The Riddle of the Dancing Bear


Recently, Kazoo Ishiguro wrote an article revealing that he had written The Remains of the Day, his most successful book, in a 4 week "Crash."

Until that point, since giving up the day job five years earlier, I’d managed reasonably well to maintain a steady rhythm of work and productivity. But my first flurry of public success following my second novel had brought with it many distractions. Potentially career-enhancing proposals, dinner and party invitations, alluring foreign trips and mountains of mail had all but put an end to my “proper” work. I’d written an opening chapter to a new novel the previous summer, but now, almost a year later, I was no further forward. - Kazuo Ishiguro: how I wrote The Remains of the Day in four weeks

The title of Ishiguro's book, The Remains of the Day, has always resonated with me. One of those phrases that prompted an entire world in my mind as to what the book might be about. While I read the book, there was a consistent tension between what I imagined the book was about and what it actually was. My initial response to the text was not so much disappointment as a realignment of expectation. Because what the title had seeded within me was a world in which the "remains of the day" were the most vital and charged. The day being spent in series of distractions and tasks oriented around that odd phrase, "making a living." It was what remained of the day after all of this storm and fury was decanted away that made a difference - as it seemed to me. And I struggled here to adjust my sympathies to the butler, Stevens.

“What can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.” - Remains of the Day

The sad problem here is "the likes of you and I" don't come up with much to speak of when the "making a living" portion of the day is taken away. (And here is the sorrow that haunts the figure of Stevens.) What remains of the day are a few hours within which to relax and forget the tedium and the thousand little compromises that emptied the soul. Not much "cause for pride and contentment." I think of the Eliot line from Prufrock: "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." I see that spoon removing a little bit more of the soul each day. And I think, I've got plenty. No need to worry about what the small spoon takes away. But that spoon is a voracious and predatory creature whose innocuous appearance is its camouflage. It feeds on the remains of my day.

The notion often expressed is we should work to live and not live to work. Defining work here as a being paid to do a task you would not normally do, most typically for someone else. And, if most of our lives are spent working in this way, then what remains after work should be our most beautiful and meaningful experiences, "our time." These moment of quiet beauty and charged meaning, when set upon the balance, should easily outweigh in quality the benumbing quantity of days filled with work. But the reality is they often do not. Work empties us out, exhausts us, quietly and steadily fills us with despair. And when we are not working, all we seem to want is mindless distraction. Another world to mindlessly escape to for a few hours: television programs, movies, a bottle of wine, a drink at the bar. And all of those great projects born out of our dreams languish under the increasing weight of dust - first on the desk, then in the drawer, into the box, stored away in the closet to one day be rediscovered with a sad smile and a slight shake of the head: oh yeah, there's that novel I was going to write.

It is clear that even novelists working for themselves suffer variations of this problem, as evidenced by the Ishiguro quote. And his solution: to detach from the distractions and obligations of the world and focus on his work the the exclusion of all else paid off. Of course, most of us do not have this sort of freedom or privilege. Most of us are happily tied down to jobs, bills, mortgages, car payments, etc.. There is a clear cut path for us to follow. Just keep walking, following, head down, help anyone that stumbles in front, encourage those that follow behind by your stalwart example. But what if we could step off the clear cut path? What if we took another path, as the famous poem suggests? And what if we understood these lines of the poem also:

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

And one day, we did come back? And we got back in line? What then? What then will we do with the remains of our day?

The rhetorical corollary of The Riddle of the Dancing Bear:

What happens to a bear that has been trained to dance on a ball and perform for crowds at the circus who one day is released, perhaps escapes, back into The Wild?