The Art of Losing Isn’t Hard to Master: Suffering in Games

Existential Comics is a weekly webcomic created by Corey Mohler that has been running since late 2013, with each strip humorously exploring a different aspect of philosophy. Generally, a strip places a number of famous philosophers in some contrived situation, one that will cause each philosopher to bring forth their signature arguments as part of the discussion. Such is the case for the strip published on October 12, 2015, entitled “Sorry! And the Nature of Suffering”.

The strip is one of many in the series that takes place during game night. Four philosophers—Friedrich Nietzsche, Epictetus, Buddha, and Arthur Schopenhauer—have gathered to play Sorry!, and through their discussion over the game the reader learns the basics of each philosopher’s approach to the question of suffering. Nietzsche attempts to exert his will on the board, Epictetus accepts that the punishments of the game are beyond his control, Buddha argues that the desire to win is the source of suffering, and Schopenhauer…well, to skip right to the punchline:

Schopenhauer: "We suffer because we were born."

Nietzsche: "What made you like this, Schopenhauer? You ruin the vibe at every game night."

Epictetus: "I've been imagining that he would the ruin the vibe this whole time."

As a vehicle for exploring approaches to suffering, I think Sorry! is an inspired choice. The game is a variation on the ancient Indian game pachisi, from which Parcheesi and Ludo also derive. All these games feature the mechanic of sending opponents’ pieces back to the starting position, but Sorry! is unique in that the name positions that mechanic (rather than, say, the race itself or the role of chance) as the game’s defining feature. In the supplemental text in which he expands on the concepts presented in the strip, Mohler writes that while in Sorry! “the goal is technically to get all your pieces to the ‘home’ area…most of the enjoyment comes from inflicting suffering on your opponents by knocking them back to the start at the last possible moment.” Of course, for every time someone like Nietzsche gloats at the chance to shout a sarcastic “Sorry!” there’s some like Epictetus suffering the indignity of restarting their journey.

One may wonder, given the likelihood that players will suffer at some point or another, why anyone would wish to play—not just Sorry!, but any game at all. Other games don’t necessarily make suffering as central to the experience as Sorry! does, but in theory the four philosophers of the comic strip could have had their discussion while playing innumerably many different games. Failure and frustration are features of just about any game that you can think of: being forced to pay rent in Monopoly, allowing the other team score a touchdown in American football, losing a life in Pac-Man, etc. We can expect to experience pain while playing all these games, yet we gladly keep playing them for pleasure. In fact, if these games never inflicted pain on us, we’d likely lose interest in them. That seems at least a little counterintuitive, right?

That apparent contradiction is the subject of Jesper Juul’s 2013 book The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, published as part of MIT Press’s Playful Thinking series. Juul is interested in what is called the paradox of failure, a specific instance of the paradox of painful art. In the same way that the better known paradox of tragedy captures the oddity of us seeking out works of art that cause us sadness, the paradox of failure encapsulates the weird reality of us playing games when they bring us suffering. Juul lays out the paradox as follows:

1. We generally avoid failure.

2. We experience failure when playing games.

3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.

Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure, p. 2

Juul does not find a resolution to this paradox by the end of the book, which is hardly a strike against him. The paradox of painful art has puzzled philosophers from Aristotle to David Hume all the way up to the present day; I found myself running up against it when I wrote about how I find murder mysteries relaxing. Rather than seeking a definitive answer, Juul instead approaches the paradox through the lens of different fields, from philosophy to psychology to game design, to uncover what each field can tell us about the paradox.

Those discussions are all interesting in their own right, even if Juul goes about them with a rather repetitive prose style. But what really struck me while reading The Art of Failure is something Juul only gets at indirectly: the importance of a player’s attitude toward failure when playing a game. This comes up a bit whenever notions of sportsmanship enter the discussion; few things are less enjoyable during a game than dealing with a sore loser. But thinking more broadly, games seem to present us with unusual sets of social expectations. Early on in the book, Juul draws a contrast between two scenarios, an unhelpful guest at dinner and an unhelpful opponent in a board game:

Imagine that you are dining with some people you have just met. You reach for the saltshaker, but suddenly one of the other guests, let’s call him Joe, looks at you sullenly, then snatches the salt away and puts it out of your reach. Later, when you are leaving the restaurant, Joe dashes ahead of you and blocks the exit door from the outside. Joe is being rude—when you understand what another person is trying to do, it is offensive, or at least confrontational, to prevent that person from doing it.

However, if you were meeting the same people to play the board game Settlers, it would be completely acceptable for the same Joe to prevent you from winning the game. In the restaurant as well as in the game, Joe is aware of your intention, and Joe prevents you from doing what you are trying to do. At the restaurant, this is rude. In the game, this is expected and acceptable behavior. Apparently, games give us a license to engage in conflicts, to prevent others from achieving their goals. When playing a game, a number of actions that would regularly be awkward and rude are recast as pleasant and sociable (as long as we are not poor losers, of course).

Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure, p. 10 (footnote omitted)

We can see this contrast at work in the comic strip mentioned earlier. In the first panel, when Nietzsche draws a Sorry! card and sends Epictetus’s piece back to the start, there’s nothing malicious about the act. Mohler even draws Nietzsche with a playful expression to show that the punishment here is all in good fun. It’s not until the subsequent panels that Nietzsche’s actions go from “pleasant and sociable” to “awkward and rude”: throwing Epictetus’s piece against the board, calling him an idiot, etc. In both phases, Nietzsche intends to inflict pain on his opponent, but only in the second phase do his actions read as unacceptable.

Now, saying that actions that cause suffering in games are acceptable is not the same as saying that they are desirable. We might think that Epictetus tolerates the punishment of returning to the start because it accompanies a fun night with friends or a stimulating challenge, but that he would prefer a hypothetical version of the game that did not include that mechanic. Indeed, a later panel reveals that Epictetus has been playing the game in a way that minimizes the suffering central to Sorry!

Epictetus: The only thing you can control is your own virtue, and the most virtuous thing to do is fulfill your civic responsibilities, which is why I select moves that best help all the players.

Nietzsche: You were doing that on purpose?! I thought you were just an idiot.

We might think that Nietzsche’s response is another example of his being a jerk, but I think his frustration with Epictetus is understandable here. Epictetus confesses that he has not been playing the game in the proper spirit. Even though such a cooperative approach to Sorry! is not exactly prohibited by the rules, it’s also clearly not what the game’s designers consider to be optimal play (again, the game is called Sorry!). Epictetus’s subversive approach is an extreme case, but it does remind me of one passage from The Art of Failure in which Juul discusses how designers often need to push players toward failure:

The contribution of failure [to growth] becomes even more clearly visible when it is absent. It is not that growth cannot happen without failure, but that failure concretely pushes us toward personal improvement, and players often need to be pushed because they, as game designer David Jaffe has said, are fundamentally lazy. Designer Soren Johnson of the Civilization series describes it as a general problem that players seek out the optimal path to play a game but stick to it even when they find it fundamentally uninteresting.

Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure, p. 59 (footnotes omitted, emphasis in original)

That optimal path that Johnson mentions is designed to avoid the prospects of failure and suffering; players who take that path are likely to succeed in an absolute sense but rob themselves of the game’s actual pleasures in the process. In the case of a round of Civilization played against computer-controlled opponents, perhaps such players will only inconvenience themselves. But when other human players are involved, we may expect something like Nietzsche’s frustration to emerge.

To draw an example from my own experience: I was once invited to play a board game that simulated air combat maneuvering, with each player having the goal of shooting down their opponents’ fighter planes. My friends approached the game in the intended fashion, looking for opportunities to engage their foes in a dog fight. I, on the other hand, did no such thing. Instead, I simply circled my planes around the fray, avoiding combat at all costs because I did not want to risk getting fired upon. You might think that I was aiming to win the game by just waiting out the madness, as though I were Foxface during the Hunger Games. But really, I was just worried about the possibility of failure, and so I found a strategy that eliminated that possibility.

The friend who had invited me was not amused. “If you don’t start fighting,” he told me, “I’m going to find you derelict of duty.” I then realized that my strategy for avoiding suffering violated the social contract of the game; it deprived my opponents of opportunities to fight and therefore made the game less enjoyable for everyone. Whether it’s my friends and I pretending to have dog fights or four philosophers arguing over Sorry!, the only way for us to have fun while playing a game is to embrace the suffering that comes our way.


That seems like as good a place as any to leave off. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this whole discussion. Do you have a preferred way of resolving the paradox of failure? Can you think of any games that don’t involve failure? Let me know in the comments!

I’d like to tip my cap to Chris Franklin of Errant Signal, whose video on Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy introduced me to Juul’s book. I think it’s one of Franklin’s best, and you can watch it below.

Similes and Emotion in S. E. Grove’s “The Waning Age”

The premise of S. E. Grove’s most recent novel, The Waning Age (Viking-Penguin Random House, 2019)—a world in which people lose their capacity to feel emotion during adolescence—presents the author with a challenge regarding the tone of the prose: how to narrate the story without conveying emotion? One might expect that Grove would employ a detached third-person point-of-view, the sort of fly-on-the-wall narration that one associates with Ernest Hemingway. Certainly that would be the advice I would give to a student who wished to write such a story.

But that is not the strategy on display here. Instead, Grove uses a first-person narrator, telling the story through the voice of her protagonist, Natalia Peña. Writing in first-person may well be expected for a young adult novel, but it undoubtedly makes Grove’s task more difficult. Natalia may not have emotion, but she does have subjectivity; to experience the world through her eyes must feel like something. Grove must somehow craft a narrative voice that conveys subjectivity while excluding emotion—no easy feat.

In this post, I’d like to examine one technique that Grove uses to achieve the required narrative voice, the simile. The use of similes in The Waning Age accomplishes two things regarding emotion. First, similes remind the reader that whatever emotions that characters who have waned are expressing are simulations of emotions rather than genuinely felt experiences. The act of simulating emotion is a constant in the novel, and the simile is the literary device best suited to highlighting that fact. Second, in specifically emulating the style of Raymond Chandler, the similes in The Waning Age make humor a central feature of Natalia’s voice and suggest that her subjective experiences are more complicated than her ostensibly emotionless society would have one believe.

The Art of Simulating Emotion

Although the world of The Waning Age is defined by the loss of the capacity to feel emotion, it is not the case that emotion—or at least the appearance of it—is absent from society. What we might call “true” or “natural” emotion may wane around the age of ten, but the characters have various methods for simulating emotion when the occasion calls for it or when the desire strikes them. Foremost among these methods are synthetic affects, or as everyone calls them, “synaffs”: chemicals that allow one to experience emotions, particularly the physiological effects that accompany them. Pharmaceutical companies like RealCorp earn immense profits from manufacturing synaffs, which only the wealthy can afford with any regularity. Indeed, RealCorp’s presence in this field instigates the plot: it kidnaps Natalia’s ten-year-old brother Calvino, who shows no signs of waning, so it can conduct experiments on his brain.

For those in the lower classes, however, one must simulate emotion from within. Body language and gestures are a go-to device. For example, one of Natalia’s foster parents, Tabby, is an actress who does not use synaffs for performances; Natalia calls her “one of those purists who thinks it’s about remembering emotion and cultivating that memory, then channeling it when you act” and says that “she is very good at feigning emotions when she wants to” (p. 39). Conversely, Natalia is adept reading other people’s body language, even if she thinks that it’s “a major drag…having to the study the angle of a person’s nostril to figure out what they’re feeling” (p. 15). Such a skill is especially useful living with someone as emotional as Calvino, for it allows Natalia to respond in a manner appropriate to the situation, even without experiencing the attendant emotion.

One might then expect that Grove would lean into Natalia’s perception of body language, peppering the narration with small details about the other characters. And it’s true, Grove does exactly that, and on occasion effectively so. There’s something very uncanny in how the receptionist at RealCorp abruptly switches from looking “briefly crestfallen” to giving a “reassuring smile” (p. 64), and her inability to interpret the mix of signals from Dr. Glout during the boardroom confrontation (“Knotted eyebrows, tight lips. His papery skin was blotchy; his arms rested unnaturally on the table as if he had to hold himself in place” [p. 286]) does well in creating a tense atmosphere. But Grove tends to rely on the same handful of gestures, such as eye rolls and raised eyebrows, so those details gradually lose distinctiveness and, therefore, effectiveness.

This is where Grove’s use of similes comes into play. Whereas her examples of body language get repeated to the point of meaninglessness, her similes consistently find fresh material to work with. Figurative language is already a vital tool for describing emotion, as it can link an abstract, subjective experience to a concrete vehicle. Furthermore, one can account for nuances in the tenor by changing the vehicle. There is a difference, for example, between saying that something is “as white as snow” (which makes it sound soft) and that it is “as white as salt” (which makes it sound harsh). The more specific the vehicle, the more nuanced the reader’s understanding of the tenor.

To see an example of how Grove uses similes, consider this early example in which Natalia describes how children look when they’re in the midst of waning: “Almost all of [Calvino’s] classmates are looking the way I did at that age, dull and kind of mystified, like they can’t figure out who stole all the Halloween candy” (p. 13). There are a number of emotions and attitudes at work here. A kid who “can’t figure out who stole all the Halloween candy” would be confused, certainly, but in a way that suggests sadness and innocence; it’s different from how someone seems when they can’t solve a crossword puzzle, or when they can’t find their car keys. This particular simile also suggests that Natalia sees them with a sympathetic eye, or at least knows that one ought to; she has, after all, been in that same situation.

Let’s look at one more example. This one concerns Hoffman, who is a preacher and Calvino’s birth father. When he sees Natalia for the first time, she realizes that he has mistaken her for her mother; when he recognizes his mistake, she says that “he crumpled like a sheet falling from a clothesline” (p. 226). This is a sudden shift in perception, rather than a gradual dawning; otherwise he may have been likened to a deflating bouncy castle. And while Hoffman is obviously disheartened, he’s not angry about it, or else Natalia may have compared him to a collapsing wall. Coupled with the strong verb “crumpled,” and one gets the sense of exaggerated disappointment that the author is going for. All that is contained within the image of the falling sheet.

Based on this discussion, one may think about figurative language in the same way that Tabby thinks about acting: one searches through their history and their knowledge for the proper experience, then channels that experience when they write. Also like acting: it is always a simulation, never a reality. The vehicle may share important qualities with the tenor, but it is not identical to it. This is why I think that Grove’s preference for similes over other forms of figurative language, such as metaphor or personification, is so appropriate. Similes make explicit both the act of comparison and the artificial nature of that comparison. In a simile, A is like B, but not B itself. In most contexts, this distancing makes similes weaker than metaphor, but in The Waning Age, their use reinforces the novel’s world building: people experience something like emotion, but not emotion itself.

The Influence of Raymond Chandler

The first simile in The Waning Age that caught my attention occurs in the first paragraph of the novel, wherein Natalia describes the hotel where she works a cleaner: “Inside, the walls are white marble, the lobby chairs are rose damask, and the carpet looks like the polar bear population of the Arctic, scythed and steamrolled” (p .1) The nature of that simile—on the surface incongruous but upon reflection deadly accurate—immediately calls to mind the style of Raymond Chandler, whose writing is famous for bizarre and witty similes. Chandler will say that someone is “about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food” or has “a face like a collapsed lung,” and one will simultaneously laugh at the joke and marvel at the precision of the image. In The Waning Age, Grove tries to give Natalia the same sort of voice found in Chandler’s novels.

Just in case one thinks that this is speculation, I would note that Natalia explicitly models herself on Chandler’s most famous protagonist, Philip Marlowe. She believes that Marlowe demonstrates how one can get by in an increasingly emotionless society:

[Marlowe] comes as close as I’ve seen to our emotionless future. Maybe Chandler had a nightmare, and Marlowe’s world was in it, or maybe, prophet-like, he could see the slow decline approaching in the cold hearts and callous faces of 1930s Los Angeles. However it happened, his Marlowe does it—even in a world still premised on the availability and influence of emotion, Marlowe moves through it, calm and unflappable, making it seem plausible that one might survive in a hard, sordid, unfair world without the soaring ecstasies and raptures of triumph and true loves that seem to carry every other character ever written.

S. E. Grove, The Waning Age, p. 37

Natalia does not merely admire Marlowe’s cool affect in the face of an unfeeling world; she puts that influence into practice. Indeed, she later remarks that latching onto a fictional character as a sort of life guide is quite common in her society:

Lots of us witty people do it. Books and old screen dramas are like disorganized bargain stores where you hunt for an angle; someone memorable, someone to imitate, someone who gives you a usable script. Someone behaving with emotional coherence so that you can follow along, seeming both emotional and coherent without being either.

S. E. Grove, The Waning Age, p. 118

In addition to borrowing survival tactics from Chandler’s novels, she also borrows their language, their penchant for similes, as a way of understanding the world around her. For instance, in observing how a liberal arts education fails to instill a sense of morality in children who have waned, she reasons that “nowadays serving up Shakespeare to a bunch of untrained adolescents is like handing a serial killer a pack of gum” (p. 78). It may distract them for a moment, but it will not get to the root of the problem: their incapacity for true empathy. It is that particular simile that allows Natalia to see the flaw in that system.

Going into the paratext of Chandler work, one may discover another way in which Grove’s similes are Chandler-esque: they show a speaker grappling with a language they are not fully fluent in. This is a point that Stephen L. Tanner brings up in his article “The Function of Simile in Raymond Chandler’s Novels” (paywalled), in discussing the relationship between Chandler, who grew up in England, and American vernacular:

Chandler once said, “I had to learn American just like a foreign language.” And in learning it, he fell in love with it. “I’m an intellectual snob who happens to have a fondness for the American vernacular,” he wrote in a letter, “largely because I grew up on Latin and Greek. As a result, when I use slang, solecisms, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately.” Elsewhere he said, “If I hadn’t grown up on Latin and Greek, I doubt if I would know so well how to draw the line between what I call a vernacular style and what I should call an illiterate or faux naif style. That’s a hell of a lot of difference to my mind.” Chandler thought of himself primarily as a stylist, and his distance from American English allowed him to do what he did with it. In this respect, as Frederic Jameson has remarked, his situation was similar to that of Nabokov: “the writer of an adopted language is already a kind of stylist by force of circumstance.”

Stephen L. Tanner, “The Function of Simile in Raymond Chandler’s Novels,” Studies in American Humor, vol. 3, no. 4, 1984, p. 340 (internal citations omitted)

Whereas Chandler uses humorous similes to approach the language of another country, Natalia uses the same technique to approach the language of emotion. Unavoidably, every instance of figurative language will carry some connotation, some emotional charge, that colors how one views the situation. Even if Natalia cannot access a feeling through direct experience, she can still be conversant in emotion, as it were, by adopting this humorous style.

Granted, according to the internal logic of The Waning Age, humor is not exactly an emotion. In one of the essays that Calvino writes as part of Dr. Glout’s testing regimen, he presents the case that humor is not an emotion but rather an instinct. “Humor,” he writes, “is achieved by the intellect, which is part of reason. If you laugh at a joke it is not the same as laughing because you are happy. Just as crying because you are sad is not the same as crying because someone broke your leg” (p. 71). (It may be odd to treat a ten-year-old boy as an authority, especially when he is is talking to an actual academic, but as the only major character who still experiences natural emotion Calvino has more firsthand knowledge on the subject that anyone else.) But because they share some behaviors, one could say that humor is adjacent to emotion, in the way that Chandler’s classically educated perspective on American vernacular is adjacent to the genuine article.

Indeed, as Tanner goes on to suggest, humor can be useful in concealing emotion, in addition to approaching it. He says that Chandler’s similes “often consist of a self-deflating wit that disguises the sentimental note in Marlowe and his knight-
errantry” (p. 343). Natalia is well aware of this tendency: “I know he’s not actually emotionless. Sometimes his face gets red. Sometimes he even gets mad” (p. 37). Might I suggest, given the reveal near the end of the novel that Natalia is regaining the capacity to feel emotion, that the similes in Grove’s book achieve a similar effect? Might I suggest that we’re not wrong in inferring sadness from child without Halloween candy, or disappointment from the crumpled sheet? Natalia has always been capable, physically, of having true emotion; she merely lacked the awareness to process her thoughts as such.

A Brief Concluding Note

At this point, we seem to have reached two contradictory conclusions. In the first part, we found that Grove use similes because Natalia cannot feel true emotion, while in the second part we found that Grove uses similes because Natalia secretly can feel true emotion. So which is it? Surely it can’t be both—that would be a contradiction, right?

In a certain sense, yes, this is a contradiction in the novel, one which is never resolved. But this appears to be a contradiction that the novel is fine with—encourages, even. On multiple occasions, Calvino questions Dr. Glout when the researcher appears to express remorse regarding the the child’s situation (e.g., “I’m afraid [Natalia] can’t be here right now” [p. 73], “Sorry, I’m trying to keep things calm in there for you, and having people go in and out wouldn’t help” [p. 101]). After all, Calvino reasons, if Dr. Glout has waned, then he can’t be afraid of or sorry about anything. Dr. Glout explains that he’s using figures of speech, but Calvino is right to point out the oddity of using the language of emotional for emotionless purposes.

I feel that Grove is inviting the reader to take on the role of Calvino while reading The Waning Age, to question whether anything in the novel is truly without emotion. I will admit that at times, this posture feels like an escape hatch for the author, a way to preemptively brush aside any critique of the world-building: “Oh, that there? That’s an intentional inconsistency. You’re supposed to find that fishy.” But I’ll also admit that such moments got me to reflect on what I thought counted as emotion, and to consider those preconceptions more critically. Perhaps that’s worth some internal inconsistency.


I’ve said a lot more on this book than I’d predicted when I started, but I’d still love to hear your thoughts on The Waning Age. How do you think it handles writing an emotionless perspective in a first-person voice? Are there any techniques that you think exemplify its success or failure in that regard? Let me know in the comments!

Special thanks to Krysta of Pages Unbound, whose review of The Waning Age brought it to my attention. I can’t say that enjoyed it quite as much as she did; I found that beyond its main themes and this particular literary technique that the book seemed rather rote. But I did enjoy thinking and writing about it, which I do believe is more important.

And, as always, thanks for your time!

Three Fragments on a Painting by John Singer Sargent

I.

The above image is an 1884 painting called The Breakfast Table. The artist is the American portraitist John Singer Sargent, and the subject is the artist’s youngest sister, Violet. In this painting, Sargent has captured his sister in an instant of the perfectly everyday: reading a book over breakfast.

It’s clearly a page-turner, given that she’s staring down at the text while peeling an orange, not even glancing back at the blade that she’s sliding under the skin. If you look closely, you’ll notice that she’s even got the book propped up on some more oranges, which is perhaps the most charming detail here. It’s a potentially chaotic moment in this otherwise composed setting: what if her hand slips? what if the oranges roll off? When one thinks on it perhaps too long, the scene seems to have the potential for slapstick. Yet, looking at Violet’s expression, I cannot believe that any such calamity could occur. She’s too studious in her reading, too steady with the knife she’s holding, for any ill to befall her. I know, intellectually, that she will need to turn the page at some point, but I can imagine her holding this position for hours on end, a model of concentration.

The fact that I can see both chaotic and controlled futures in the world of the painting perhaps explains why I’m uncertain how to categorize it. It’s easy to call The Breakfast Table a genre painting, that is, a painting that depicts a scene from everyday life. Genre paintings tend to be alive with action; in this case, it’s the tension surrounding the woman, the book, and the knife. But we also see the poise associated with traditional portraiture, and given how much physical space on the canvas is dedicated to the breakfast room’s furnishings, one could even call it an artificial landscape.

You might think that such labeling is merely academic, but the context in which one views a work of art is important, and genre is a massive piece of context. I first saw The Breakfast Table with the expectation of seeing a portrait, based on what I knew of the artist, and so I first focused on the features and demeanor of the one person in the frame. But were I instead told it was a genre painting ahead of time, I’d likely focus my attention on the subject’s actions, and if someone said it was a landscape, I’d give myself over to the gestalt sensation of the room. In each case, I’d still judge the painting by how compelling and truthful it is, but just what would constitute truth may vary depending on which frame of reference I employ. Would the warmth of a morning at the breakfast table, which I’d want to find in a landscape, necessarily be welcome in the expression of someone being portrayed deep in concentration? I think it unlikely.

II.

The Breakfast Table is currently part of the collection of the Harvard University Arts Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts; according to their website, one can view the painting in Room 2100 on the second floor, a gallery themed around “Centuries of Tradition, Changing Times: Art for an Uncertain Age” (perhaps I was onto something in the above section regarding all those tensions). As you have probably gathered from that last sentence, I have not seen The Breakfast Table in person. I was not even aware that Harvard had art museums, though that fact shouldn’t really surprise me.

Instead, I found The Breakfast Table through an art book, specifically, John Singer Sargent by Trevor Fairbrother (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994). The book, which was made in association with the Smithsonian, is more or less what you would expect, with scans of paintings from all stages of Sargent’s development as an artist and informative writing from Fairbrother to place those paintings in context. At least, that’s what I assume one would expect, as this is only the second art book that I’ve read.

I’m honestly not sure why I haven’t read more art books in the past. Art history represents a significant hole in my knowledge base; watching Jeopardy!, few categories fill me with as much dread as the fine arts ones. My ignorance is especially odd because I write so many ekphrastic poems. (The last poem I had published, for example, was inspired by Fernand Léger’s painting Animated Landscape.) Every time I sit down to write something on a painting or a sculpture or what have you, I rediscover that I can’t really place the poem in its full historical context. I may know, for example, that a given work was made during the Gilded Age, but what art was like during the Gilded Age, or how it differed from what came before or after, is beyond me. Art books seem like a perfect way to fill that gap, especially now that I live in the country, where there are far fewer art museums.

Granted, I find art books to be somewhat odd on a conceptual level. Let’s set aside that, to build on Walter Benjamin, such books cannot convey the “aura” that viewing the original in person does, and instead let’s focus on the nature of books and paintings. To read a book is a continuous process; you are always moving from one word to the next, turning the pages to pull the thread of the book along. This is different from how you view of a painting, where you linger over the brushstrokes and the play of light and so forth. If someone were to stop dead in their tracks and observe the same spot on a canvas for twenty minutes, we’d assume they that were deep in aesthetic appreciation; if someone did the same to the book they were reading, we’d assume that they had merely zoned out.

To read an art book, I’d say, is to negotiate the tension between two impulses. At least, that’s what I’m finding as I read Fairbrother’s book. To the extent that I’m reading a book, my instinct is to keep moving along, to read more about, for instance, the context in which Sargent painted The Breakfast Table (the scandal surrounding his Portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau at the Salon of 1883, his experiments in Impressionism, etc.). To the extent that I’m admiring a collection of paintings, though, my instinct is to slow down, to investigate each painting I come across, to scour The Breakfast Table for evidence of the claims Fairbrother makes. I simultaneously believe I am moving too quickly and too slowly, which is as good an approximation of life as any.

III.

In describing how Sargent frames The Breakfast Table with furnishings cropped by the edge of the canvas, Fairbrother states that the artist wishes to “enhance the viewer’s sense of privileged intrusion into the scene” (p. 56). The word “privileged” there carries two connotations. The first sense, the one that Fairbrother certainly intends, is the connotation of intimacy. The subject, a woman reading to herself, is engaged in an inherently private activity. She is alone not only in her physical space, but in her mental one as well. To read is to temporarily seal oneself off from the surrounding environment by imagining a different one, and to view this painting is to breach that seal.

The second sense, the one that Fairbrother does not likely intend but is still fitting, is the connotation of wealth and status. In his caption to the painting, Fairbrother calls The Breakfast Table “an interior devoted to the charms and comforts of middle-class domesticity: silver, linen, and roses in an aura of tranquility and privacy” (p. 55). While the woman at the table is the focal point of the work, the great majority of the canvas is dedicated to depicting the fine and tasteful décor that surrounds her. In viewing the scene from this angle, the audience may have a chance to see how the other half lives.

I don’t think that the woman’s reading is incidental to this display of material privilege, either. Even with rising literacy rates and falling production costs over time, reading is still in some sense a luxury activity, or at least a luxurious one. There is obviously the monetary cost of acquiring new books, but let’s not forget the cost in time as well. Even the shortest of novels will take hours to read, and if a person must work to make a living, or must care for children or elderly family members, they will have far less time to enjoy literature than will the idle rich. (For an almost comical illustration: think how long it can take to linger over a monstrously sized art book, and then imagine someone trying to squeeze it into their commute on public transportation.)

More than anything else, that’s what The Breakfast Table has come to mean for me: a reminder that to read, to write poetry, to even consider running this blog on the side, are all products of relative privilege. There are invisible costs to every human activity, but we can become aware of them in oddest ways. I cannot imagine Sargent had anything like this in mind when he painted his sister reading in his family’s dining room. But a work of art is an opportunity for self-reflection, as much a mirror as it is a window.


Thank you for reading this most recent installment in my “Fragments” series. You would perhaps like to check out my previous efforts in the form: on the 2017 National Book Festival, on nothing, and on a photograph of Yankees game. And if you have any thoughts on John Singer Sargent’s The Breakfast Table, art books, or anything else on topic, let me know in the comments!

On Paying to See Free Shakespeare

I was already aware of the line-standing business—people getting hired to stand in lines on behalf of others—before I picked up Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. But I had only heard about it in the context of American government, mostly in the form of lobbyists hiring homeless people to wait in line for seating at the Supreme Court or Congress. Sandel brought another place where the business has bloomed to my attention: getting tickets to Free Shakespeare in the Park.

Free Shakespeare in the Park is a New York City civic tradition dating back to the 1950s. It is, as the name suggests, free to the public, but because Central Park’s Delacorte Theater has a finite number of seats, tickets are given out on a first come, first served basis. Some folks, who either can’t or don’t want to stand in line to get tickets, have taken to employing line-standers to do the waiting for them. According to Sandel, the price for a line-stander in 2010 was “as much as $125 per ticket for the free performances” (p. 21). A lot of people, including the festival organizers and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, have criticized the trend. So why don’t we talk about it some? Why does paying someone to wait in line for free Shakespeare tickets strike so many people as wrong?

On their website The Public Theater, the organization that produces Free Shakespeare in the Park, puts forth their dedication to “to developing an American theater that is accessible and relevant to all people.” The fact that tickets are free is vital for both of those goals.

Accessibility is obvious: not charging for admittance removes one of the biggest material barriers to seeing live theater. So long as one has the time and the ability to go, anyone from the richest to the poorest can attend. In terms of making theater relevant: how relevant can theater possibly be if the great majority people are, for practical purposes, barred from seeing it? You could put on the most perceptive, challenging, socially-conscious production of The Taming of the Shrew, a production that would meaningfully contribute to conversations on gender relations in modern and period societies, but its impact will be limited if only the most elite members of society can afford a ticket.

On top of all that, Sandel would add that charging money for public theater not only thwarts the festival’s goal of making theater accessible and relevant, it fundamentally corrupts the whole enterprise:

The Public Theater sees its free outdoor performances as a public festival, a kind of civic celebration. It is, so to speak, a gift the city gives itself. Of course, seating is not unlimited; the entire city cannot attend on any given evening. But the idea is to make Shakespeare freely available to everyone, without regard to the ability to pay. Charging for admission, or allowing scalpers to profit from what is meant to be a gift, is at odds with this end. It changes a public festival into a business, a tool for private gain. It would be as if the city made people pay to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. (p. 33)

(Upon reading that last sentence, I said aloud to myself: “Sandel, don’t give people ideas!”)

Moving past the ethical implications of paying people to stand in line for Shakespeare in the Park, which I find distasteful, I find myself wondering what this phenomenon says about our attitudes towards Shakespeare.

On the one hand, I’m absolutely heartened that Shakespeare is still popular enough that people are willing to pay actual money for a chance to see a free performance of his work. There’s still a demand for his alchemical mixtures of drama, humor, character and poetry. There are still plenty of people who want to see his plays put on stage, who may find themselves inspired to delve deeper into his work, to further adapt it, to challenge or rebut it, and to spread it to subsequent generations. That a public festival for Shakespeare draws such interest warms me further: in an era of infinitely many niche audiences, it’s nice to hang on to the few common touchstones in English literature.

On the other hand, the fact that some people are willing to pay to see free Shakespeare doesn’t mean that those people necessarily value it more than those who aren’t. One suspects that the wealthy are most likely to pay for this sort of service, and the marginal value of a dollar is just so much lower for them. Sandel hints at this point when he draws an analogy to another gathering of the masses, a baseball game:

[T]he people sitting in the expensive seats at the ballpark often show up late and leave early. This makes me wonder how much they care about baseball. Their ability to afford seats behind home plate may have more to do with the depth of their pockets than their passion for the game. They certainly don’t care as much as some fans, especially young ones, who can’t afford box seats but who can tell you the batting average of every player in the starting lineup. Since market prices reflect the ability as well as the willingness to pay, they are imperfect indicators of who most values a particular good. (pp. 31-32)

For the people in the luxury boxes and the seats behind home plate, going to a baseball game is more of a status symbol or a networking opportunity than an expression of actual interest in the sport. I’m not sure theater works in quite the same way. But now I’m thinking of the first episode of Slings & Arrows, in which the VIPs in the crowd are listening to a hockey game during a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’m starting to see that scene as less comically absurd than I’d first taken it.

But what do y’all think? What does the line-standing trade for Free Shakespeare in the Park tell us about our relationship to Shakespeare? Is it good or bad, both or neither, or at least interesting? Let me know in the comments!

Other Deserts Are Needed: “The Minotaur” by Albert Camus

Albert Camus’s 1939 essay “The Minotaur, or The Stop in Oran” (translated into English by Justin O’Brien and collected in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays) presents the reader with an unusual landscape of the Algerian city. Oran, in Camus’s estimation, is a city that has walled itself in, a place “devoid of poetry.” Yet when he says that, he is not disparaging the city—he is singing its virtues.

“The Minotaur” begins with one of Camus’s grand assertions about the state of the world: “There are no more deserts. There are no more islands.” He is, obviously, not referring to the physical geography of the earth but rather to the role that such places play in our psychology. “In order to understand the world,” he says, “one has to turn away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better, one has to hold them at a distance for a time.” The deserts and islands of the world, literal or metaphorical, allow one the space and silence to reflect, to confront the absurdity of our existence and accept it.

Yet, as Camus argues, it can be difficult to find such a place, especially at this late point in human history. Too many cities “are too full of the din of the past,” swarming with too many potential distractions. I’ll quote his quick tour of Europe’s cultural capitals at length, both because it will illustrate his point, and because it features some of the most sparkling prose in the collection:

Paris is often a desert for the heart, but at certain moments from the heights of Père-Lachaise there blows a revolutionary wind that suddenly fills that desert with flags and fallen glories. So it is with certain Spanish towns, with Florence or with Prague. Salzburg would be peaceful without Mozart. But from time to time there rings out over the Salzach the great proud cry of Don Juan as he plunges toward hell. Vienna seems more silent; she is a youngster among cities. Her stones are no older than three centuries and their youth is ignorant of melancholy. But Vienna stands at a crossroads of history. Around her echoes the clash of empires. Certain evenings when the sky is suffused with blood, the stone horses on the Ring monuments seem to take wing.

By contrast, as Camus would have it, Oran is the rare city “without soul and without reprieve.” Rather than classical music and Gothic architecture, a visitor to Oran will find much more evidence of the contemporary: boxing matches, commercial kitsch, and youths who model their fashion off Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich. One might associate such modern diversions with the culture of advertising—that is, with the opposite of silence—but I can see how these features of Oran might bring one solitude. Such things can seem ephemeral, lacking the persistence of Mozart or Louis XIV. They come and go so quickly, one may fail to even take notice of them.

But for as much as I enjoyed “The Minotaur” on an aesthetic level, I can’t help but think Camus finds silence in Oran simply because he hasn’t listened closely enough. The whole world is stuffed to the brim with connections waiting to be uncovered.

I often think back to the stone wall that runs through the woods by my old middle school in northwest New Jersey. It’s the sort of feature that Camus would surely love in Oran. (Seriously, he’s rather obsessed with the role of stones in the city.) But it’s also a structure charged with history. True, I don’t know the name of the person who piled stone upon stone. But I know it was built with a purpose: to mark the boundaries between farms, back in the days before suburban encroachment. And I know the geological processes that made it possible: the receding of glaciers from the last ice age, and the raw materials they left behind. This is far from a glamorous, textbook-style history, yes. But those thoughts are still capable of distracting me from pure contemplation.

Indeed, perhaps because he is a writer, Camus cannot help but think on the history of Oran, cannot help but distract himself from his ostensible purpose. For example, when he spends a night around the boxing ring, he indulges himself by exploring the socio-historical context behind one of the bouts, a battle between a fighter from Oran and one from Algiers:

Back in history, these two North African cities would have already bled each other white as Pisa and Florence did in happier times. Their rivalry is all the stronger just because it probably has no basis. Having every reason to like each other, they loathe each other proportionately. The Oranese accuse the citizens of Algiers of “sham.” The people of Algiers imply that the Oranese are rustic. These are bloodier insults than they might seem because they are metaphysical. And unable to lay siege to each other, Oran and Algiers meet, compete, and insult each other on the field of sports, statistics, and public works.

Again, this is not necessarily the lofty sort of history that Camus has in mind when he talks about Paris or Vienna. But it’s still history, still a force that contextualizes life for the screaming fans who have flocked to the fights.

I suspect that Camus finds the silence he seeks in Oran not because it is present there, but because Camus needs it to be present. As Namara Smith has argued, the Algerian desert, a fixture of Camus’s writing, acts as a blank canvas for his thematic concerns. “Although Camus, in his journalism,” Smith argues, “was a perceptive and sympathetic observer of the mistreatment of Arab and Berber Algerians by French colonial authorities, the novels and essays on which his reputation depends all use the empty Algerian desert to stage their dramas of solitary heroism.” To say Camus denies the history present in Oran and other such places may be a stretch, but he seems willing to overlook it to suit his own artistic ends. It’s a beautiful essay, “The Minotaur,” one that I’m sure that I’ll reread many times in the future, but it’s a piece that can’t help but ring the slightest bit false.

*          *          *

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this slight detour into philosophy. I don’t often write about the subject, but if you liked this piece, then you may be interested in “Living Like the Reeds,” a post about stoicism, Aesop’s Fables, and the poetry of A. R. Ammons.

Murder Mysteries and Relaxation

I don’t watch very much in the way of television, so I don’t know what it says about my taste that Father Brown is one of my favorite shows. Inspired by the detective stories of G. K. Chesterton, Father Brown follows the adventures of the parish priest of the fictional English town of Kembleford (played by Mark Williams). As someone who spends much of his day inside a confessional booth, Father Brown is well-versed what drives people to commit heinous crimes, and he uses that insight—along with some genre-requisite sleuthing—to crack the case and, hopefully, save the guilty party’s soul.

This being a detective show, Father Brown has meddled in a fair number of police investigations. As of 2018, there have been 70 episodes of Father Brown. That’s 70 crimes for the priest to solve, which is an absurdly high number for a village in the English countryside. And the majority of those crimes are murders, which means that on a “homicides per capita” basis, the Cotswolds of this universe might as well be a war zone.

Now, it’s a common joke among mystery fans that, if all the murders on these British detective shows happened in real life, the countryside would be completely depopulated within the year. That the premise for a show like Father Brown in ridiculous is neither a new observation nor an interesting one. Rather, I’m more interested in my emotional response to all this murder.

A murder mystery can elicit all sorts of emotions from the audience. For one thing, the whodunit arouses one’s curiosity—even the name of the genre is a question. For another, there’s some vicarious thrill-seeking in following the detective as they track down the killer, aware of the peril they potentially face. There’s even an element of escapist voyeurism to murder mysteries, as they tend to involve aristocratic families in very fancy houses. All these are reasonable sounding guesses for what I might get out of Father Brown, but none of them hit the mark. No, I just find the show relaxing. This demands the follow-up question: how can a murder plot be relaxing?

The thing is, I know I’m not alone in this. My mother, to name just one example, will binge through reruns of Criminal Minds or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when she’s home sick from work, or she’s just finished unpacking and is tired from the trip. Why would my mother and I, when looking for a show to unwind to, pick, out of all possible subjects, murder?

A big reason, I suspect, relates to the form of a murder mystery. An episode of a show like Father Brown or Criminal Minds is a self-contained entity: it starts with a crime, ends with an arrest, no loose ends or hooks for the next episode. There’s no feeling of confusion going in or unsatisfied curiosity going out. These episodes will also follow a fairly set formula for getting from crime-to-arrest: a cold open showing or setting the stage for the crime, the detective or cops arriving on scene, the ups and downs of the investigation, the reveal, etc. If you watch one of these shows when it’s first broadcast, you can practically set your watch based on where you are in the narrative. That predictability may sound boring, but I think of it as more like the progression of rhymes in a sonnet: comforting in how it chimes.

Still, that only explains the appeal of formula television, not murder mysteries specifically. The same principles would apply to a medical procedural or a multi-camera domestic sitcom. What gives a murder show its particular soothing charm?

Brianna Rennix offers up a possible answer to that question. In a recent essay for Current Affairs, Rennix, who also finds murder mysteries relaxing, suggests that the appeal of a show like Poirot (her detective show of choice) lies in how it presents the act and effects of a murder:

[T]he Genteel Murder Mystery is about taking something horrific and making it charming, cushioning it in several layers of gauze, blunting all its sharp edges. It’s about shielding ourselves psychologically from a spectrum of human experience that, if we were fully conscious of it, would probably poison whatever sense of hope or pleasure we derive from our luckier experiences.

In Rennix’s view, when the audience for a Genteel Murder Mystery watches these sanitized depictions of murder, they can come to see the fact of murder as “an anodyne triviality,” which is much easier to deal with than, say, the six o’clock news. Why not unleash untold suffering upon the fictional Kembleford if it makes living in the actual world more bearable?

I like Rennix’s essay quite a bit, and I think that this “anodyne triviality” angle has some legs to it. One potential problem, though, is that it might be too generalizable to other genres of television. For example, might we say that a medical procedural does the same thing to life-threatening ailments that whodunits do to murder, making a certain “spectrum of human experience” more palatable? If there are people who turn to medical procedurals rather whodunits to relax, then I’m not sure Rennix has identified something inherent to murder mysteries, but rather to a particular style of storytelling.

We might be running up against a problem in philosophy known as the paradox of tragedy: why is it that we often derive from pleasure from representations of things we would find displeasurable is real life? It can be difficult to come up with a solution to the paradox of tragedy that isn’t applicable to art in general (e.g., we can draw pleasure from the skillful narrative craft of a tragedy, but that’s true of all stories and not just tragedies). A few years ago, Philosophy Tube made a video about this paradox as it applies to the horror genre, which frames the debate in an approachable way.

We’re not going to resolve the paradox in a casual blog post, so I’m going to leave this one open to you. Do you find murder mysteries and the like relaxing, and if so, why do you think that is? Let me know in the comments!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another post about Father Brown that I need to get around to writing.

If you liked this post, you might also like this older piece I wrote about the ethical experience questions I had while playing the idle game classic, A Dark Room.

Recent Publication: Amsterdam Quarterly

I’m excited to announce that one of my poems, “Qualia,” is now available to read over at Amsterdam Quarterly, an online literary magazine based in the Netherlands. I’m really happy to see this particular poem get a home; it’s the first one in a long time where I just let myself cut loose with the sound and the subject.

Amsterdam Quarterly

Special thanks to editor Bryan Monte for selecting the poem and for keeping all the contributors up-to-date on the build-up to publication.

You can read “Qualia” at this link, and be sure to check out the other contributors’ works as well!