Ennui and a dull blade, Thoughts on High Fidelity (2000)

“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music? “ Rob, in the movie High Fidelity (2000)

“John Dillinger was killed behind that theater in a hail of FBI gunfire. And do you know who tipped them off? His fucking girlfriend. All he wanted to do was go to the movies. “ – the character Rob, again.

Our trusts and distrusts, confidences and lack thereof, may reflect deeper anxieties, of which the surface distrusts are mere prolongations.

What kind of anxieties? Oh, I don’t know, like say about acceptance, loyalty, abandonment..

So there I was, chilling out with my friend A. F., over at his 2nd floor Cheviot flat, several weeks ago, checking out his library. He generously passed a few books my way, a bit of Schopenhauer, some Bukowski, and a few other tidbits. Of course he was keeping some treasures, some really cool volumes of Henry Rollins’ poetry, all sorts of philosophy books, and a couple of beautifully and artfully bound limited editions of Crowley.  My tolerance for the “great beast’ wanes increasingly the older I get. The books themselves were beauts, works of art, in any case.

Later he demonstrated his projector over in the living room, the thing’s a beast, acquired under rather favorable conditions from a friend, whose department evidently didn’t need it. One of those kinds of projectors whose bulbs alone will set you back several Benjamin’s. Firing it up, he decided to pop in the DVD du noir; High Fidelity.

John Cusack’s character, Rob, in High Fidelity is very sympathetic because he illustrates many ambiguities, perceptions, mis-perceptions, and anxieties experienced by many men in the 1990’s and 2000s.

That and it’s a great nostalgia trip.

A. F. and I are close enough of age to both fit in the bachelor generation the film represents. His romantic experiences exceed my past modest  ‘lil dating history, in some ways both of our romantic lives and misadventures resonate with the main character’s. In fact, watching the movie, I really felt like High Fidelity, as a sort of pop culture watermark, a bit reflects the romantic and career ambiguities and frustrations of many people from the tail-end of Generation X, front end of Generation Y – both  men and women.

Watching the movie it brought back 90’s Alt Culture, at its terminal viable stage, and echoes of the sort of well-meaning but narcissistic self-involvement and self-definition by the fringe edge of popular artistic artifacts we consume, and also the intense emotional role that mass consumed music, segregated into narrow genres and thus reflecting idealized lifestyle options and norms, emotionally affects us as listeners and consumers, defining but also reflecting our moods, dreams, sorrows, and joys.

It all really set me wondering, about the current sea of marital, relationship, and sexual situations and options, both on the fringes and the core of young adult North American culture. What really struck my mind is the notion of “commitment” – but commitment beyond just relationships; romantic, erotic, and marital , but commitment towards life itself.

“I can see now I never really committed to Laura. I always had one foot out the door, and that prevented me from doing a lot of things, like thinking about my future and… I guess it made more sense to commit to nothing, keep my options open. And that’s suicide. By tiny, tiny increments..”


Perhaps what sometimes defines the last two generations, not totally but in a large part, is a sort of indefinite attitude towards commitments. The strength varies from person to person

Keeping options open; leaving one foot dangling out the door, to many people, increasingly feels like a sensible strategy. This is by degrees, but options about and seem glorified.

Commitment; it seems a truism that both women and men today are highly “commitment phobic”, in both cases men and women alike (but increasingly men) can put the question “commitment to what? What’s the upside for me?”

This indefinite attitude towards romantic commitments becomes more diffuse, what it lacks in concentration it makes up for in sheer omnipresence, like a scent barely noticeable in the hall, until you stoop, and pay close attention, only to realize it’s pervaded the entire house.

What was once a formal courtship and dating culture became an increasingly a casual dating culture, with side hookups and  pickups as a hip fringe, this increasingly segues into a  more casual hookup and pickup culture where actual dating itself is no longer the norm but more of an exception, with anything resembling even a semi-formal commitment is often deferred until well into one’s late 20’s or even 30s’.

When this observation is made, people may feel beat up on – and why not, because for many there’s the perception that what remains to commit to seems so uninspiring that no one sane would bother committing to it.

Observing the zeitgeist, it seems that for many people formal romantic and erotic commitments appear to come with far more downsides than upsides. Particularly in a declining economy. This isn’t the case for everyone, but many people perceive it’s the case for them, and indeed arguably depending on how you “do the math” marriage or informal common law, shack up, cohabiting, or even extended exclusive long term commitments are perceived as a bum deal for a growing minority of young men, and it’s possible soon a majority.

I notice many guys increasingly just feel pretty much weeded out from the grand ‘ol reproductive sweepstakes anyway, both guys and gals lacking insight into each others motives needs and yearnings and thus finding it harder to form meaningful connections.

I notice this particularly among female friends, particularly those under 27 who seem to often have almost no idea about the fears, anxieties, or motives of the men they desire and date. A similar ignorance exists among many males, but traditionally women possessed greater social intelligence – it is as if a large gap between the genders erected itself and ersatz advice dolled out in magazines and the media, movies and TV, fail to elucidate.

By the very nature of a sexual and marital marketplace. Their options already limited, when they do come across an underwhelming partner, one reasons why buy the cow, and go into compounding debt when one can at least  borrow a cup of milk now and then for free? That and substitutes increasingly exist, from the hassles of interpersonal relations, there’s always digital escapes.

Gals decry this though a similar dynamic can be observed with them. Many women feel a similar way about such commitments, for different reasons.  In both cases there’s often more of a desire to sample various wares, to pick and taste and explore options for longer before settling down, if settling down at all. The phrase settling down itself has an increasingly negative Also .

My observations are that the perceived downsides of formal commitment, on the face, often seem greater for Joe Average man – White, Black, and particularly (from my observation) Asian. But I don’t deny that both men and women seem to be looking at, increasingly, slim pickings.

These are truisms , everyone complains about romantic and erotic commitment phobia, but I think all of this reflects a general malaise and discomfort with larger commitments – educationally, work and career wise, interpersonal.  And not for a bad reason, it really can appear, to many people at large, that the options out there may mutually suck, so why not hedge your bets?

But I wonder if a lifetime of keeping our options open is a lifetime wasted, a lifetime committed to a fantasy that may get old because the fantasy doesn’t really exist, except in an eternal romantic comedy..

So my take on High Fidelity, it’s possible to see ours as a generation of men and women who have extreme difficulty fully, and deeply, committing to most things, except through proxies for more substantive human commitments, a sublimated commitment phobia, but not as a vice perhaps, rather as an adaptation to a rapidly changing social landscape in which options increase in breadth, but decrease in depth of possible satisfaction.

I think part of this might be an attenuation of adulthood, a prolongation of many aspects of adolescence well beyond our late 20s – by our late 30s many of us suddenly begin to “get  it” This is not just a male factor but a female one as well, though what disguises it is the apparent adoption of “adult” work and education roles earlier in life for middle and upper middle class women, over men. But under the surface the same in kind (beyond surface manifestation) of delayed emotional maturation in matters of commitment exist.

None of this am I judging, only observing. When I say I mean both guys and girls, everyone can see the commitment phobia as a basic condition in men because it’s highlighted more in general social and media discourse, and it’s more outwardly obvious. But a general squirlishness can be seen in both. Maybe female squirlishness in our generation is aided and abetted by initial male squirlishness. But maybe this is in reverse, maybe in both cases, anyway, there are just more options available and less forced hard life experience to reflect on.

So in both cases, I wonder, men and women have far too many options to sanely navigate in our culture and society, these options may not be great ones, or even perceivable, but they exist and on some level reflect on the general consciousness. With these options we are not healthier, we are not happier, but we simply amuse ourselves more.

So I wonder if the real problem is a lack of commitment to ourselves and to reality itself. The murder of our other commitments stems from that.

Once we are able to commit to ourselves, and to the reality we find ourselves in, those inauthentic options may seem less substantial and the few authentic ones, if we even see any in the first place, become more clear and pressing.

And ennui is slain even if by a dull and pitted blade.


3 Comment

  1. very interesting. im stumbled upon your musings while reading about the kali yuga and examing entries from a Google search. I have thought along the same lines about relationships as you describe here since my late teens (and i am a late gen-xer).

    one thing id like to point out if u arent aware. your explanation of the reason for the decline of commitment to a stable long term relationship (LTR) almost exactly mirrors the description of Aristotle’s happiness paradox.
    “Instruction and emancipation in one way favor happiness, and in another militate against it.To increase a person’s chances of happiness, in the sense of fullness of life, is eo ipso to decrease his chances of happiness, in the sense of satisfaction of desire.”

    this is nearly restated by your observation about the current state of romance and LTR…

    But I wonder if a lifetime of keeping our options open is a lifetime wasted, a lifetime committed to a fantasy that may get old because the fantasy doesn’t really exist, except in an eternal romantic comedy..

    “”So my take on High Fidelity, it’s possible to see ours as a generation of men and women who have extreme difficulty fully, and deeply, committing to most things, except through proxies for more substantive human commitments, a sublimated commitment phobia, but not as a vice perhaps, rather as an adaptation to a rapidly changing social landscape in which options increase in breadth, but decrease in depth of possible satisfaction.””

    I think youve detected the same thing that Aristotle did about the evolution of consciousness into a deeper attachment with materialism in general. The pursiut of material, and by extension, Epicurean desires, leads one to the wanting of even more. As the process continues the person is always creating more wants than can be satisfied and so therefore is fated to fall into a sense of unhappiness and exhaustion, even frustration and hopelessness, because the chase of pleasure and variety can never be completed.

    This philosophical cul-de-sac seemed to be at the core of many a characters confusion about “modern” relationships in 80’s to 90’s movies (and TV) and into the early 2000’s.
    At the same time it also became fashionable to for a certain set of people to adopt an affinty for a sort of watered down and commercialized Buddist/Zen mindset that gave the appearance of having a solution to this materialist dilemma thru snappy quotes of Siddartha, incense burning and pot smoking. Rarely were any deep insights shared other than a dopey sentiment about “quit frowning sourpuss and get back to being happy, after all, youre young and in New York (also LA, Chicago, Miami, etc).

    Well our generation isnt so young anymore. Sands have flowed thru the hourglass of our lives as they inoxerably do, and few of us have really pondered the oore of the existential angst that dominates modern western life, even as that mindset has been “globalized” through our mass media entertainment. It seems our “gather ye rosebuds” mantra is to be offered to the world as a soothing opiate to the hypocrisy of our age, just as Marx once noted religion once served in such a role.

    Here i think Faulkners allegorical reference to Macbeth’s soliloquy serves to illustrate the true nature of our quandry. Is there anything more to the world than passing pleasure and fading youth?

    Macbeth’s soliloquy in act 5, scene 5

    “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time,
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.”

    Do our lives signify no more than a brief candle’s burning? This is where the benefit of true commitment may be found. Time. Proximity. Shared experiences and reflection. Gaining the advantage of not only being the observer but of being observed. Cared for. Argued with. Maybe even loved, whatever that means, you can really only discover for yourself, and maybe for another, if you are willing to commit to the journey.

    And thats whats missing from our characters angst. A sense of why to take that chance on another by committing. A relationship is seen from the view today of Epicurus, revolving around pleasures and images. Instead, what might be discovered is that beyond and in addition to sensuality is a doorway to a deepening of the soul and that by taking a journey with another in this direction you will discover things that were unknown to you. In fact they will remain unknown to you without the help of another. For to truly know love you must truly know this other you desire. And the true desire you should pursue to banish ennui is to learn to desire each other in every way.

    This act ends the quest of variety that can never be resolved. It also begins a quest of self discovery and mutual aid that will only grow and recycle positive energy to both people with time if honestly followed.

    Maybe John Cusak said it best in another movie, Say Anything.

    Lloyd Dobler- “I am looking for a dare to be great situation.”

    I take that as meaning. You dont get great rewards if u dont start out with great dreams. Maybe thats whats been missing as we got from Gen X to Gen Y to Gen Why bother?

    just my two cents

  2. Why thank you for passing by Jason

  3. On the side those were some really thought provoking two cents.

    Pleasures and images; did you ever see that Wenders flick, Until The End of the World? That’s how I sort of interpret it’s theme, on a post modern addiction to images and pleasure, pleasure as image, images of pleasure.

    Basically a mastubatory reality externally fed to us.

    Great dreams, great situation, and a dare. Maybe what our generations need is not some sort of grand inspiring vision itself, but the actual faculty of envisioning, to find the ability once again to envision that great rewards and great dreams themselves exist, are worth seeking, and that we are worth them..

    You set me thinking, thanks again.

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