Saturday, July 23, 2011

Going Underground in the Ironbound

When I was seventeen years old, I read a book that grabbed hold of me like none had before, and few have since: Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella Notes From Underground. I was a very lonely teenager living in an isolated town with few friends, but lucky enough to have a philosophy major at the local college as an intellectual mentor. He told me about existentialism (he was nuts for it), and when I asked where I should start reading, he pointed me in Dostoevsky's direction.

I picked up the book at the University of Nebraska Bookstore while I was in Lincoln for a summer program. That edition was a cheap Bantam paperback, which luckily had extensive footnotes to give me historical context for the references in the rants of the Underground Man. I loved it so much that I had one of my senior pictures taken holding it, and I used a quotation from it as my senior quote: "One's own free unfettered choice, one's own caprice, however wild it may be, one's own fancy worked up at times to frenzy--is that very "most advantageous advantage" which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms."

If you haven't read a book, here's a quick synopsis. An early middle-aged low-level civil servant rants about things that bug him, from his toothache to philosophical utilitarianism. He works against the grain of his times, and lives a solitary life in obscure circumstances "underground." He then tells the story of his descent underground when he was a young man on a night of wet snow. He intentionally crashes the party of some old schoolmates who loathe him, and then establishes what might be the beginnings of a love relationship with a prostitute who is similarly lonely, before he intentionally stands her up to burrow into his underground hovel, unable to foster a true human connection.

This does not sound like the kind of thing the average teenager would enjoy, but I was not the average teenager, but a bit of a freak who was too dorky for the arty crowd and too well read in Camus, Nietzsche, Kafka, Burroughs and Kerouac (rather than comic books and Dungeon Master's guides) for the nerd crowd. I too thought that I was a man out of time, and felt a certain kinship with the Underground Man, despite his sometimes perplexing and aggravating personality.

That book remains a big inspiration for me, and one of the ideas behind my new blog, which I hope rises like a phoenix from the ashes of the old. I aim to write essays rather than reports, grand polemics rather than rants, to be a man out of time yet again and imitate the venerable tradition of belles lettres in the online format. As an expert in the history of 19th century Europe, that seems the most fitting form for me to work in.

My new residence in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, has also inspired this change. In many ways I live in a place that is more like a foreign country than America, and a place where I don't quite fit in. It is a neighborhood dominated by immigrants from Brazil, Portugal, Spain (specifically Galicia), Mexico, and Ecuador, and so a very tall, pale, ginger-haired guy like myself sticks out like a sore thumb. It is actually liberating, since for the first time in my life I feel no pressure to fit in because there is no way I ever will. I also just love the place, from the smell of Brazilian barbecue wafting in the streets to the fact that I can run my errands on foot.

For this place is a place out of sync with the rest of America in so many ways. There are almost no chain restaurants to speak of, people have a certain dignity in their manners lacking in most native-born Americans, and folks lend a hand without a second thought. I still remember last winter when I was visiting my wife, and her car was covered by a snow drift after a blizzard and I had to dig the thing out with only a garden shovel (long story). The guy digging out the cafe next to the car saw this, helped me out a little, and then lent me his snow shovel so it would be easier for me. Living in this place, where I often feel like foreigner, has the potential to help me unfetter my mind and see things from a more rarified perspective. I do feel a little bit like I have gone underground, that I am living in a place where a person like me is not supposed to live. I also think that I have subconsciously decided to avoid at all costs the vulgarity of mainstream American society. My wife and I have talked about leaving the Ironbound so we can buy a house, but right now I have a hard time wanting to get out of this place, since it seems to suit me so well.

Unlike the Underground Man, I am relaxed, happy, and married to the love of my life. I'm ready to give up childish things, like my bitterness towards academia and my adolescent rages, and let my muse, rather than my spleen, do more of the talking. I hope you like the results.

No comments: