Naguib Mahfouz On Forgetting And Habit

In Naguib Mahfouz‘s Autumn Quail, Isa, the corrupt bureaucrat whose long, slow, and painful decline after a purge following the 1952 revolution in Egypt the novel tracks, brings back Riri, a woman of the night, to his home. The next day,

He woke up about noon and looked with curiosity at the naked girl sleeping next to him. Recollections of the previous night came back and he told himself that as long as oblivion and habit still existed, everything remained possible. [Anchor Books, 2000, pp. 374]

Many a student of human nature is puzzled by the subject of his study. Why do humans behave as irrationally and self-destructively as they do? Why do they hurt the ones they love? Why can they not learn from their mistakes?

Perhaps because they forget; perhaps because they are compelled.

If memory can be so constitutive of identity, then forgetting gives us the chance to make ourselves anew. Forgetting ensures pain and joy once experienced are consigned to the past, and cannot act as guides to the future: they cannot inhibit, they cannot impel us to repeat a once-experienced pleasure, they cannot make us shrink from the venue of an older disaster. The burnt child fears the fire, but the forgotten fire provides no instruction for action when a flame is encountered again. Then the child becomes the moth; our expectation of its behavior is reconfigured. We may too, pass by a previously experienced domain of pleasure, now strangely reluctant to sample its joys again; we have already buried, pushed out into oblivion, memories of our times within its confines. We carry on, unaware that we have foregone an opportunity to experience that which once enthralled us so. This blithe ignorance may take us elsewhere, toward experiences and interactions, which are provocative of novel responses from us.

Habits, conditioned and impressed, sent deep into the innermost recesses of our being,  continue to drive us on too. They may become more than mere regularities in behavior; they may appear as instincts, innate and congenital. We may mark out zones of catastrophe, and expect no one will venture into their precincts, but the persona habitually conditioned to push open its doors and enter will continue to do so. And habits may send us, again and again, long after the shocks and the pleasures of the new have worn off, seeking old exaltations and ecstasies, hoping they will be as productive of joy as they once were. The resultant inevitable disappointment, so clearly visible to the observer, and which should seem to act as inhibitor, does not have that effect; the habitual commissioner of acts continues to do so long after all assessments of his actions as reasonable have ceased.

Forgetting and habit send us on into this world as a curious mixture of the new and the archaic. Such a creature is curiously open to possibility while simultaneously entrenched in older ways of being. The interaction between the two can be productive of much that might appear initially implausible.  ‘Everything remains possible’ indeed.

The Curious Irony of Procrastination

Do writers procrastinate more than other people? I wouldn’t know for sure just because I have no idea how much procrastination counts as the norm and what depths practitioners of other trades sink to. But I procrastinate a great deal. (Thank you for indulging me in my description of myself as a ‘writer’; if you prefer, I could just use ‘blogger.’) At any given moment, there are many, many tasks I can think of–not all of them writerly–that I intend to get around to any hour, day, week, month, year or life now. (I procrastinate on this blog too; I’ve promised to write follow-ups to many posts and almost never get around to doing so.) This endless postponement is a source of much anxiety and dread. Which, of course, is procrastination’s central–and justifiably famous–irony.

You procrastinate because you seek relief from anxiety, because you dread encounters with the uncertainty, frustration, and intractability you sense in the tasks that remain undone. But the deferment you seek relief in becomes a source of those very sensations you sought to avoid. The affliction feared and the putative relief provider are one and the same. It is a miserable existence to suffer so.

One of my longest running procrastinations is close to the two-year mark now; this period has been particularly memorable–in all the wrong ways–because it has been marked by a daily ritual that consists of me saying ‘Tomorrow, I’ll start.’ (I normally go through this in the evening or late at night.) And on the day after, I wake up, decide to procrastinate again, and reassure myself that tomorrow is the day it will happen. As has been noted in the context of quitting vices, one of the reasons we persist in our habits is because we are able to convince ourselves that quitting, getting rid of the old habit,  is easy. So we persist, indulging ourselves once more and reassuring ourselves of our imagined success in breaking out of the habit whenever we finally decide we are ready to do so. (But habits are habits for a reason; because they are deeply ingrained, because we practice them so, because we have made them near instinctual parts of ourselves. And that is why, of course, new habits are hard to form, and old habits are hard to break.)

Similarly for procrastination; we continue to put off for the morrow because we imagine that when the morrow rolls around, we will be able to easily not put off, to get down to the business at hand. All that lets us do, of course, is continue to procrastinate today. The only thing put off till the morrow is the repetition of the same decision as made today–the decision to defer yet again.

Now, if as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do, I’m a procrastinator; I’m an irrational wallower in anxiety, condemning myself to long-term suffering for fear of being afflicted by a short-lived one. That is not a flattering description to entertain of oneself but it is an apt one given my history and my actions.