A Book and a Breakfast

We are in Scottsdale, near Phoenix, at the Talking Stick Resort and Casino. Dona is attending a conference of United Way CEOs in the mornings, and that means I’m on my own for breakfast. I’m sitting in the Blue Coyote Café, reading and watching.

I’m reading The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa. The history of this semi-famous volume of essays and meditations would take up several blog entries of its own, so if you need to know, look it up. Better yet, read it. Suffice to say it serves as an extraordinary counterpoint to modern life.

I’m here in the café, reading and watching. And listening, to Huey Lewis and the News and similar bands whose names I have long forgotten, over the restaurant speakers. Twenty to forty-year-old pop music is a staple of white, middle-class American life. It’s a call to nostalgia, a way of remembering what seemed to be better times. But it’s also a refusal to change or even adapt, tribal in the worst sense of that word.

Pessoa recalls a passage from Haeckel, a biologist of 19th century Germany: “The distance between the superior man (a Kant or a Goethe, I believe he says) and the common man is much greater than the distance between the common man and the ape. I’ve never forgotten that phrase because it’s true… The superior man differs from the inferior man and his animal brothers by the simple trait of irony.” *

On the far wall, I notice, is a big screen TV. It displays not sports (surprise!), but a keno prize board, the numbers ratcheting up like an old-timey gas station pump’s rotating digits. Sixty, seventy, eighty thousand await some lucky winner. It is not a game of skill, as I recall, but of pure chance. You pick numbers and see what comes up—kind of computerized roulette. I had a friend who always played the numbers fifty and eighty, his belief in the law of averages sustaining him through his losses.

A trusting of the fates. But if so, where is the chance in doing the same thing over and over? My table, I now see, has a pad of keno playing sheets and a pen, should I care to imbibe. Who wouldn’t? Yes, the scrambled eggs and a side of toast, and put a sawbuck on fifty and eighty for me, please.

Pessoa writes: “From birth to death, man is the slave of the same external dimension that rules animals. Throughout his life he doesn’t live, he vegetatively thrives, with greater intensity and complexity than an animal. He’s guided by norms without knowing that they guide him or even that they exist, and all his ideas, feelings and acts are unconscious—not that there’s no consciousness in them, but because they don’t have a second consciousness.”

A second consciousness. Irony seems so simple, and yet… Is it that some people are not capable of understanding irony, or that by facing it they will cease to be who they think they are, and so choose not to?

Now there’s a game of chance I could get into.

There is a casino on the ground floor of the resort, and I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

*Pessoa wrote mostly in the 1920s and ’30s, when it was acceptable to refer to all people as “men.”


2 Replies to “A Book and a Breakfast”

  1. It still surprises me, in our ironic age, how many people are aware of the skill and rebuttal power of irony, yet regard it as a nastry, ill-mannered trick of the intellectually well-to-do and disdainful. They are very like Mrs. Slipslop in “Joseph Andrews,” who says she doesn’t like to be “treated with ironing.” The followers of Trump these days are among those, to my mind, who have no sense of just how often he and they leave themselves open to “ironing,” if by that is meant trying to smooth out the inequities of life that appear in their illogical and prejudiced thinking.

    1. Sorry for the delayed response—I’ve been swamped with producing the journal and teaching my class. I love the concept of “ironing.” It reinforces what Pessoa says so perfectly (and humorously). I’m sure I’ll use it as my own at some point.

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