Sara Pheasant

Fraternity, or a muscular effort: on waiting and reading


“Quand on lit trop vite ou trop doucement on n’entend rien.”
– Pascal, cited at the preface of de Man’s Allegories of Reading


John Lurie’s cult classic television show, Fishing with John, is a masterful exercise in boring T.V. Modeled off the archetype of a cable network fishing show, the series follows John as he takes a pal—Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch, and Matt Dillon among them—out fishing. Neither figure has anything resembling fishing experience, and in the absence of the dramatic hauls and quick-reeling near-misses standard to the show’s genre, the only action is the friends’ muted and dryly ironic banter while waiting for the fish to bite.

The episode in which John takes Willem Dafoe ice fishing occurs on a small slice of a barren lake where quite literally nothing happens. Wielding a shark-toothed auger like a totem of their intrepid venture’s phallic thrust, the pair attempt to bore a fishing hole in the ice. While clumsily setting the enormous tool in the snow, Willem warns John of its unpredictable strength with the story of a man who tore off his own arms in an augering mishap, yet still managed to drive himself to the hospital. Wondering whether this heroic figure managed to salvage his limbs, they decide that any “man who could drive himself to the hospital with his teeth has to have it in him to wrap up his arms in a bit of newspaper and throw them in the back seat.”

While the augur stands as John and Willem’s symbol of mythic masculinity, its gristly story foreshadows the pair’s impotence between inhuman machinery and unmastered nature. Their surroundings are not cruel as much as brutally indifferent to their hapless fumbling. Parodying the blandly ineffectual suburban male throughout the episode, John and Willem foil their only catch by setting the fish free in blind compliance with the weight regulations of hunting law, and nearly decimate the last of their convenience store rations by dropping them in a fishing hole. Far from imposing their will on the virgin wilderness and making fish jump from the water in awe of their engorged augur, John and Willem prove themselves barely able to unwrap a package of crackers—“cheese on cheese”—without a mother’s guiding hands.

Though their surroundings prove no more tractable nor benevolent through the course of their expedition, John and Willem are unwaveringly committed to fish until their literal end. Delirious from days of hunger, they crumple from upright explorers to wide-eyed, babbling creatures. As they submit their bodies to freezing temperatures and malnutrition, the pair’s ego-driven will gives way to dazed confusion. They are increasingly at the mercy of their own bodies—fishing turns from a leisure activity to a reflexive habit that drives them back to the ice day after day out of an embodied instinct for survival. The inflated heroism of their trip ironically recasts a dads’ weekend get-away in the guise of Jack London, to conclude with the unsentimental announcement of their ultimately trivial demise. It is certainly not a bang, and barely a whimper. The episode’s detached and deadpan narration suggests their passing would be passed over without witness were it not for the hovering voice, whose only affect reveals a slightly self-surprised bemusement at its own involvement in the scene.

During the course of their trip, John and Willem experience a certain transformation that shifts the archetype of wilderness adventure from a coming-of-age story to one more like that of becoming childish, or overturning age. Halfway through the episode, Willem leaves an already-delirious Jim for a moment and returns to find his friend singing an old-time tune about catching fish for “him and his girl” while jerking the rod in a listless pantomime of the off-beat rhythm. Dismayed by John’s clearly futile fishing technique, Willem asks him what he thinks he’s doing. “I’m fishing,” he says, as if rudely awoken from an idyllic reverie for an explanation of the obvious. “For the first time we’ve been out here, I’m really fishing.”

Fishing is a paradoxical activity: to actively fish is to lie in wait. John and Willem exhaust themselves in pursuit of their elusive catch, yet one might consider that only in John’s modestly ecstatic moment of ‘really fishing’ are they actually, actively fishing. That is, lying in wait.


Waiting evokes a range of classic figures from Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon to Kafka’s man before the law—not to mention (as they typically aren’t) our popular image of women as those who wait on the shore, in the doctor’s office, or by the phone. It’s an uncomfortable position: we are thrown into consciousness of our submission to external forces as we experience ourselves subjected to time that passes beyond our control.

Waiting is equally an existential condition as a consequence of quotidian practicality, and we are perpetually in search of distraction. There are currently plethora of ever-more portable technologies to take our mind off the maddening and mind-numbing delays of our everyday. Yet the experience of waiting also recalls a substantial tradition of readers and writers formed during incarceration, illness, self-imposed isolation, and exile. Rather than consider these avocations as relics of an antiquated era, one could write a history of technologies of distraction according to how they shape contemporary modes of reading and the economies of attention each sustain. The manifold possibilities of visual animations and social networks in which we can immerse ourselves include a steady stream of new apps that aggregate the news, digest blog posts, and store our digital libraries. And as a subway ride in New York might demonstrate, even printed text on a physical page is itself far from an obsolete means of passing the time.

Whether distance is externally enforced or freely chosen, the waiter, reader, and writer necessarily work at a remove from the world. Each occupies an impassible juncture in which one is suspended from time even as one is totally submitted to it, oscillating indecisively between activity and passivity, resistance and sublimation. As these figures undergo similarly ambivalent experiences of a particular structure of time, we might finally consider reading and writing not as preoccupations during a wait but as forms of waiting itself. We can wait patiently or in harried frustration, just as we can read close to the text or skim across its surface, in anxious distraction, absent-minded reverie, or with rapt attention. Often all in the course of the same moment, or on the same page.

In her instructions for a Christian method of study, Simone Weil asserts that the indecisiveness of waiting is a form of receptivity just as essential for study as it is fundamental for an encounter with God. All errors result from hasty work and the over-eager pursuit of solutions; while truth is only encountered as a “little fragment” that flashes out of the darkness when one surrenders to waiting. The waiting that yields itself to truth is a form of attention in which we “suspend our thought, leaving it detached, empty.” Will power, for Weil, has “practically no place in study,” as attention is a “negative effort” in which the intelligence is led not by straining one’s efforts towards the truth but by simply, joyfully, desiring it. The desire that drives Weil’s conception of study seeks not knowledge as such but the formal quality of rapt attention that makes study akin to prayer.

Perhaps useful to this essay’s more profane purposes, Weil’s concept of attention in waiting is not only the basis of divine salvation, but also of everyday friendship. For Weil, love of God and love of the other are made of the “same substance,” namely, attention. This form of attention attends fully to the moment in its most sensuous and embodied experience. The joy that guides attention in study and prayer is “as indispensable… as breathing is in running,” and proper attention must be cultivated not by strong-willed exertion but skillfully choreographed pacing in which we “press on and loosen up alternately, just as we breathe in and out.” Weil no doubt had as complicated a relation to her own embodiment as to her faith and philosophical vocation. Yet in her drive to reconcile secular reason and love of God she placed phenomenological experience at the center of understanding. As Weil considered intelligence the means of approaching the divine, failures of attention are closer to evil than sins of the flesh.


John and Willem’s fishing adventure parodies a classic fantasy of escape from a more hellishly banal kind of waiting, or that of being in line. The queue exemplifies a definitive facet of contemporary experience: not only are we daily postponed in single file at the post office, supermarket, DMV, or on hold on the phone, but also increasingly by the very technologies intended to circumvent such delay. With the expanded connectivity of faster and smarter devices comes greater opportunity for them to loose a signal or break down; and the “convenience” advertised by state and corporate services from finance to healthcare frequently seems a farcical euphemism for pervasive, and invasive, failure. Time is money, as goes that cliché of the modern metropolis, so there is none to be wasted in line. Yet the more we spend, the more we seem to be ensnared by situations in which waiting is not an interruption of our day but our daily reality. If we weren't perpetually forced to put our experience on hold, we might be able to think differently of waiting.

Damiån Szifron’s recent Relatos salvajes wonderfully captures the current reality of waiting with the tale of a civil engineer entangled in the labyrinthine lines of corporate-state bureaucracy. In one of the film’s hysterically visceral parables, we encounter the engineer after a demolition job delays him from attending his young daughter’s birthday party. The story follows his harried trip home, during which his car is towed while he stops at a bakery for a cake. With no evidence of his parking spot’s illegality, the only clue is a leaflet for a private towing company left in his vehicle’s place. The engineer arrives at the towing station incensed at the injustice and further delay, and demands the clerk not only waive the impounding fee to release his car but also compensate him for time wasted. In return, he receives only the clerk’s hyena-like laughter. After paying an exorbitant fee, the engineer drives his car straight into gridlock traffic while the last minutes of his daughter’s party wind down. In the game of Tom-and-Jerry-style revenge that ensues, the engineer’s determined struggle for recompense is jinxed by a series of increasingly unfortunate towings that leave him destitute, unemployed, and abandoned by his too-long neglected family. In a final act of reprisal, the engineer booby-traps his vehicle to detonate at the towing station, decimating the kiosk while intentionally leaving no one harmed. The engineer’s coup is the film’s only spark of redemptive justice, but even this minor triumph soon becomes yet another headline quickly buried by the accumulation of yesterday’s news.

Where Fishing with John caricatures the idea that vacation is a respite from standards of commercial productivity in which something like 'authentic' life experience is possible, Szifron ignites the illusion of leisure with an inescapable vision of its underlying violence. Both exhibit waiting in the height of its ambivalence and played out with life-or-death stakes: John and Willem are subjected to an eternal delay by the brutal indifference of nature, while the engineer is interminably paralyzed by the equally cruel yet infinitely more perverse systems of human bureaucracy. And within this external imposition of empty time, each find, for brief moments, means of waiting differently. John experiences respite from the enduring monotony of fruitless fishing by slipping into a delirious reverie. And the endlessly reoccurring delay imposed on the engineer is interrupted less by the tow company’s explosion than a delightfully tranquil moment immediately prior, as he relishes a croissant and coffee while anticipating the removal of his booby-trapped car. As Szifron’s figure of exhausted masculinity literally erupts from the line, John and Willem’s slow devolution from male adulthood exhibit a slightly nostalgic vision of experiences found in more mundane circumstances, and shared with friends.


If reading is indeed a form of waiting, Flaubert's last and unfinished novel Bouvard and Pécuchet could similarly be described as the story of two men who decide they will no longer wait, and in so doing, subject themselves to different sorts of waiting. The characters are an odd couple of clerks who leave behind a lonely and monotonous existence for a new, shared life. They are not doubles but complements who, in their superficial differences, round out each other’s faults and inflate each other’s formerly dwindling pretensions. Bouvard’s blustery, somewhat salacious and guttural demeanor is cut by Pécuchet’s morose and sensitive constitution, and while Bouvard once fashioned himself a literary type and a dramaturge, Pécuchet is a diligent student who aspires to scientific knowledge. Their friendship is sparked by the banal coincidence that both have their proper names embroidered in their caps. Though small and superficial, this likeness germinates a ceaseless flow of conversation in which each “rediscover[s] forgotten parts of himself.” Though “no longer at the age of naïve emotions, they [feel] a novel pleasure” as they uncover a wealth of hidden correspondences.

Bouvard and Pécuchet have spent their lives copying enough text to reproduce their basic existence, yet each habor slightly larger intellectual and artistic ambitions. When Pécuchet receives a windfall inheritance, the pair decide to move together to the country. They are enchanted with nature and delight in seeing the knowledge they derive from textbook taxonomies reflected in in the physical world. Strolling the garden after their first dinner in the country, they revel in identifying vegetables and pronouncing their names out loud: “Look, carrots! Ah, cabbages!” Like Benjamin’s flåneur transposed to countryside landscape, they “memorize lists like a child… while insisting like an old man on the truth of what he knows.”

Having achieved the status of the propertied bourgeoisie, Bouvard and Pécuchet are intent on developing their productive capacities. They fuel their frenzy of experimentation with an insatiable consumption of information, ignoring the traditional practices and time-tested advice of the villagers to apply and discard one canonical theory after another like new sets of clothes. Each effort ends disastrously—crops wither, preserves violently explode, and experiments in animal husbandry result in grotesque aberrations. Ricocheting between manic activity and abject depression, they dissolve any memory of past misadventure by distracting themselves with a new book and a new branch of knowledge. After their bout of farming spectacularly implodes, they morosely swear to begin economizing—only to deem that this is most sensibly done by cultivating fruit trees at a profit. They are again enchanted by the names advertised in textbooks and catalogs: on first proposing the scheme, Pécuchet “succeeded in firing Bouvard’s imagination so much that they went at once to their books to look for the proper names of plants to buy, and when they had chosen some names that sounded marvelous, they addressed themselves to a nurseryman at Falaise, who wasted no time in supplying them with 300 saplings for which he had no demand.” Continually attempting to understand their surroundings through the bourgeois consumption of knowledge, Bouvard and Pécuchet succeed only in decimating their stock of saplings by applying their received ideas in blind ignorance of their plants’ living reality.

Bouvard and Pécuchet chase their desire for an impossible epistemological totality through experiments in archeology, geology, mysticism, politics, political economy, and religion. As the gulf between their abstract ideas and practical consequences repeatedly asserts itself to disastrous effect, the pair become disgusted with their surroundings. In an instant of awakening, they realize not only the inadequacy of their textual knowledge but also the “stupidity of those around them.” Stripped of their naiveté, the pair bungle a suicide attempt and seek solace in clichés of philosophical resignation and exaggerated religious aestheticism. Finally, they are presented with the opportunity to adopt and educate Victor and Victorine, an orphaned pair of fraternal twins. In the hopes of redeeming themselves as pedagogues, Bouvard and Pécuchet apply a variety of techniques to cultivate the children. Yet their methods are hopeless and the children unteachable — Victor tortures animals and Victorine has precocious love affairs, each replaying the criminality into which they were born. Flaubert died before finishing the novel but his notes conclude with the understated observation that, by the end, "everything comes to pieces in their hands.”

With their lives in tatters and all illusions of their inherited humanity abandoned, the only path left for Bouvard and Pécuchet is a return to their original station as copyists. Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas—a sardonic parody of bourgeois platitudes that mirror those thickly applied by Bouvard and Pécuchet— follows the novel’s conclusion, and the author’s notes suggest this appendix is to be taken as the product of his character’s prodigiously repetitive labor as they wait out the rest of their days by re-writing all that they have read.

Bouvard and Pécuchet offer exemplary proof of Simone Weil’s assertion that where a true desire for knowledge is lacking, “there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.” As Weil advises, “If one says to one’s pupils: ’Now you must pay attention,’ one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply… They have not been paying attention. They have been contracting their muscles.” Throughout their entire marathon of reading, Bouvard and Pécuchet’s desire is not for knowledge itself but its objectification in profitable goods and cultural prestige. In the course of their consumption they mistake what Weil calls a “muscular effort” for true study, and indeed find themselves over-exerted and sore, yet ultimately only capable of copying, or the one trade they truly know.


In an essay on Bouvard and Pécuchet, Borges describes the novel, reminiscent of Ulysses, as the “magnificent death throes of a genre.” “The time of Bouvard and Pécuchet stretches towards eternity,” he says, as it anticipates its own death. The novel exhibits waiting in the apex of its form: mortality. Yet Bouvard and Pécuchet is not a mourning play and Borges suggests that its comedic dimension works in, “perhaps, another key. To mock humanity’s yearnings, Swift attributed them to pygmies or apes; Flaubert, to two grotesque individuals. Obviously, if universal history is the history of Bouvard and Pécuchet, everything is ridiculous and insignificant.” The brotherhood of universal humanity is, as Marx prophesied, leaving its past behind cheerfully.

With its parodic reversal of progressivist narratives, Bouvard and Pécuchet anticipates Wiltold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke. Gombrowicz’s tale recounts the saga of a 30-year-old author Joey, whose diminutive name pre-empts his devolution into a state of demeaning immaturity. Joey’s listless and unaccomplished adulthood is interrupted by a Kafka-esque dream-reality in which he wakes to find he has regressed into childhood and is transported by the ridiculous and sadistic schoolmaster Pimko back to the boy’s academy. As Joey slides further into interminable adolescence, Gombrowicz conveys the infantilizing and atomizing effects of modern life with gleefully manic absurdity. Pupas and mugs, largely untranslatable terms that correspond to bums and faces, abound as bodies break down into their component parts and humanity reduces itself to an essential juvenility. The comedic dimension of both novels might more specifically be qualified as slapstick, as regression transpires in each as a flurry of bodily interruptions and eruptions. Bouvard and Pécuchet’s complete ignorance of their experiments’ dramatically physical failures is amplified by Flaubert’s exhaustive and ironically objective enumeration of villagers accidentally poisoned by Bouvard and Pécuchet’s rotten preserves, animals tortured during the pair’s forays in medicine, and grotesque symptoms they repeatedly inflict upon themselves. The body is that invisible substrate that, like nature, continually asserts itself as resistance to their ludicrous imposition of abstract knowledge. The body is equally insuppressible in Ferdydurke: grown men and boys fragment into noses and ears and the face of humanity reveals itself to be, quite literally, a giant backside.

Susan Sontag calls Ferdydurke an “epic in defense of immaturity” as well as a “dazzling novel of ideas.” Like Flaubert, Gombrowicz lampoons the self-sure security of adult knowledge and both authors represent the ideal of man’s ascendance towards universal fraternity as a story of regression. As Gombrowicz declares, “Let the cry be backwards!” Childhood in modern life is not a state one grows out of but only into: the precocious criminality of Bouvard and Pécuchet’s adopted orphans, Victor and Victorine, and the sadistic antics of Joey’s classmates at the boy’s academy, suggest progress is nothing but an empty expanse of time, or a moment frozen into eternity. Yet, like the flash of recognition sparked by the superficial coincidence between Bouvard and Pécuchet’s embroidered names, the artificiality of human pretensions to fraternal adulthood is also the grounds by which man-children, brother and sister alike, can grasp the falsity of their superficial resemblance. “We shall soon begin to be afraid of ourselves and our personalities because we shall discover that they do not completely belong to us… The poet will repudiate his song, the commander will tremble at his own order, the priest will fear his altar, mothers will no longer be satisfied with teaching their children principles, but will also teach them how to evade them, to prevent them from being stifled by them. And, above all, human beings will one day meet other human beings face to face.”


Turning from fraternity to friendship, a childlike humanity encounters their kin face to face. Such is the correspondence that unites Bouvard and Pécuchet across the tumultuous epic of their reading. The singularity of each’s face—Bouvard’s ruddy and turgid complexion, Pécuchet’s thin and angular physiognomy—is also expressed by the singularity of their names. Certainly no strangers to repetition, the delight the copyists take upon first realizing the other also has his name embroidered in his hat demonstrates the pair’s likeness to be of a different order than that between of the texts they re-write day after day. Flaubert suggests there is something ineffable about their connection—“how can sympathies be explained? Why does some peculiarity, some imperfection, which would be indifferent or odious in one, seem enchanting in another?” The only name we can grant this phenomena is that “called the thunderbolt of love” which is “true for all the passions.” The pair’s voracious consumption of knowledge may include knowledge of themselves—both as the universal subjects they imagine themselves to be and, during their brief stint as psychologists, of the workings of their own particular minds—but never each other. The embroidered eponyms remain the only words the pair never attempt to objectively define nor instrumentalize for profit, and consequently the only they words they might truly know. Their bond is an inexplicable correspondence that needs no rational explanation, occasionally troubled but never repudiated nor disproved.

The sympathetic likeness that sustains Bouvard and Pécuchet’s friendship is further distinguished from that of artificially fraternal resemblance by their adopted orphan twins, Victor and Victorine. While Bouvard and Pécuchet play adult guardians to these kids, Victor and Victorine’s mimetic repetition of adulthood’s cruel, vain, and apathetic deeds suggest a continuous narrative from birth to old age: they are only children in a world in which children are nothing but small adults, or the world that Gombrowicz endeavored to stand on its head. In this topsy-turvy reality, Bouvard and Pécuchet become, through their friendship, truly childish and increasingly immature. The disastrous continuity of human fraternity, by contrast, is reinforced by the vulgarly superficial equivalence between the orphan twins’ names.

Though Bouvard and Pécuchet begin their friendship seeking entry into society determined by this very conception of human fraternity, even illusions as strongly self-satisfied as theirs do not withstand the irrepressible effects of nature’s revolt. Their agonizingly slow degeneration itself suggests, ever so slightly, a window of learning, or the capacity for greater understanding. The novel’s conclusion, to echo Borges’ analysis, does not suggest an optimistic future for the fraternal offspring of the bourgeoisie. Yet even as the pair are eternally resigned to copying the knowledge set before them, their return also reawakens memory of their original moment of friendship and a correspondence unlike that of the immediate resemblance they unsuccessfully sought between their ideas and the material world. Their concluding disillusionment and resignation is buttressed by a “bright idea” each cultivates in secret. They are slow to share it but “from time to time smile when it occurs to them,” perhaps by spontaneously recalling the secret fibers discovered in the ‘thunderbolt of love’ of their initial encounter. Finally they disclose their shared desire: the construction of a double-sided copy desk at which the clerks can again dutifully return to work, yet this time side by side. Their return to the scrivener’s table preserves the sole experiential dimension of their entire adventure in reading: their friendship, or correspondence in name.

Bouvard and Pécuchet’s friendship certainly does not assume the rigorous intentionality of attention Weil would expect of proper Christian love, yet the unflagging connection that sustains the pair gestures towards this sort of desirous attention, or “waiting in patience.” It exhibits a profane form of the saintly intelligence that not only leads the individual to God, but at the same time, to the other. Faced with the problems of a violently atomizing European culture that remain no less urgent, though certainly distinct, today, Weil proselytized for intelligence as the key to reconciling the individual and the collective. “The position of the intelligence is they key to this harmony,” she writes, “because the intelligence is a specifically and rigorously individual thing.” Though necessarily unaware of it, Bouvard and Pécuchet’s unexplained and inexplicably singular friendship transcends the centuries’ worth of received ideas they privilege with the authority of knowledge. The kind of knowledge Bouvard and Pécuchet have of each other is, by contrast to that which they voraciously consume, an unaffirmed awareness that delights in a certain likeness while indifferent to quantitative similarities and objective equivalences. Its strongest expression comes in a negative manifestation of presence—waiting, or reading, for and with each other. 

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