Brain Pickings

Geoff Dyer on the Paradoxical Rewards of Our Capacity for Disappointment

“When I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may as well be dead.”

Geoff Dyer on the Paradoxical Rewards of Our Capacity for Disappointment

“We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. That is what governs us. We have a bipolar system,” Maira Kalman observed in her marvelous illustrated meditation on the pursuit of happiness. “We seem to … take it for granted,” psychoanalyst Adam Philips wrote in his treatise on our unforbidden pleasures, “that each day will bring its necessary quotient of self-disappointment.”

This inescapable and perhaps even necessary function of disappointment is what Geoff Dyer arrives at again and again in White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World (public library) — an exceptionally entertaining and intellectually enlivening book, a psychological travelogue of sorts straddling fiction and nonfiction, which means, as Dyer himself puts it, that it “does not demand to be read according to how far from a presumed dividing line — a line separating certain forms and the expectations they engender — it is assumed to stand.” And yet, in a sense, the book is almost entirely about frustrated expectations.

Geoff Dyer (Photograph: Jason Oddy)

Finding himself on a Polynesian island that has fallen woefully short of his fantasies, Dyer braces himself “for some climactic letdown, for disappointment of such purity that [one] would not even realize it was being experienced.” A journey to see the Northern Lights ends up “like a lifetime of disappointment compressed into less than a week, which actually felt like it had lasted the best — in the sense of worst — part of a lifetime.” On a trip to Beijing, he laments “an evening when one kind of disappointment followed swiftly on the heels of another, interrupted by surges of hope and renewed expectation.”

And yet that see-saw of hope and despair is precisely what animates us into motion. Dyer’s elegant wryness strums a quiet serenade to disappointment as an integral, and perhaps even vitalizing, part of life — nowhere more so than in his quest to see Paul Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Housed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and, the painting is one Dyer had long loved and fantasized about beholding in its authentic, analog splendor.

Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897)
Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897)

By a stroke of happenstance, Dyer finds himself in Boston for the very first time shortly before a planned trip to Tahiti — the Polynesian paradise where Gauguin painted his masterpiece. He wanders the museum in the almost manic expectation of encountering the painting without plan or guidance, until a museum guard crushes his hopes. Dyer writes:

The painting was not on display at the moment, he said. It was being restored or out on loan, I forget which. Having thanked him, I trudged away in a state of disappointment so all-consuming it felt like he had put a curse on me, a curse by which the force of gravity had suddenly increased threefold.

Dyer wrests out of his particular disappointment a common existential conundrum:

The experience of the missing masterpiece, of the thwarted pilgrimage (which is not at all the same as a wasted journey), made me see that the vast questions posed by Gauguin’s painting had to be supplemented with other, more specific ones. Why do we arrive at a museum on the one day of the week — the only day we have free in a given city — when it is shut? On the day after a blockbuster exhibition has finally — after multiple extensions of its initial four-month run — closed? When the painting we want to see is out on loan to a museum in a city visited a year ago, when the featured show was the Paul Klee retrospective already seen in Copenhagen six months previously? … All of which leads to another, still more perplexing question: what is the difference between seeing something and not seeing it? More specifically, what is the difference between seeing Tahiti and not seeing it, between going to Tahiti and not going? The answer to that, an answer that is actually an answer to an entirely different question, is that it is possible to go to Tahiti without seeing it.

But this capacity for disappointment, Dyer suggests, is a centerpiece of the seeking and striving that define secular life and, as such, is a relatively modern phenomenon qualitatively different our ancient quests. He writes:

Impossible — not even conceivable — that a Muslim, on making the mandatory, once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, could be disappointed. That is the essential difference between religious and secular pilgrimage: the latter always has the potential to disappoint. In the wake of this realization there swiftly followed another: that my enormous capacity for disappointment was actually an achievement, a victory. The devastating scale and frequency of my disappointment (‘I am down, but not yet defeated,’ Gauguin snivel-boasted) was proof of how much I still expected and wanted from the world, of what high hopes I still had of it. When I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may as well be dead.

White Sands is a terrific read in its totality — one that will neither disappoint nor, paradoxically, make you wish yourself dead. Complement it with Dyer on the choice not to have children and his wonderful conversation with The New York Public Library’s Jessica Strand:

Published July 18, 2016




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