human world, which is historical, [which] serves as a mere prop for “being in itself”’ (Freire)—is necrophilic. And that loving life, biophilia; being, rather than just having, is an active pose and an argument. As Gaitskill’s narrator puts it: ‘I didn’t have ambition to be an important person or a star. My ambition was to live like music.’
Necrophilia—love of death—is the opposite of, like, lying prone with book in palm, or waking up in love, or enjoying your sandwich a bit too much. The necrophilic manages and marketises every fraction of experience. Instrumentalises. Freire writes:
…the more the oppressors control the oppressed, the more they change them into apparently inanimate ‘things.’ This tendency of the oppressor consciousness to ‘in-animate’ everything and everyone it encounters, in its eagerness to possess, unquestionably corresponds with a tendency to sadism.’
The language is old—Pedagogy was first published in Portuguese in 1968—but the argument holds. For example: the ‘arts industry’ having to objectify and manage the existence of human creativity in order to secure the money necessary to sustain and protect it. The existence of ‘the creative’ as a subset of corporate labourer. The profit-based health industry. The corruption and poisoning of the earth. The totalising exploitation of poor people globally. You know.
‘Sadistic love is a perverted love,’ writes Freire, ‘a love of death, not of life.’ He goes on: ‘As the oppressor consciousness, in order to dominate, tries to deter the drive to search, the restlessness, and the creative power which characterize life, it kills life.’ And that restlessness, the urge to make something of a crappy job that spans all waking hours and empties the body of its vitality, that is what makes life liveable. When there is no creative drive, life becomes unliveable.
Which Lorde reiterates, writing: ‘The only answer to death is the heat and confusion of living; the only dependable warmth is the warmth of blood.’ Which Epicurus reiterates, stating that everything we do should be to ‘achieve freedom from pain and freedom from fear.’ Not to acquire novel and pleasant objects and sensations, but to strive for an absence of physical and mental pain. To just be: alive, blood pulsing, eat and drink just enough. Be not steeped in superstition. Be not suspended in webs of gossip. Be not desiring of clothes you can’t afford.
Not that I am anywhere close to that state of grace. I think about clothes constantly. I envy everyone I’ll never be like. I’m slow and avoidant and I distrust the institutions that effectively support me. I distrust people who say they distrust institutions and then garner prestige within them, so I also distrust my own desires. Not enlightened, but one of the many unsuccessful members of a productive class. This helps me understand Freire, and Lorde, and Epicurus—who in their own ways make the case for resisting the degradations of complicity, and then Gaitskill, too—who suggests that being complicit in your own life is already degrading.
It has been said that to ‘really understand’ Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, you have to be, or have been, four things: a Catholic, a Marxist, an educator, and a South American. I am, or have been, three of those things (with varying degrees of commitment). It’s nice to have been things. To have taken a position. To have situated myself. But I am finding it harder to explain my position in relation to all others. Positions can become themselves managerial, necrophilic; when work and life begin to blur, it is hard to believe that a person can be carved up and arranged correctly. What if I don’t want to rise the ranks? What if I don’t want to prove my loyalties? What if despite this I’m fine? Just happy to be here? Freire writes that ‘while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation.’
One of the positions I do occupy, for another few months at least, is that I am a postgraduate student. Attached, therefore, to a university. These days (all days?), everybody attached to a university has to ask the question: Is it possible to transform the university? Or, more realistically, a university? My university? Is it better to be inside a university, utilising the protections it affords, or screaming on the outside?
I tend towards the no. The outside. The screaming. Yet happily, I apply for the job. I raise my hands and accept the protections offered.
Epicurus’s school would be preferable. The school admitted women and enslaved people—some of them concubines and mistresses. Unlike the other Athenian institutions of higher learning, Epicurus’ Garden didn’t require a formal education to be enrolled. Students sat around eating the humblest food imaginable—literally bread and water—and studied via discussion the concept of happiness. Happiness not as excess, or luxury, but as a hard-won state of being. Shared mental activity as an elevated state of living.
That kind of university doesn’t exist now. It can’t exist in a necrophilic world. How to do happiness now? In The Cancer Journals, Lorde writes:
The only really happy people I have ever met are those of us who work against these deaths with all the energy of our living, recognizing the deep and fundamental unhappiness with which we are surrounded, at the same time as we fight to keep from being submerged by it.
I thought at the time, working in the second-hand bike shop, that it was a stepping stone to something else. To support myself while I figured out what I wanted to be and do. To be busy and valued in a small way before something better—much better—took its place.
Now, I’d love to have that job. Earn a solid living. Holiday pay. Have time on the side to take part in whatever of life I thought was important. Tidy a store and greet customers and read books to pass the empty shop hours.
But that shop doesn’t exist anymore. That kind of job doesn’t exist anymore, either. The human world has gotten more instrumental, more necrophilic. Every unproductive hour of the day provokes self-hatred. An accusation of being somehow wrong, being the wrong way, sparks deep anxiety. And it’s getting harder to say no to, to remember that a human being’s vocation is to be fully human and nothing else.
So. That is what I have been reading and doing. By which I mean not really doing.
Ellena Savage’s (ellenasavage.com) work has been published recently in Paris Review Daily,Cosmonaut’s Avenue, and Kill Your Darlings. She is a former editor of The Lifted Brow and teaches writing at RMIT. Her essay collection Blueberries is coming out soon with Text Publishing.