- Meditation and the Escalator Principle (on Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine)
So essential to the productive economy are the small pleasures of “fugue”—napping in class, calling in sick, walking the dog—that time out is sometimes actually institutionalized and scheduled into the regulated hours of work. We take annual vacations at predetermined dates and go to lunch each day at the appointed hour. To the extent that it tells a story, Nicholson Baker’s novel, The Mezzanine, tells the story of such a period of scheduled time out. A young office worker on lunch break leaves his place of employment on the mezzanine, takes the escalator down to the street, walks around a bit, buys some lunch and a pair of shoelaces to replace those that have just broken on him, sits in the sun with a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in his lap—and takes the escalator back up to work.
This, from the point of view of conventional literary expectations, is an impoverished and trivial scenario. But the poverty of narrative interest is an indicator, perhaps, that Baker’s text seeks ways to give pleasure and earn authority other than those that are characteristic of narrative. What are these ways? How do they relate to the requirements of narrative interest? Can we understand them as something like a narrative [End Page 765] equivalent of time out, providing a break from the goal-orientedness of story in the way that lunch hour provides a break from the requirements of economic productivity?
The triviality of Baker’s narrative suggests, in turn, a hypothesis that has more to do with philosophical questions than with narrative as such. What kind of text treats the trivial as significant? How does it go about establishing the importance of the (supposedly) trivial? What modifications does this suppose in conceptions of knowledge, and in the evaluations on which our recognition of knowledge rests? Is there something like an epistemological “time out” that might have philosophical, educational or critical interest?
The essay that follows attempts to find a passage between these two sets of questions: the question of textual pleasure as a counternarrative practice, and the question of the transvaluation of the trivial and its consequences for knowledge. In so doing, it will be led to explore a thematics of passage in Baker’s own work, which, I will contend, substitutes for the principle of narrative, which inevitably tends toward closure, the principle of meditative genres of thought and writing, which is the idea that one thing leads, not to an end, but to another. The escalator, as we shall see, is the text’s figure for this meditative principle, which is also the principle of mediation.
But the escalator is also the means of transport that takes us down from our orderly offices into the relatively unconstrained world of the street, where we walk around a bit before taking the escalator back up again to work. What forms of connectedness does it imply, then, what to-and-fro passages does it authorize, between counternarrative practices and narrative constraints? Between philosophizing the insignificant and more majestic modes of thought? Between arts of fugue and the world of productive work? That is the question (the set of questions) that underlies this essay as a whole.
The Escalator Principle
In U and I, an essay on John Updike that bears the motto: “It may be us they wish to meet but it’s themselves they want to talk about” (Cyril Connolly), Nicholson Baker—talking about himself, then—takes issue with Updike for a remark about a descriptive passage that “would clog any narrative”: [End Page 766]
What he meant to say, I thought, I hoped, was that Edmund Wilson’s passage was simply no good, not that one’s aim was to avoid clogging narratives with description. The only thing I like are the clogs. . . . I wanted my first novel [The Mezzanine] to be a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers; the trick being to feel your way through each clog by blowing it up until its obstructiveness finally revealed not blank mass but unlooked for seepage-points of passage.(72)