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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Triviality and Ordinariness

Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary.

The above quote from Blaise Pascal is one I used in last week’s essay on thinking about desks. But here I want to interrogate it (circumlocutiously, as is my wont) again. It is a quote (as is so often the case with the words of Pascal) to which I inevitably and frequently return.

As a great defender of the ordinary, and someone who cannot stand the trivial, I want to insist that there is a great chasm between the trivial and the ordinary. But before I chart the contours of this divide, a digression is needed (and always to be welcomed). And this digression is on a frame of mind that is drawn so inexorably to the trivial. Like a moth to the proverbial.

The people to whom I reference are those suffering from the affliction of hate. And no group of people suffer this affliction as coherently and publicly as those corporately defined by a shared hate: the reactionary.

Something that shows up the hate that drives reactionaries is their obstinately narrow pettiness. Only hate is so brutally trivial. Oh no, pronouns, pride flags, afros, television diversity, skimpy clothes, burkas, new genders, trans women spinning in dresses... How tiny must someone be to fret over such nothings?

It could be argued guilt also has a parochial aspect, and that it is different to hate chiefly in its self-referential. But then so are various hates, that is all hatreds of the self, and here it should be said guilt is a subgenus of hatred of the self. It might even (wrongly) be thought all hatred of the self is a form of guilt.

As anyone who has experienced dysphoria (such as my gender dysphoria) knows, self-hate and guilt look and act so much the same. But it does maybe make sense to talk of guilt and another, albeit related condition, shame, as nonetheless possessing separate qualities. The aforementioned dysphorias better fit the latter category.

Guilt is directed at a wrong deed, or a deed perceived of as ‘wrong’, whereas shame relates to the intrinsic self, either in its parts or as a totality, as something wrong, either ineluctably or changeably. That way, guilt can easily produce shame, but not vice versa. Nonetheless, both are hatreds directed at the self. And both are relentlessly provincial.

From where does the smallness arise? This is to do with the way in which hate performs itself. When you hate someone or something, everything they do becomes annoying and therefore worthy of condemnation. Because they are seen as essentially bad. It is that essential badness, imposed on the object, that makes it worthy of hate, it is bound with how hate hates, and it makes the focus of the person doing the hating so petty.

Consider a relationship coming apart; it can be one between siblings, child and parent, lovers, old business partners, frenemies, etc. It can be any configuration. Relationships are, in part, held together by becoming aesthetically accustomed to the habits of the other person.

Such habits are myriad. It can be in how they whistle, how they chew their food, the times they keep, the cadences and rhythms of their laugh. Hate, then, is usually first detectable in the subtle shift from enjoying, maybe somewhat wryly in many instances, the outward signs of these habits, to finding them, all of them to increasing degrees, insufferably grating.

So to return to the main theme of this essay, what is the difference between the ordinary and the trivial? Let us take the former first, briefly. The ordinary in my current sense should be taken to mean the normal, that which fits into the everyday background texture of the world in which it is, often invisibly, situated.

The trivial, however, denotes only the lack of value that something has. In this way, although both ordinariness and triviality are judgements made upon the world, however unconsciously, the trivial denotes a more active attitude to something while the ordinary appears as a quality of something in the world. The ordinary is not valueless, it is merely common.

Here is where things get tricky, because the same thing can be ordinary and trivial. But again, its ordinariness remains separate from its triviality. Phenomenologically (that is, in how it is directly experienced) it is ordinary (common), it is then deemed trivial (without value).

Let us go back to the epigraph from Pascal. Here, Pascal contrasts concern with the ordinary (the preoccupation of great minds) with concern for the extraordinary (the preoccupation of small minds). But there is also the act of dismissing something, that is trivialising, and Pascal is concerned, then, with trivialising the ordinary. What Pascal is saying hinges on the distinction this essay is arguing for, between the ordinary and the trivial.

To trivialise is, in fact, to increase the sum of all that is trivial in the world. It is to create the trivial. The ordinary can be thought of as trivial or not, and both I and Pascal, as people who love the ordinary, strongly cautioning against doing so.

Let us go back to the non-exhaustive list of things reactionaries focus on in their pettiness, the one I gave in the previous section: pronouns, pride flags, afros, television diversity, skimpy clothes, burkas, new genders, trans women spinning in dresses.

These are all things that belong, to most of us, to the ordinary. Each one could merit, merely in their formal, surface aspects, an essay to themselves. (Indeed, on one of them, I have an essay under construction.) I reiterate that someone must be tiny to fret over such nothings, but counterintuitively I will insist that someone must be equally small minded to find no fascination for them either. They are not worth fretting other, making ominous, but neither should they be trivialised.

Recall that hate finds irritability in everything associated with its object of hate. Its fretting, then, is a kind of trivialising. All the reactionary can see in a trans woman spinning in a dress is a trivial cause for complaint. They see no beauty, no joy, none of the multifaceted surfaces that can be appreciated as nonetheless ordinary, in their very ordinariness.

Indeed, the reactionary sees the trivial as the subject or an extraordinary complaint, because while trivialising and mocking the given trans woman, she also becomes a threat to world (or at the least ‘Western’) civilisation. The trivial is cataclysmically dangerous, just as a spouse might find in the nail clipping of their wife a cause for a total hatred of the person, so grievous is this still trivial occurrence.

In this way the trivialising of hate in particular renders the fascinatingly ordinary into something tediously extraordinary. As contradictory as that sounds, dysphoria again intuitively can relate to it.

When a feature of the body becomes a source of shame, it is at once utterly trivial in its patheticness, but also of extraordinary dimensions in its harm to the self. Its valuelessness makes it extraordinary, because for it not to have value, not to be actively good, is an immense wound to the self.

I concluded my essay on desks, an essay on something ordinary, by saying that it is good to think about desks. Here I will conclude that it is good to think about the nuanced distinctions thrown up by language, to tease it all out and make it take you to unlikely places.


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