Van Cliburn, the famous Texan pianist who died recently, told his pastor late in life, according to the Fort Worth Star Telegram, “I’m more afraid of living than dying.” The pastor’s takeaway was that Cliburn was prepared to meet his maker, not that he was ill-equipped to face daily life. But couldn’t Cliburn have meant that daily life was fearsome?
Cliburn bore massive fame at the age of 23 for winning the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, right at a pivotal moment in the Cold War when nuclear attacks seemed just around the corner. Winning a prestigious piano competition doesn’t sound so hot these days, but in 1958 Cliburn had rock star status, as The Washington Post described in its excellent obituary. He returned from Moscow to a ticker tape parade in New York. But in the years following that shooting star moment, critics said he lost his edge as a performer. The pianist must have awoken every day seeking that moment of glory and finding it elusive, or at least a little stale.
As the years went on he performed the song that won the competition, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, over and over. His repertoire expanded little, and by his early 40s, he quit performing concerts. To me, that sounds like someone “afraid of living,” someone stuck in a world where you try to do your best and it turns out to be less glorious than you anticipated. You wake up, play the piano, eat three meals, go to bed, and it doesn’t end the Cold War. No one throws you a ticker tape parade. “His life may be seen as a long study in anticlimax,” the Post obituary reads.
Can’t waking up to your same old self every day be debilitating? You’re playing the same concerto, over and over, and it’s not bad but it isn’t fulfilling. Walker Percy captured this staleness well in all of his novels and in his essays. Percy said we longed for crises to jolt us out of the daily debilitation. Cliburn needed another Cold War moment where his piano fingers helped avert a nuclear war. But he was back in the United States, prosperous from his fame, floating along. More than four decades ago, Percy predicted that our modern middle class selves would become fearful of mundane life, and we would turn to distractions from our own prosperity. We would long for crises — even death!
“[A]s Einstein once said, ordinary life in an ordinary place on an ordinary day in the modern world is a dreary business. I mean dreary,”Percy wrote in his 1977 essay “Questions They Never Asked Me.” “People will do anything to escape this dreariness: booze up, hit the road, gaze at fatal car wrecks, shoot up heroin, spend money on gurus, watch pornographic movies, kill themselves, even watch TV.”
Television is the ultimate escape from the anticlimax of our lives. A friend of mine recently confessed to her addiction to what she called “Netflix numbing.” Instead of facing the modern dreary world and her own soul she has Netflix marathons. She said it was no different than doing drugs, but in this case television was the distraction instead of heroin. We watch when our lives have become boring. Of course this was the premise of Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, a story of a man who couldn’t bear the normalcy of modern life — he was “sunk in everydayness” — so he went to the movies to live vicariously through the silver screen characters.
We here in New York were living our own “studies in anticlimax” until a crisis came last October: Hurricane Sandy. I’m not sure people outside of New York understood how devastating the storm was to the city. The storm surge in Manhattan was the highest recorded and shut down the headquarters of the world’s most powerful banks and for a couple days, the stock exchange. The city, based on an island, was forced to seal off bridges and tunnels, and shut down subway lines whose electric switches were ruined by seawater. Gas was hard to find. Lower Manhattan was completely dark for days. When I walked through the powerless East Village — normally an area with a hopping night life — there was a real problem with lack of food. Grocery stores’ supplies had spoiled and people had to walk north, to areas with power, to find something to eat.
As a reporter, I’ve been covering the storm and its aftermath, and as terrible as it was I noticed that it had a clarifying force for most people. They welcomed the jolt. Here was a climax! Here was a crisis where you had to prove yourself! The night of the storm a gaggle of police officers gathered on the street outside my apartment, which had become a launching point for rescue boats. It was late, they were soaked, but they were having a great time. They ribbed each other’s paddling skills.
After the storm, almost each person I interviewed who lost all their possessions or their entire homes mentioned that they were glad to have a simpler life. They were almost relieved to be rid of their prosperity. Of course they were sad, frustrated, weary, but they showed a certain sterlingness that I would guess Sandy had brought to the surface.
A crisis also makes you more willing to connect with human beings around you. How is your place? Everyone OK? People in our neighborhood helped the local restaurants pump water out and sort through their ruined inventories. But now, things are back to normal. People complain to the restaurant about bad service. Neighbors don’t talk to each other as much.
The boredom of prosperity and comfort has returned. Routine rules again. We float along. I wake up and consider what to wear. I swipe my subway card. I peer at a computer screen and read emails. I consider whether to buy that thing. Friends text about meeting up after work. The normalcy, the anticlimax, can be crushing. It’s 2:30 p.m., you’re fed and clothed, you have work to do, and somehow you are discontent, itching for distractions.
Here’s how Percy confronts the mundane.
“This may be the main function of art in this particular age: to reverse the devaluation,” Percy wrote. “What the artist or writer does is not depict a beautiful tree–this only depresses you more than ever– no, he depicts the commonplaceness of an everyday tree. Depicting the commonplace allows the reader to penetrate the commonplace. The only other ways the husk of the commonplace can be penetrated is through the occurrence of natural disasters or the imminence of one’s own death. These measures are not readily available on ordinary afternoons.”
In other words, hello common desk chair. Hello unread email. Hello neighbor, not experiencing a hurricane. Hello, 2:30 p.m. If I can face you, I can face anything.