So many books – books I love – present a major obstacle to the complete connection I yearn for in engaging with art. The obstacle is that the characters in it are rich – or at least comfortable, or at least their financial situation isn’t subject to the same constant million-footed rush of concerns and possibilities for collapse that my and people like me’s are.
So many good books are about rich people.
Ishmael isn’t rich but, as a whaleman, money and the necessaries it buys aren’t a concern for him for the duration of the novel. Thus in the Comfortable category.
Don Quixote isn’t rich, is in fact on hard times, but hard times only in the very mild sense that applies to landed gentry living on a fixed income from the kingdom: thus soft enough times for him to read himself senseless in an age where books were a major investment. Rich/Comfortable.
In Herzog Moses Herzog has multiple houses, enough money and time to hole up in a rambling house in the countryside and do nothing but write letters to everyone. Rich.
There are always monetary issues at stake in Austen’s novels because they exist in the incredibly cold and fiduciary realm of Regency-era marriage culture; but for the most part the characters’ potential shifts in financial situation are relative ones, still confined within the more or less safe realm of the unmoveably landed gentry. So Rich.
In Anna Karenina, Levin rarely has cash, but that’s only because his money is tied up in land. Comfortable.
In Genji, fuck, I don’t even know if Genji or his court had money, so removed is their floating world from the real one turning restlessly in the muck just outside its ornate gates.
In In Search of Lost Time, M. is ensconced in the comparably disconnected and ethereal world of the French upper class. Nobody takes vacations like M.’s family. The settings of Balbec and Combray don’t even feel real in some specific way, because they’re evoked with this dreamlike quality that financial struggles would immediately dissipate. Obviously rich.
I’ve kind of started to read Henderson the Rain King; I’m not committed yet. I love the brutal hunger of Henderson, I love his poetic madness and violent zest for life and furious confused despair. But he’s a millionaire, comes right out and tells you in the first couple pages. A millionaire who can run a pig farm for purely aesthetic reasons and fly off to Africa when he feels like it to find a way to mangle his depression and maddening sorrow. Rich.
The prevalence of rich people in fiction has obvious historico-socio-economical causes. The leisured classes were the ones with time for education, the time to think about and sift their their feelings and process it into art. This massively expanded and languorous existence was built on a social concept that dehumanized millions of people in the economic rungs below. I mean that in a very real way: in all these disparate times and places, there were people living lives we wouldn’t even recognize as lives, so that the upper classes could read and think and write.
That kind of poverty exists today, too. It’s also largely avoided by art. Instead it’s usually a talking point for the media, some flag for them to wave briefly with a brave face so they can ignore their ineffectuality for another day. Or when it is presented in art, it’s presented in a way that poeticizes that poverty and the people living in it to a degree that estranges them from the compassion, empathy, and anger they deserve.
I’m not qualified to say more about that kind of poverty. Pettily, today I’m talking about the specific kind of poorness that I live in. Call it common poorness. The every day parade of fretting, insults, minor tragedies, fleeting triumphs that comes from never having enough money to make it (our lives) all cohere.
When you’re this kind of poor, your finances are as omnipresent a fact of of your life as hunger or love or fear. It shapes so many things, stunts others, generates a thousand problems that subtle working the texture of your character in different directions.
And always these invisible operations create a distance. You’re constantly running calculations, evaluating your own situation against your best estimates of others’. Every point of distinction between them – even the meaningless ones – creates another bit of distance.
(Obviously, that is to say all this estrangement I feel for fiction about rich people manifests in reality too.)
I hate rich people, both for big important socioeconomic reasons and for the inflammatory personal affront that is seeing someone else being achingly happier than I am. And I think being rich means that you have to be fundamentally stupid in some ways. Certain doors of suffering are closed to rich people and, in almost every case, there is a subsequent shallowing out of their personality – sometimes to a lesser, often to a greater degree.
Being poor in this way, by the way, is also boring. It’s mathematical, drier than an abacus. It’s persistent, it’s obsessive. And it’s so specific to you and your particular humiliations.
But, because of this, this poorness is a key part of being alive, for me and many others. So intrinsic that maybe that’s why we don’t think about it in ourselves and others, just like we don’t think about our own or others’ breathing. But the actions, the obsessions, the little tragedies recur and recur and recur: checking the bank account every day, hoping your friend doesn’t order something expensive when it’s your turn to pay, those weird destructive impulses that tell you to spend when you shouldn’t, if only to create the drama that you live every day in fear of, just to get it over with for fuck’s sake…
That fear is intrinsically tied up with the ugliest, shittiest, most unappealing aspects of every day existence, the same thuggish quotidia that drag us down out of even the loftiest heights of thought, our most transcendent yearnings; and even if, like probably all fears, it can be traced back to a fear of death, the journey to that point in this case is so fucking desert long, so petty, so rife with annoyances and insults, that our own strength might give out, not at the far terminal point of extinction, but at one of any billion billion intermediate points of exasperation.