Passionless in Peoria

I'm dull! I have no passions! I'm "The Man Without Qualities"!

Published January 16, 2003 8:16PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am a man in my mid-20s who married his girlfriend straight out of college. Although I admired this woman -- and still do -- as much as anyone else I know, we simply couldn't live under the same roof and were divorced after a little more than a year. In the hours of discussion that came before we decided to separate, she pointed out something that has since stuck with me for months: that I'm not a particularly interesting person, that I don't have any particular passion or drive in my life.

It wasn't said in anger or spite and, besides, I agree with her: In some form or another, it's been bothering me for years. She just had the ability -- by her words and also by the example she set -- to slap me in the face with it.

I know I'm a fairly dull person, I know that I don't have an interest or a passion to build my life around, and I want to change. Of course, it's not like I'm spending all my time sitting on my ass: I'm involved in all sorts of things, but it all just seems like killing time and going through the motions. The problem is that I haven't the faintest idea of where to start or how to find something I love or how to pull myself out of this rut. Join another club? Check out another book? There must be something I'm missing -- but what is it?


Dear Aimless,

A passion for something can grow out of careful and prolonged attention to a craft or field of study. It can be a quiet passion, say, for making bread. It needn't come with the force of revelation, suitable for a television miniseries starring Kevin Costner.

We Americans are a demonstrative and unsubtle lot, and we do love Kevin Costner. But, depending on how your personality is structured, you may actually get more satisfaction by simply living according to an inner sense of what is appropriate to you. I would not worry too much about becoming interesting to others. Instead, I would concentrate on finding the connections between the things you already do enjoy, and looking there for clues about who you are.

The fact that you do not yet have one controlling passion does not mean that all your experiences are equivalent. You might begin by trying to establish a hierarchy, so that you know, for instance, that you prefer Antonioni to Godard, or Spielberg to Lucas, or that your favorite pastas are, in order, carbonara, putanesca, Alfredo, clam and meatballs.

Also, try this: Think of three books you have read recently. Rank them. Of the best of the three, name the one best thing about it. Then ask yourself whether that is an important value for you. Why do you consider that element to be the best element in the best of those three books?

And, without going overboard, perhaps it is possible to identify one core value around which all the others orbit. Try thinking of the best thing that ever happened to you. Was it a time, for instance, when you were away from home and had been doing a lot of physical labor and felt suffused with a warm, general feeling of strength and well-being? Was it a time you made love and truly lost consciousness, found yourself liberated from your tiny concerns and part of an ocean of souls? Or was it a seemingly ordinary time you were sitting with your family and your mom was serving dinner, and you had a sense, perhaps, of utter peacefulness? Was it a time you stood up to a bully, or won a prize, or found some money on the street, or narrowly missed getting hit by a car? What was it about that moment? If you can extract some principles from such memories, you might find that you do, in fact, have a controlling passion in your life.

Actually, I was thinking about your letter all week, because your self-description brought to mind Robert Musil's great modern novel "The Man Without Qualities," which, by coincidence, on Sunday was sitting on the counter of the local fine used bookseller -- under a first edition of "The Lovely Bones." Having a weakness for possibly meaningful coincidence, I took it home -- the unabridged Knopf two-volume set, translated by Sophie Wilkins.

Ulrich, the man without qualities, is not a dull man; he is a mathematician, and he is accomplished. But he feels the equivalency of one action with another, and can muster no overriding sense of belonging or meaning. He suffers acute European modernist despair; he is caught in that intellectual labyrinth of magical futility that excludes, as by a magician's practiced misdirection, the easy cure of simply accepting radical chaos. (If Joseph K had only stopped and said, "Hey, shit happens!" If only. Like, in your dreams.)

In revolt against modernist despair, I take as a motto those words of the great American modernist poet Wallace Stevens: "The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly."

That is, divide like Jehovah the light from the dark and say this, this here, this is the unfathomable shit and I am going to let it be because I have no clue what it could possibly mean. It might mean hoo-ha or hee-hee. And, for the rest, I am going to stick to the stuff I can understand, which isn't much, but it's enough.

Because I am busy enough constructing fictions that allow me to function. I am busy enough constructing the fiction of my next footfall. I am busy enough, moment by moment, constructing the world, without which constant work the air hisses out of our dream and we asphyxiate like fish. And who would choose that? So we work hard at our comforting fictions; we pretend as hard as we can that we are actually alive. Having murdered all our gods, we work hard on our home brew of mercy.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.

By Cary Tennis

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