I just finished reading the very short (50 slender pages) An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975) by Georges Perec, trans. and with an afterword by Marc Lowenthal. Perec says at the start (bolding mine):
“My intention in the pages that follow was to describe … that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.”
It’s a funny notion, that what’s ordinary is “nothing,” and it’s an intriguing if futile plan, to set about noticing the nothing that is happening all the time.
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David envisioned something similar with their “show about nothing” (as Seinfeld was billed), a show about the quotidian experiences (mainly nuisances and irritations, for Seinfeld) that make up most of our lives but that we don’t mark as “special.” In a sense, Seinfeld sought to give significance to what’s (commonly treated as) insignificant. And so does Perec.
Between 18 and 20 Oct., 1974, Perec sat somewhere on place Saint-Sulpice in Paris several times each day, observing and making a sparse list of people, buses, cars (so many apple-green Citroen 2CVs), baguettes and tarts being carried and eaten, pigeons, delivery vans, rain, darkness, the beginning and ending of a funeral and a wedding, police and meter maids, café life.
He started out listing each bus as it passed through in some detail (its bus number, destination, how full or empty it is) but by the second day he had tired of that. Already he found the ordinary tedious and “nothing,” not worth noticing.
He mused (wondered) at greatest length, a few times in the book, about the synchronised flight of the flock of pigeons around the square:
“Again the pigeons go round the square. What triggers off this unified movement? It doesn’t seem linked to any exterior stimulus (explosion, detonation, change in light, rain, etc) nor to any particular motivation; it seems completely gratuitous: the birds suddenly take flight, to round the square and return to settle on the district council building’s gutter.”
In his afterword to the book, translator Marc Lowenthal defines infra-ordinary ( L’Infra-ordinaire; literally, below or under the ordinary), a term Perec coined, as “the markings and manifestations of the everyday that consistently escape our attention as they compose the essence of our lives.” In other words, we don’t notice how we spend most of our time; we don’t notice our everyday surroundings, not in detail: What clothing did your spouse, roommate, co-worker wear when you saw them yesterday? Name four items to your left without peeking and without guessing. What sounds do you hear when you stop right now to listen? Draw a blue jay (or a common bird where you are) from memory, in detail. What have you been paying attention to?
Perec, in making his observations, ignores the buildings, churches, and other landmarks that “have been described, inventoried, photographed, talked about, or registered” exactly because they have already had what he might consider excessive attention paid them. He writes in another book, “Approaches to What?” (1973, in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces), about how the unusual and extraordinary are given, literally, all the ink, while what goes on every day is ignored, seen as too insignificant to report (bolding mine):,
“What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. … Tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, tower blocks that collapse, forest fires, tunnels that cave in, the Drugstore de Champs-Elysées burns down. … The daily newspapers talk of everything except the daily. … What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?
“To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. … [W]e live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither question nor answers, as if it weren’t the bearer of any information.”
It’s one thing to set out to pay more attention, to observe the everydayness that we’ve become habituated to, to give it the attention it deserves for playing the starring role in our lives. But as M.A. Orthofer, reviewing Attempts at Exhausting in 2013 in the The Complete Review, aptly argues, “Capturing everything is, of course, an impossibility” (even Perec concedes that there are “tens, hundreds of simultaneous actions, micro-events”), … [i]t’s an easily exhausted approach — at less than fifty pages it is readily digestible; at greater length it would quickly become unmanageable.”
Unmanageable, yes. To be constantly noticing — which ignites wondering, recording, questioning, remembering — seems impossible, as the moments and the simultaneous stimuli stack up on the racing assembly line of our senses and minds like the chocolate bonbons that Lucy and Ethel struggle to wrap in the famous “I Love Lucy” episode “Job Switching” (aka The Chocolate Factory) —
But it’s strikes me as a good exercise now and then to really attend, pay attention, notice the insignificant moments and hours that make up most of our lives.
A common meditation is to drink tea and only drink tea — don’t also read, or type, or play an instrument, or even gaze out the window, but just drink the tea (or other beverage or food). Notice it, notice the temperature, flavour, texture, how it makes you feel, how it feels in your body. Or, draw. No matter your skills, looking at something to draw it magnifies its details and their relationships to each other (I also find taking pictures helps me see the ordinary in an extraordinary way).
I love that Susan Harlan replicated Perec’s experiment in the same place on 9 Jan. 2019 and wrote about it in “An Attempt to See Paris Through the Eyes of Georges Perec: Lunch on the Place Saint-Sulpice with My Literary Idol” at Literary Hub.
Harlan admits that her attempt is futile, however, because she’s not habituated: “I could never see Paris as he did. Not now. Its ordinary goings-on are not ordinary to me. They are extraordinary, each one infused with wonder because I’m an outsider, and in a few days, I will be back home. I have always wanted to live in Paris, and maybe one day I will, and then the buses and cars and people and pigeons will be ordinary, as they were to Perec.” I’m not sure I agree with her; I think the act of noticing what’s normally overlooked, even by most tourists (who may be scurrying from landmark to landmark), is worthwhile.
Finally, I can’t leave this without sharing an uncharacteristically compelling observation of Perec’s: “A little girl, flanked by her parents (or by her kidnappers), is weeping.”