There is a 1927 short story by Arthur Schnitzler called ‘Ich’ (‘Me’) where the main character goes to a park and notices a plaque on a tree with the word ‘Park’ written on it. This makes him laugh becuse it is so obviously a park and could not be seen as anything else. But he thinks further. This is such a lovely park it is like a paradise, but if it were a paradise people would start to take their clothes off like Adam and Eve, so it is just as well they put the sign ‘Park’ up. The character becomes obsessed by labelling. He starts pinning labels on people’s coats on the coat stand: ‘Mother-in-law’; ‘Cash desk operator’. The story ends when his wife arrives with the doctor to find her husband has pinned the word ‘Ich’ (‘Me’) onto his own chest.
The constant desire to define oneself is tiresome and debilitating.
I suppose much of its infiltration into our daily behaviour comes from the marketing of products. We are asked to market ourselves in the same way. I remember seeing a bench in a square in Paris that had just been been painted and the municipality had put up an elaborate signpost saying that the bench had been painted through the generosity of the City Hall of Paris. The pot of paint for the bench and the hour of labour would have cost no more than a few euros; the construction and elaboration of the signpost, with (no doubt) a communication company’s consultancy fee included, much more. We are asked to define and classify ourselves in the same way. Who am I and what do I stand for? Let my tattoo tell you. Let the brand I’m wearing explain. And yet, are the most attractive people not those who escape definition, people without qualities (‘ohne Eigenschaften’)?
What has always put me off the idea of internet dating is the requirement that you define yourself as part of your sales pitch and I realise that my way of defining myself is through negative definition. This weekend in my block there is a courtyard party. I shall certainly steer clear of that. It is also the Notting Hill Carnival. I shall be giving that a wide bearth. I can’t easily tell you what I like, but I can tell you what I don’t like. I don’t like vegetables that begin with the letter A (aubergines, asparagas, artichoke); taxis (they are for weddings and funerals): bottled water; profligacy with paper handkerchiefs and dry cleaning (who believes you can clean things dry? My hands, for example? That was what I told my mum as a six year old. she didn’t believe it either). Was it the Mad Hatter who celebrated his unbirthday, thereby increasing the number of days of celebration in the year? This negative capability, looking at the negative space that would-be artists are told to focus on, can give unexpected results. When you focus on the negative, the positive appears in the unshaded zone. In my virtual internet dating blurb I shall sell myself this way. Hater of ‘A’ vegetables; un-hailer of taxis; dry cleaning agnostic; flees all street parties and performers; indifferent to dogs; psoh (poor sense of humour). My virtual date will be walking home in an unironed dress with a hankie up her sleeve for re-use, following a meal of carrot cabbage and cauliflower (C vegetables oblige) and tap water after an evening spent fleeing fun. Who says I don’t know how to show them a good time???
Roy(ston) was how Roy (as we knew him) used to sign his first name. He was keeping his (and our) options open. He was a traditional type; always wore suit and tie, though no-one insisted on it. Once in the office I heard him berating some administrative worker at the other end of the line: “I’d like to speak to your manager,” he said. “Not someone in a tee-shirt in an open-plan office. A man in a suit in a proper office with a door that shuts.” I know what he means. Sometimes in his phone conversations he would put the phone down and look at me. “It went dead” he’d say. He’d phone straight back. “The line went dead,” he’d tell his interlocutor. You know, the person who’d just hung up on him.
Roy had to leave in the end. You see, he’d broken his arm and was wearing a cast and his shirt was flapping open revealing his less than alluring belly. He was getting his Russian girl students to scratch his back with a ruler.
And so he left. I knew he was going in advance because I saw his cardboard box, the box where he put all his things, with his name scrawled through with a thick red marker. Yes, I knew his time was up when I saw that. And yes, there may have been more sensitive ways of breaking the news to him
As I was running round the park today (eight laps, a long way off the 22 I need by end of September) I saw a man multi-tasking. He was doing sit-ups and reading at the same time. I thought at the time: he’ll do himself more harm than good. And: haste, make waste. As I trundled hastelessly round. I, as I run, do not multi-task. I just run. I don’t also listen to music or a pod-cast or any of that stuff. I just run. Women, of course, are meant to be exceptional multi-taskers, though in women I have known this reputation is not bourne out. I have a little thing in work when, as I’m eating a cream cake and reading the paper I say to Sally, the boss: Sally, ask me what I’m doing? and she obliges. She says: What are you doing? And I say: I’m multi-tasking. This makes me laugh, though probably not the other people in the room. Women probably multi-task in different ways. Why, my friend Emma only said to me on the phone a few minutes ago: I’m going to listen to Sibelius at the Proms on the radio and wash a quilt-cover in the washing machine at the same time. If that ain’t multi-tasking… No, my motto is, do one thing and do it well. So, after my run, I’m now going to have a kip. I will not be eating a cream cake at the same time. That will come later.