Written by Chloe Manchester
In a passage from Zadie Smith’s book On Beauty, she describes a meeting of protagonist Zora and her classmates.
“Here were people, friends. A boy called Ron, of delicate build whose movements were tidy and ironic, who liked to be clean, who liked things Japanese. A girl called Daisy, tall and solid like a swimmer, with an all-American ingenue face, sandy hair and more of a salty manner than she required, given her looks. Daisy liked eighties romantic comedies and Kevin Bacon and thrift-store handbags. Hannah was red-headed and freckled, rational, hard-working, mature. She liked Ezra Pound and making her own clothes. Here were people. Here were tastes and buying habits and physical attributes.”
Amelie’s eponymous film introduces herself and her family by running through a list of each character’s likes and dislikes. Some Fridays, Amélie sees a movie. “I like looking back at people’s faces in the dark,” she says, “but I hate it in old movies when drivers don’t watch the road.” Amelie cultivates a taste for small pleasures. She likes dipping her hand into sacks of grain, cracking crème brulée with a teaspoon, and skipping stones at St. Martin’s Canal. As for her father, “Raphaël Poulain doesn’t like peeing next to somebody else. He doesn’t like noticing people laughing at his sandals or coming out of the water with his swimming suit sticking to his body. Raphaël Poulain likes to tear big pieces of wallpaper off the walls, to line up his shoes and polish them with great care, to empty his toolbox, clean it thoroughly, and, finally, to put everything away carefully.”
In his book The Art of Flight, author Sergio Pitol writes that “We, I would venture to guess, are the books we have read, the paintings we have seen, the music we have heard and forgotten, the streets we have walked. We are our childhood, our family, some friends, a few loves, more than a few disappointments.”
In To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf explores the intricacies of the mind. Mrs. Ramsey “often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions.” Lily is excited by the idea that “life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach” and later wonders “what was the spirit in her, the essential thing by which, had you found a crumpled glove in the corner of a sofa, you would have known it, from its twisted finger, hers indisputably?.”
No one is quite sure what it means to be a person. Smith says we’re tastes and buying habits and physical attributes. Amelie says we are our own eccentricities. Pitol says we are our experiences, Woolf says we are an amalgamation of our most trivial memories and moments. I’m trying to work it out myself.
Last spring, I compulsively reacquainted myself with Vampire Weekend in preparation for their new album; at the same time, through a friend’s not-so-gentle nudging, I was falling headfirst into Elif Batuman’s campus novel called The Idiot. Through sheer dumb luck, the two converged.
I deep-dived into Ezra Koenig’s personal life, his college years in particular, and discovered that he had written a collection of short stories for a writing class. Many an hour was spent bathed in the blue light of a computer screen, searching for said collection. Thousands of Google results later, the search brought me to a surprising source—an article in The Guardian written by none other than Elif Batuman. In her piece, Batuman tells the story of an eager young Ezra who, after having read her article in n+1 about the death of the short story, requested if he could please send her a copy of his own. I was in disbelief: what a coincidence! By some stroke of magic, the internet had revealed some hidden truths, had revealed the human mind at work. Our internal curiosity has the power to form surprising external connections with others.
It was cinematic and melancholy, and I set my book down for a moment to sink into it. By the second verse, I had goosebumps; I knew this story, I was holding it in my hands.
A few weeks later, I found myself reading yet another campus novel, this time Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Absolutely enthralled, I tore through its entirety in two days. Here was everything I loved—English country houses, bright young things, post-war Europe, decadence, despondence, longing. Vampire Weekend’s discography on shuffle provided background noise for my little literary feast, and in another stroke of sheer dumb coincidence, the song “Arrows” came on. It was cinematic and melancholy, and I set my book down for a moment to sink into it. By the second verse, I had goosebumps; I knew this story, I was holding it in my hands. Sitting up in disbelief, I searched the song lyrics on the internet and as chance would have it, learned that “Arrows” is based on scenes from Brideshead Revisited. Some months later, I watched the Brideshead television adaptation and smiled as I hummed along to the score, the same tune as “Arrows.”
Is that what life is? Uncovering the invisible breadcrumbs left for you and you alone, traversing a never-ending neural network that is yours to explore? These moments, or as Batuman phrases it in her aforementioned article, this “wonderland of hidden connections,” are not coincidences, but truly distilled magic, small doses of meaning that enchant us and reward our curiosity. They remind us of what it means to be a person, stumbling from one discovery to the next, swept up in life, a vital component in the motion of living.
So exciting are they, and yet we can’t find the words to convey their significance when explained to another. They mean nothing to anyone but ourselves because of the myriad of little pathways traveled to reach the realization. But that’s the sum of a life lived, a hodge-podge scrapbook of memories and pathways that only hold meaning to us.
These quiet incidents of recognition are different for every individual, but unite us in that we all experience them. There’s no telling what these things might be, they strike out of nowhere, always pure and coincidental. So exciting are they, and yet we can’t find the words to convey their significance when explained to another. They mean nothing to anyone but ourselves because of the myriad of little pathways traveled to reach the realization. But that’s the sum of a life lived, a hodge-podge scrapbook of memories and pathways that only hold meaning to us. It reminds me of the felix felicis potion in Harry Potter that smells differently to each person. Hermione smells freshly mown grass, new parchment and spearmint toothpaste; I imagine I’d smell rain on hot asphalt, Redken Anti-Snap, and Diva laundry detergent. Arbitrary details. Yet in truth, rain on hot asphalt evokes a sense of freedom, of mischief, of summer thunderstorms that would roll into town and save me from Saturday morning swim meets. Anti-Snap smells like love, gentleness—my mother combed it into my wet, tangled hair every night after bathtime. Another random detail of life, insignificant at first glance but intensely revealing of one’s personhood when we choose to share them.
Maybe knowing someone is an endeavor measured by facts in a matter of degrees. Consider my friend’s roommate. Aparna is vegetarian, she’s teaching herself to play the violin, she studies biology, she was born in ‘99, has one younger brother, speaks a bit of French, and could eat celery and peanut butter every day without tiring of it. By most standards, it would be fair to say that I know Aparna. But by that definition, you could come to ‘know’ anyone by asking a series of questions, committing them to memory, and then regurgitating them later to prove your knowledge. Knowing someone this way mirrors studying or memorizing, but it’s not the same as the intimacy that might come from knowing the scent of another’s liquid luck, or being familiar with their daily idiosyncrasies and joyous habits. I could have gathered every single one of those details from her Instagram or Twitter in the span of half an hour. Therefore, knowing someone can’t be about collecting and committing to memory.
We’re idiosyncratic, we’re physical attributes and tastes and buying habits, we’re our childhoods, our loves and losses, we’re the tip of an iceberg, we’re made up of little separate incidents that together form the whole of our being; we’re all of this.
Earlier in the semester, I went to the most bizarre party. It was an RTF party and I walked in armed with a set of assumptions and judgments as to who I thought these partygoers might be. Climbing the stairs, I could hear the new Vampire Weekend album floating through the door before I even reached it. I went inside and saw the host, Jack, dressed exactly like Ezra Koenig—tie-dye socks, Tevas, short shorts and big t-shirt. This was no costume party, the mimicry was unintentional. How could he not know, how did he not see himself as the caricature I saw? Something else caught my eye not long after. I made my way to the bookshelf, strategically placed in the hub of activity, begging to be looked at. Infinite Jest, The Dharma Bums, Woody Allen on Woody Allen; it was like a prop advertising its owner as the most quintessential film student on earth. Again I asked myself, how could he not know? Why is it that people are unable to see the pathways or connections that we do as onlookers? Why is it that people are unable to see themselves as we do? That’s unfair of me, isn’t it, to assume that I know Jack (or at least know enough to condescend) because of how he dresses himself or because I’ve seen the books he chooses to display? (God knows what my own bookshelf proclaims of me.) But I have no way of knowing what he’d smell if he leaned over a boiling pot of felix felicis. Like Smith, I assume his personhood when all I truly know are tastes and buying habits.
We’re idiosyncratic, we’re physical attributes and tastes and buying habits, we’re our childhoods, our loves and losses, we’re the tip of an iceberg, we’re made up of little separate incidents that together form the whole of our being; we’re all of this. Maybe because we’re able to recognize this about ourselves, it’s conceivably much easier to understand ourselves than it is other people. Taking the time to explore our own minds allows us to recognize our constant growth. The problem with trying to pin down others lies in the fact that people are not static. We might think we’ve come to understand someone only for them to immediately contradict our expectations. We don’t have much in the way of fixed identity. We have traits and tendencies, idiosyncrasies and predispositions, but when we try to know others, all we do is draw lines between the is and the is not. They are this, they are not that, and so on forever. These boundaries will box one in. If personhood is nothing but a collection of random boundaries, then those boundaries are apt to move.
In short, measuring and defining who a person is in a concrete way is impossible. Boundaries shift, people change in unexpected ways, or we discover aspects of their selves that were hidden all along. Sometimes they do things and they don’t know why. We recognize this fluidity in ourselves, yet we rarely cut others the same slack we would extend ourselves. So we can’t know others, but we can know ourselves. The most we can do is seek out the distinctive magical moments that color our days and try to remain aware that like us, others have their own complex inner worlds where dots are connected by their own unique, seemingly random events.