Thursday, October 15, 2020

Enraged by Irritations: Human Nature Or Aristocratic Problem?

I don't know if you've read The Leopard -- the 1958 book by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa that tells a story of social change and the decline of the nobility in 19th-century Sicily through the narrative of the Salina family and its patriarch Don Fabrizio.

I love The Leopard. I love the sensuality of the narrative and of Don Fabrizio himself. I love the way Don Fabrizio admires and supports his nephew Tancredi, even though Tancredi represents the decline of the Salina's social class. I love the way that Don Fabrizio's real interest, and true comfort, lies in astronomy and mathematics.

At one point in the story, Father Pirrone - a priest who lives with the Salina family -- is asked to reflect on what the aristocrats think about then coming shifts in social equality. And he tries to answer, he gets caught up in a long and rambling response because he doesn't know how to explain how the nobility see the world and how different it is.

In trying to express the incomprehensibility what the nobility care about and what they don't, he says "I've seen Don Fabrizio get quite testy, wise and serious though he is, because of a badly ironed collar to his shirt; and I know for certain that the Prince of Làscari didn't sleep for a whole night from rage because he was wrongly placed at one of the Viceroy's dinners."

Encountering that passage always gives me a shock of recognition in an uncomfortable way. Because I, too, am frequently thrown by small irritations. I went through a phase where if I was chopping vegetables and a small piece of something would fall on the floor, I would flip out, feel the world was against me. The problem of price stickers leaving sticky residue on elegant objects sends me into a tailspin. Sometimes I get dressed to go out, and realize my shoes won't work with the weather, and realize my outfit won't work with different shoes, and I get a complete feeling of despair come over me. Yesterday morning, my clothes hangers got tangled up and I was like OK, that's it, we're done.

I don't think I'm alone. I've seen friends in a rage because of coffee spilled on a shirt, or a glass dropped on the floor.

I used to buy into the orthodoxy of "underlying mood": that this kind of thing happens because there is an undercurrent of stress and anxiety so intense that the seeming OKness of the surface is a superficial layer, a paint job over roiling chaos. Sometimes that's true. You can always describe it that way if you want to. But often it doesn't feel that way to me. To me, it feels more like a plunge into the essential pointlessness and harrassingness of human existence, a plunge caused by the irritation itself, not requiring unusual life stress as a background condition.

At first, I was inclined to draw the conclusion that Father Pirrone's association of this experience with aristocracy was questionable. I'm not an aristocrat, and neither are my friends. But then I started wondering if maybe just being middle-class and white in North America was a kind of experience of aristocracy -- I mean, that the relevant background needs and social comforts are met at such a high general high level that our idea of what is a "problem" would be more similar to that of the Salina family than to the non-aristocrats of 19th century Sicily.

But then -- "on the third hand," as my mother liked to say -- I got to thinking, maybe Father Pirrone is wrong about it after all -- because what does Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa know about it? He was the last Prince of Lampedusa and owner of a hereditary agricultural estate. He has no special insights into whether being enraged by irritations is a special aristocrat thing or more a general human thing.

I used to have a lot less money than I do now, and for a time I was in difficult circumstances. I've been trying to remember whether I was just enraged by small irritations then as I am now. But I can't quite sort it out. In my mind's eye of that time, I'm just smoking a lot of cigarettes. I do remember that when I worked as a waitress, one of my tasks was to break cold feta cheese into crumbled feta cheese with my hands, and I hated the feeling so badly, I swore I'd never do that by choice. To this day, I use a knife to chop feta into little cubes.

So: enraged by irritations: human nature or aristocratic problem? I'm really not sure. Or -- maybe it's just me?

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