In 1892, a French psychologist named Jules de Gaultier published a short book entitled Le bovarysme, la psychologie dans l’oeuvre de Flaubert. In 1902, he published a more philosophical version of the same book, titled: Le bovarysme, essai sur le pouvoir d’imaginer. The second is more cited than the first, though neither seems to be very closely read. Still, at least if you read Flaubert professionally, de Gaultier is a household name—almost exclusively for his discovery of the condition so perfectly incarnated in Flaubert’s heroine. Le bovarysme, he explains in cold French, is the power assigned to man to imagine himself other than he is. Madame Bovary’s problem is just that she’s overdeveloped it. The poor woman can’t stop using her imagination: she can’t stop imagining herself other than she is, can’t stop imagining herself in another place than where she is. She goes on like this all day. On her honeymoon she dreams of Switzerland, of Scotland, of those far-off lands—this is still the age of carriages—that must produce happiness. I’m like a plant, she thinks, only one that requires a very specific soil.
Yes, I think, deep in the glorious hell of Google Books. Me too. Now, I’m not Madame Bovary. I’m a man. I was born in the late Eighties in New York Hospital, and I’m very free— I’m frequently encouraged—to go abroad. I’m entitled to the bone. And I’m not at all married. But if I ever am, I will, I’m positive, honeymoon in my head on my honeymoon, too. No, I know all about the grass—it is forever greener.
After college, six years ago, I moved to Morocco. I wasn’t one of the ones who fled to Brooklyn. Almost everybody I love did just that, and secretly I felt like it was the lesser move. Most days, now, I dream, horribly, of joining them, settling in Williamsburg. But at 22 I don’t think it even occurred to me not to go abroad. I moved to Rabat, the capital of Morocco. What was I doing? I went to teach English is one answer. Or, I went, and teaching English was my way of being there. This is what I say when pressed, something like: “Studying Arabic, traveling, writing, teaching English—to make money. But mainly just being there.”
The American school that I taught at was around the corner from McDonald’s, in a nouveau-riche neighborhood in the Ville Nouvelle. Taxi drivers normally won’t know it by name, but if you tell them Le Magdo, you’ll get there. It’s a thin five-story glass building wedged between a chichi patisserie and a kind of general store owned by a Soussi who keeps, or kept, a fridge full of cold two-liter bottles of Sidi Ali for the young Americans next door. In the Fifties, it was founded by a group of American Christians in order—in their words—to “improve mutual understanding” between Americans and people of the Middle East and North Africa. (Today it avows the same, but the message is aimed more at the one percent.) In a sense, going abroad to teach English is what has become of our parents’ mission trips. We do it a lot. (At some point, somebody in South Korea must have created an incredible ad campaign.) Still, I don’t know anybody—not anybody I trust, I mean—who’s gone abroad truly itching to the give the gift of Business English.
Rabat was something to me. I’d spent a semester there during the spring of my junior year, and I came back with stories, nodding whenever anybody said, You must’ve loved it there. I liked the image of myself teaching. And elder academics had warned me that I had to “get more Arabic” for graduate school. But really I set out to be abroad, as if Abroad was where I was going.1 These are the lines my most beloved professor pasted in an email he sent me after graduation: “The true wayfarers are those who leave / only for leaving’s sake: with hearts light as balloons / they never swerve from their destinies / and, without knowing why, are always saying: ‘Let us go on!’” No, yes, that, I’m pretty sure I remember thinking: it must be good to have no idea why.
The imperative to collect experiences is not especially new. It’s traceable, historians of capitalism such as Will B. Mackintosh have shown, to the invention of things like pleasure boats and cruise ships in the early nineteenth century. In 1856, for example, an advertisement for the new Maid of the Mist, a steamboat that took (and still takes) tourists through the Niagara Gorge, promised to deliver the “sublime and comprehensive” to its passengers. We’ve inherited the nineteenth-century taste for peak experiences. But ours is a moment in which what was once something to write home about is now an item on your college application.2 You grow up amid an array of ready-made summers: a month in Italy studying the Renaissance (a day with real artists), a summer spent in a tiny village outside Quito volunteering to build a school. Your guidance counselor teaches you a phrase: “Go abroad.” Our parents went with their churches, but you go with kids from your school; it’s an adventure. And you’re better for traveling—more desirable. Whatever you make of William Deresiewicz’s recent jeremiad, he’s describing something true, if obvious, when he says that the culture of elite education teaches you to go off in search of experiences—abroad, ideally—in order to cash in on them at home.
But the idealization of being abroad can be an internal thing, too. In this iteration of the illness, getting experience is linked to the why-less good of getting outside yourself. Madame Bovary spends her early twenties in utter bourgeois hell, sitting for hours on end in her husband’s house. She consumes whatever she can get her hands on: above all, romances populated by heroines whom she can forever see herself becoming. She takes flight inside herself. My equivalent of her novels was Theory—philosophy if you’re not in a philosophy department, basically—and I ate it up with a borderless hunger. I took it all too much to heart, especially when the adults I revered revered it. I didn’t read whole books, and no one really told me how to read. When I wanted more, which I did, I read Brooklyn magazines made in the image of the Frankfurt School. I seized certain one-liners and made them Gospel.
I know the line that did it to me. It’s from Adorno, from Minima Moralia (a good example of a book that you should only be allowed to read with an adult). Specifically, it’s from the eighteenth sort-of text block, headed “Refuge for the homeless.” Adorno cites a moment in The Gay Science when Nietzsche mockingly boasts of the good fortune he has in not being a homeowner. Then Adorno writes: “Today we should have to add: it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” The line in my copy of the book has an excited red circle around it.
I got Adorno wrong. He’s talking about modern man’s relationship to the everyday spaces he inhabits, and to the changing nature of private property; he’s describing “not being at home” as a current strain of morality, not prescribing it; he’s concerned with morality in 1951, not the 2000s; and so on. It doesn’t matter. A maimed version of that line—it is part of morality not to be at home—got tattooed on my brain. It linked it up with other texts I’d flagged that seemed to endorse that brand of not being at home—mainly texts produced by French and German men writing from within various forms of exile in the middle of the twentieth century, whose experiences of the world I assumed, somehow, to be my own. In my poor head, bovarysme became a moral project: a ceaseless, furiously restless mode of desiring that worked against the bougie habit of equating happiness with the stilled contentment of homemaking. From college on, I had a rule: it was good to not feel at home, bad to be comfortably put.
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In Rabat my life is full of a lot of nothing. The first few months, I’m bent on making friends, local friends—this means long sessions in cafés or in salons spread out on sofas with Moroccans my age. We lounge hard. We drink coffee, tea, Fanta Orange. We make the joke about my name (it resembles the Arabic word for “chicken”) and then we rename me (“Jamal”). We trade names for sex acts in our languages. We hold hands walking down Boulevard Mohammed V and stand up watching Spanish soccer and we insinuate that the other secretly (but obviously) likes to have sex with men. There’s a lot of joking about moms. We agree there’s only one God. We share a chair in a cyber café in order to assess American girls on my Facebook, and once or twice we cross a line. I’m made to try a food that it is (even when it isn’t) my first time trying, and then I’m made to tell the joke I’ve just been taught in Darija about the Soussi desperate to fuck his camel. I’m a real Moroccan: it’s official. It feels good. We smoke hash, say I love you, stare into the Atlantic and sit well into the silence that takes everything over when the exchange runs out.
I stick with it. The other teachers I know create a world for themselves. They watch the NBA at the new Irish pub. They play Madden at the embassy with the reserve Marines and do Thanksgiving. (These are the ones my age, who will only be there for a year. The older ones teach extra hours and have dark private lives.) They are happier than I am.
Soon my friends become fewer and Frencher, and I only see them at night. I live in an apartment on the ocean with a Québécoise girl, Camille, who spends her day at war with corruption. On January 9, 2010, I send an email to my mother: “In what’s maybe a rare incidence of honest advertising we’re living as literally on the Atlantic as possible.” “What a dream!” she replies, not hearing me. Things grow monotone. Sentences beginning “Moroccans…” begin to come out of my mouth, and I talk about how the tea hurts your teeth. Slippers annoy me. A big chunk of my days are spent on my computer, online. I go to Madrid for a weekend to take the GRE and get lost and find myself before an advertisement at a bus stop featuring what I think are a pair of breasts; I feel better. When I cross back over to Rabat I’m adamant: anybody who says that they love it here is lying.
I’m going to graduate school in the fall. Some days I hide in the reading room in the Bibliothèque Nationale; I sit at the opposite end of a very long table from a Portuguese anthropologist who teaches philosophy in Ifrane. I wait it out. On Tuesdays this asshole French historian shows up and we bristle. One morning I write an email to my professor, the one responsible for sending me the poem:
this morning camille all but demanded that i seek out la bibliotheque nationale, and well, i’m here now, and i don’t want to jinx it, but good mother of god, this quiet, the largeness. someone just coughed on the other side of the room—and they’re far away. it’s a cliche, but that noise right there of the turning pages: it’s cutting into me a little. imagine the homecoming feeling will dry up fast, but still, i think i’ll come back here as much as i can till i head back to the states in august.
I do go back to the library. But mostly I sit in cafés. There’s a phrase for this too: “the café life.” So exalted in guidebooks, introductory Arabic classes, ethnographies of urban Morocco, Paul Fucking Bowles. I sit for hours with my laptop out, with other men. I produce thousand-word, single-paragraph emails and get worked up over published fights about the hipster. “I’m melting,” I text Camille, whom I also only see at night. And I fill Moleskines with observations, transcribing whatever’s in front of me: “Drunk holding head in his hands,” “Waiter inspecting hairline in door glass,” “Prostitute in pajamas orders a Fanta Orange,” “Mohammed’s cat vomits.”
I recently made myself look, again, at what I wrote then. Not so much the Moleskines—I was afraid to touch those—as the thousands of emails. Here’s a snippet from one dated January 1, 2010, to my friend Liz:
there’s more going on, or more’s been going on, than i could possibly do justice to. that sounds horrible. […] i am restless as fuck here, now. i don’t love rabat, its frenchified wannabes. i also do. its old endlessly wrapped women are geniuses and the orange juice boy teaches me flemish. i’m stilled; i want to move more—etc etc etc. my girlfriend—do you even know about this?—is leaving morocco for good—and now a room full of 15 and 16 year-old bored-to-tears precious lyceens await me. lord: this class will be a storm of shit.
I remember that: storms of shit in every teapot. Monstrous lycéens. Bloody ambivalence. It’s like my emails were written the way they were in order to give the appearance of vitality. Except I meant it, the breathlessness, the nonsense; it felt like this. Boredom can be fiery.
Here’s another snippet, from March 1, 2010, to Nicco: “I’ve never seen people wear boredom on their faces like some do here, this dramatically, like it were killing them.” The rooms we sit in are usually lightless, especially during the day. Most of the men around me huddle around tiny tables gossiping in whispers. They hold each other by the biceps, keep the hoods of their djellabas up, point fingers. One or two cling to the back of the room stuck in dead meditation. I stand out, the American deep in his machine, and I’m invisible. It doesn’t take long to get angry visions of doing this forever, sitting here. Except it isn’t my forever I see. It’s theirs, the men I sit with. I type furiously—oh, Christ! I have to get out. The waiter, Simo, passes behind me and puts two fingers to the back of my neck and calls me khoya, my brother, and it goes right to my heart. At once I resent my resentment. It turns out my professor’s poet also says this: the small, dull world forever reflects you back to yourself.
Internet! I love you. The one legitimately boundless world: at last, the end of boredom. In Rabat I am bound to it. I write a very bad story about a young man who spends two weeks trying to guess the password of the one available network in his virtual orbit. On a Sunday morning I go to Inwi, the telecommunications company that’s recently started stationing emissaries throughout the city with clipboards and giveaways. The store is bright purple on the outside; inside it imitates Apple. I buy une clé (a key), which you plug into your laptop to connect. It’s the easiest thing ever, an employee with braces beams. I begin to alternate days between Viking and the apartment. In the mornings I watch porn with coffee. I discover something called I-Doser, an online distributor of binaural beats concocted to simulate ecstatic experiences (according to the kids in the store), and I make Camille do it with me in the dark on a Thursday night. We drown out the waves, and take turns thinking that somebody’s broken in.
The key fails continually. It’s torture. I require it to live. I go back to Inwi, twice; I beg for help. I watch the little green light, which signifies that it’s working, flicker off and on for hours. “I can’t take it any more,” I text Camille, praying, cursing. The promise of internet, of salvation, hangs just in front of my face, and I howl every time it vanishes. I truly howl. Every second is too long. It is a lifetime. Three days later, according to email records, I shut my laptop and leave the apartment. Immediately across the way, across a highway, there is a kind of promontory that hangs over the Atlantic. It’s a trapezoidal plot of land littered with stray flip-flops, crushed Coke cans, panties. There are cairns. Nightly, without fail, a confederacy of dogs appears. They run on each other’s heels, making long, fevered figure-eights in the dark and screaming. During the day pairs and trios of men stand next to parked motorbikes with their hands on their hips, staring out into the water.
I cross over. It’s late in the morning in the middle of the week. I take a spot. No one looks at me. The men I’m standing with really do look like they are dreaming of better, or other, or past lives. I make myself stay put for fifteen minutes, literally counting out the last five aloud. This will be a ritual. Almost every day during my last month in Rabat I do it: I leave the apartment, cross the road, join the men, stare, do as little as I can for as long as I can bear it. The end is near, and I feel like I’m onto something: confinement has a freeing quality. I imagine myself happy in Cambridge, in Berlin, in Madrid, in Reykjavik, elsewhere, elsewhere planted, escaping myself.
What’s wrong with me? In Kierkegaard’s Either/ Or, in the short chapter entitled “Crop Rotation,” human boredom is described in terms of agriculture. Like an unwise, artless farmer, the soul afflicted by boredom constantly changes the soil beneath his feet. If I just go there, he thinks, I’ll be saved. A bougie nomadism sets in: “One is tired of living in the country, one moves to the city; one is tired of one’s native land, one travels abroad; one is europamüde, one goes to America, and so on; finally, one indulges in a dream of endless travel from star to star.” Nor do you need to literally travel to live like this: “One is tired of dining off porcelain, one dines off silver; one tires of that, one dines off gold; one burns half of Rome to get an idea of the conflagration at Troy.” You escape and escape, on loop, and regularly run up against the fact that there is, finally, no happy spot on earth, nowhere you’ll really flourish, like one of Madame Bovary’s plants. This, I found out in Rabat, was the secret truth of the morality I had concocted: its built-in Failure, capital F, was what motored it. Bad infinity, in the terms of Either/Or.
But there is a good one—an infinity that deeply resembles the bad kind, but isn’t it. In lieu of forever changing the soil, the author of Either/Or proposes, you should change your method of cultivation and the type of grain you’re using. You should stick to your little plot of earth and figure out how to inhabit it differently. You could try to sit with, and in, finitude instead of dissolving into the chronic quest for the new. A spider appears in front of you, for example. Like a prisoner alone in his cell, or like a first grader in class, your sole task is to invest your attention in it, inspect its every gesture. Beholding it you find out what you’re capable of. This is the Principle of Limitation, the author says. A new rule. This is how you begin to choose the small, dull and unfailingly disappointing world over the always-better ones that fill your head. The difference between just being there and actually being there hangs on how well you give yourself over to it.
As an alternative to my moralized restlessness, now, this appeals. I start slow. Six years removed from Rabat I risk signing up for the Home Depot newsletter. I collect Tupperware and I fill a bag with bags. I’d frame photos, but I’ve always avoided taking any, especially when I was living in Rabat. This is not, my former self promises me, the same thing as turning into Nietzsche’s homeowner. I do, at least, have this welcome sign that I bought from a man on a corner in the medina; it’s wood, and corny, and I keep it inside on my doorsill. I’ve been back to that corner in the medina. (The man wasn’t there.) I’ve returned to Morocco three times since the year I lived there. I can’t stop, I say, and people nod. In a way, that’s Madame Bovary’s true tragedy, how deeply unspecial her affliction is.
The most recent time, my fourth, was last March. I’d been in Madrid, actually, but I went down to Morocco for three days. I gave myself a day in Rabat. The city felt like it normally does, like it was trying not to wake up. In the morning I ate a plate of pastries with three of my favorite students, and in the afternoon I watched Wimbledon with my old Arabic teacher, who fell asleep. In the hours left before I had to go to the airport I hailed a petit taxi to the neighborhood Océan, where Camille and I used to live. It let me out at the French church that Simo and I used to regularly spend hours staring at. (At some point, I was told, he moved to Brussels.) For a second I was surprised to see it, haunted by the belief that cities disappeared in my absence. But there it stood, unmoving: huge, white, its dozens of windows blackened like somebody had tried to blind it. It was a bit cleaner, actually.
I looked at my phone. I tried to imagine what was going on inside the church; that didn’t last. I thought instead about my flight, about what I’d watch, if the plane had TVs, about the possibility of the plane’s not having a TV, about who I had to see at home and who I wanted to see, about something my old Arabic teacher had said earlier about Rafael Nadal’s nose. A very large woman posted up to the church. She caught her breath and started up again, and when she passed me she brushed my shoulder. A group of stoned teenagers howled in an alley, and I got annoyed, and then I got annoyed at myself. I counted, lost count. No, this is a fine city to be in no rush in.