An archive of ideas and dissonant thoughts.


On the Onset of Disaffection

June 10

A juxtaposition of different pieces of literature that address the ennui and disaffection felt, at some moment or the other, by so many of us, the upheaval and crisis that appears to be a permanent state of being in 2019.

In the age of information overload, of too much being thrown at us, if often seems as though everything has already been said, and trying to generate new content, particularly without acknowledging the past, is a futile exercise. Fragments is an archive of things we’ve read that linger in the memory and offer an opportunity to look at certain topics or extracts that may serve as inspiration, book recommendations or more.

What better theme to kick this off with than disaffection, the general sense of ennui that touches all of us at some point and is often closely linked to coming of age. In our times, every day seems to present a million new potential causes of personal crisis. So I turned to some fictional works that, in my opinion, capture the sentiment particularly well.

Hermann Hesse is perhaps best known for Siddhartha, but in his equally compelling Demian, he writes of the moment of crisis with powerful clarity.

“I have no idea whether parents can be of help, and I do not blame mine. It was my own affair to come to terms with myself and to find my own way, and like most well-brought-up children, I managed it badly. Everyone goes through this crisis. For the average person this is the point when the demands of his own life come into the sharpest conflict with his environment, when the way forward has to be sought with the bitterest means at his command. Many people experience the dying and rebirth - which is our fate - only this once during their entire life. Their childhood becomes hollow and gradually collapses, everything they love abandons them and they suddenly feel surrounded by the loneliness and mortal cold of the universe. Very many are caught forever in this impasse, and for the rest of their lives cling painfully to an irrevocable past, the dream of the lost paradise - which is the worst and most ruthless of dreams.”

Hermann Hesse, Demian, 1919

Though it was written more or less exactly a century ago, his words seem relevant even today. But the same spirit of impasse and existential dread appears to infect so many great modern works of literature. One that truly resonated with me was in Mohsin Hamid’s first book, Moth Smoke, whose narrator brings an immigrant’s perspective to this apparently universal crisis, in a way that is certainly more relatable to millennial nomads.

“Slowly, even though I thought it would never happen, New York lost its charm for me. I remember arriving in the city for the first time, passing with my parents through the First World's club bouncers at Immigration, getting into a massive cab that didn't have a moment to waste, and falling in love as soon as we shot onto the bridge and I saw Manhattan rise up through the looks of parental terror reflected in the window. I lost my virginity in New York, twice (the second one wanted to believe he was the first so badly). I had my mind blown open by the combination of a liberal arts education and a drug-popping international crowd. I became tough. I had fun. I learned so much. But now New York was starting to feel empty, a great party that had gone on too long and was showing no sign of ending soon. I had a headache, and I was tired. I'd danced enough. I wanted a quiet conversation with someone who knew what load-shedding was.”

Mohsin Hamid, Moth Smoke, 2000

 Another New York novel, one of Siri Hustvedt’s modern classics, seemed to me to be linked to this sense of fatigue with life. Rather than focusing on the feeling itself, Hustvedt’s work captures the actual sensory feeling of disaffection acutely, in a moment in the novel where a key character has had his entire universe shaken up and is attempting to come to terms with ‘normal life’.

“The truth is, I had avoided resurrection because I must have known it would be excruciating. That summer, light, noise, color, smells, the slightest motion of the air rubbed me raw with their stimuli. Every shift in brightness hurt me. Car horns ripped at my eardrums. The conversations of pedestrians, their laughter, their hoots, even the lone person singing in the street felt like an assault. I couldn’t bear shades of red. Crimson sweaters and shirts, the red mouth of a pretty girl hailing a cab forced me to turn my head. Ordinary jostling on the sidewalk – a person’s arm or elbow brushing my body, the jab of a stranger’s shoulder, sent a shudder up my spine. Wind blew through rather than over me, and I thought I could feel my skeleton rattle. Garbage baking in the streets gave me fits of nausea and dizziness, but so did the aromas of food from restaurants.”

Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved, 2003

Undoubtedly, there are several other books that have tackled the same life stage or moments of upheaval with equal brilliance. Certainly, this is not to suggest that these three works are in any way related or to create an overarching narrative. But as a connoisseur of the craft of writing, and someone looking for connections or emotions that feel linked, these extracts were bits that stuck with me, parts of stories that I came back to, books that I'd highly recommend that seemed to me powerful accounts of a kind of disaffection that appears increasingly rampant nowadays.

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