The Incurious Rabbit

The act of indifference is hard to understand in humans, let alone someone else's pet
By Josh Cohen
This article is sponsored by Notting Hill Editions

Josh Cohen's The Incurious Rabbit was a runner-up in the 2015 Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize. The biennial prize is awarded to the best original, unpublished essay between 2,000 and 8,000 words in the English language on any subject. The winning entry is awarded £20,000, with five runners-up each awarded £1,000. Some have described the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize as the richest pound per word prize for non-fiction in the world.
Entry for this year’s prize is open until 9 January 2017 

Years ago, for a few wintry months before he lost his head to a fox, I was lumbered with the daily care of a rabbit named Rr. It wasn’t long before I found myself resenting it all – the resinous little pellets forever trailing his tail, the clumps of sodden hay and sawdust pasted perpetually to the base of his hutch. And then there was the problem of Rr himself. 

The rabbits I’d known in childhood had sprung off the pages and screens of Carroll, Potter, Milne, Disney, Avery, Adams, entrenching deep anthropomorphic prejudices I clearly hadn’t sloughed off with adulthood. I didn’t expect Rr to be mischievous, kindly or overanxious, but was it too much to ask for some minimal gesture of animal sentimentality – a glance of welcome, a grateful brush of my cheek from his reaching paw?

Perhaps it’s because we’re so unnerved by their blankness that we feel the need to remake rabbits in our own wishful image. Rr showed me just how idiotic a tendency this is. For all the warm undulations of his furry flesh over my forearms, he conveyed no sense of inhabiting the same world as me, offered not the slightest twitch of recognition, nor any sign of good will, hostility, curiosity or concern. I began to understand the rage I’d witnessed in toddlers when domestic pets or new babies didn’t respond to their attempts to initiate conversation.

How could a creature so guileless be so ruthless?

For a while, I felt aggrieved at Rr’s indifference to me. No amount of proximity could relieve the distance between us. Even as his pulsing trunk huddled into mine, I couldn’t imagine meaning any more to him than the splintery wood of his hutch.

This indifferent mode of being has much in common with the bovine torpor famously described by Nietzsche in his early essay on the uses of history. The grazing cow, he writes, is "fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored." Like that cow, Rr endured neither regrets for the past nor anxieties for the future, lived free of the burdens of memory and anticipation, meaning he neither missed me when I was gone, nor welcomed my return. For all he depended on me for his basic daily needs, for all the space he took up in my mind, I meant nothing to him. How could a creature so guileless be so ruthless?

It was partly a problem of bad timing. I was in the midst of a gruelling psychoanalytic training while continuing to hold a full-time academic post, shifting confusedly between different physical and psychic locations from one hour to the next. I was tending to Rr in a state of coiled exhaustion, puzzling resentfully over why I was dedicating time I didn’t have to the care of some dumb, ingrate rabbit. 

But in time, the very exhaustion that was causing my resentment began slowly to transform it. In my hazy stupor, I began to experience a new feeling of affinity with my silent charge. Sitting alongside his run, drained by the day’s demands, I would watch him shuffle across his parallel universe, and make contact with the same secret, self-enclosed blankness in myself. I related to his incapacity to relate to me. Losing myself in his empty stare and aimless busyness, I felt empathy, and a little envy, for his indifference to the world’s and my existence.

As I slowly registered Rr’s total exemption from the labours of internal growth and change, my fascination for his world deepened. The moment we humans enter the world, we’re bound to a process of cognitive and emotional development from which we can’t opt out. The cornerstone of this process is learning to discriminate and prefer. This, Freud suggests, is how we first become selves; things come to us from the external world through the mouth or eyes or nose or skin, which we duly welcome or reject. We become who we are by judging, by saying yes to this, no to that. 

Rr, I thought as I sat on the damp decking, hugging my knees and losing myself in the stop-start rhythm of his lazily scrabbling paws, is untroubled by this burden of having to say yes or no. He experiences impersonal needs, but not personal feelings. He lives without self-consciousness, and so free of the intrusions and disturbances of desire.

Perhaps this absence of desire seems difficult to square with a creature who’s a byword for irrepressible sexual appetite. But what do we mean by ‘fucking like rabbits’, if not fucking indifferently, less out of authentic desire for a particular body, than in automatized response to an indifferent body? The makers of the bestselling Rampant Rabbit vibrator presumably chose its name and shape to signal just this efficient depersonalization of sex. 

And what about the Duracell Bunny, with his clockwork motion and dead-eyed grin? Irritating yet compelling, he hints mockingly at the automated state into which our own lives threaten to slide. He goes on and on, powered not by any personal aim or desire, but by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of impersonal energy. Behind his sunny rictus grin lurks the unmistakable figure of the zombie, ubiquitous emblem of our apocalyptic pop culture, trapped in the purgatorial grip of blind forward movement. 

But beyond the obvious fact of their both being rabbits, what links the vulnerable, creaturely Rr to his invulnerable mechanical counterpart? 

I hear echoes of my lapine reverie every day. My consulting room resounds with vividly rendered episodes of reclusion from the world, with fantasies of a cessation of doing, wanting, feeling, of total liberation from the everyday mental labour of being human. In low and even tones, usually devoid of bitterness or morbidity, a patient will say, "I don’t want to kill myself, but for a while at least I’d like to die", or, "Sometimes all I want is for the world to disappear." 

I’ve noticed the same impulse away from the couch. A friend might respond to my fascination for states of mental and physical inactivity with a loud sigh of relief that it’s not just them, then stare into the middle distance and reveal their own fantasies and rituals of withdrawal. One friend speaks of mornings lost to a single line of newspaper, another describes afternoons spent vacantly wide-eyed at the kitchen window. 

Freud (following a suggestion of the British psychoanalyst Barbara Low) named this impulse to tune out of the surrounding world, and the various internal states it provokes, the ‘Nirvana principle’, acknowledging the Buddhism that long preceded him. In various Buddhist traditions, Nirvana – "extinguishing" or "quenching" – is the mind’s ideal horizon, a radical detachment from the three fires of passion, hatred and delusion that animate and trouble the everyday self. 

Rr for me was the very image of this benign indifference, of release from the daily torments of feeling. Here was a face whose twitches registered not love or hatred or concern but the pure, neutral fact of being alive. Rr spoke to a yearning in me, perhaps in all of us, to undo the knots of desire and dependence in which life entangles us. I intuited in him the blissful indifference that had bewitched poets and mystics down the ages, the psychic and sensory numbness extolled by Keats in his Ode on Indolence: "Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower / . . . my sense / Unhaunted quite of all but – nothingness." 

Keats knew, as do we all, that we cannot make a home in this nothingness, that the intrusions of pain and pleasure are always lurking ominously in the wings. The eventful lives we lead as differentiated individuals are a world apart from the anonymity of the rabbit’s existence. And yet aren’t we all secretly intimate with that animal inertia? This is what speaks to us in Keats’ evocation of the indolence at our very core. Concealed in the anxious pursuit of our desires, there is a craving for their extinction. 

Indecision is a good deal older than psychoanalysis, as old as human freedom itself

This craving, or “desire for non-desire”, in the words of the French psychoanalyst Piera Aulagnier, is a “major scandal”, the most puzzling enigma of our inner lives. How could it be that our deepest desire is to put an end to desire? How does such a claim square with the blind tenacity with which so many of us pursue our passions? 

The desire for non-desire: if we listen to it, we notice that the phrase, rather than setting the two terms in contradiction to one another, brings out their mutual entanglement. It points us to a frustrating paradox of human experience, that even the wish for nothing is still a wish. 

The twelfth-century Japanese Buddhist monk Kamo no Chōmei captures this paradox in a brief and beautiful memoir of his attempt to carve out "a little safe shelter in this world". He tells of the tenfoot-square mobile hut he built himself and settled on Mount Hino, a refuge from the menaces of the natural and human worlds. Living in the city, he had witnessed how ordinary lives were bedevilled by fires and floods, whirlwinds and earthquakes, apocalyptic phenomena that could wipe out entire populations, in addition to the petty caprices of the ruling class. All this served to show Chōmei the vanity of the desires attaching us to worldly existence. In the hard-won peace of his hut, he could retreat into the quiet joys of gardening, music and walking, and take in the sublimities of the surrounding mountain landscape.

But as it turned out, things weren’t quite so simple. Having sung the pleasures of his little mountain idyll over the preceding few pages, Chōmei closes the memoir with a stinging self-reproach: "The Buddha’s essential teaching is to relinquish all attachment. This fondness for my hut I now see must be an error, and my attachment to a life of seclusion and peace is an impediment to my rebirth. How could I waste my days like this, describing useless pleasures?" 

It is a bitterly comic irony: withdraw from all attachments only to realise you’ve become attached to your withdrawal. You can’t seek non-desire without getting caught in the snares of desire. This is why I envied Rr – without effort or self-consciousness, he could live without aims or projects; whereas for me even living without projects had to be a project. This is what makes Chōmei so frustrated. To renounce all desires is very different from never having had any in the first place, as different as human from rabbit.

Rr, as far as I could see, was constitutionally indifferent, never having acquired the capacity or inclination for judgements or preferences. His serene emptiness is denied to the human being at the moment of birth, and can’t be attained even by a monk in the solitude of a mountain retreat. 

And if not in a mountain retreat, then certainly not in the saturated spaces of our networked world. As denizens of this world, we experience an indifference more akin to the Duracell Bunny’s than to Rr’s, as mindless as the real rabbit’s, but lacking his untroubled quiescence. In our culture of perpetual work and distraction, our indifference takes the form not of nirvanic peace, but of manic deadness, or what the writer Ivor Southwood calls "non-stop inertia", a state of perpetual motion concealing the "underlying stasis" of our souls. 

The desire for non-desire is today (to recall Aulagnier’s phrase) the ‘major scandal’ of social as well as psychic life. What more scandalous response is there to the innervating noise of social media than to declare yourself not bothered? The drive to permanent mental activity, tacitly enforced by the screens that surround us at work and in the home, have made an outlaw of silence and indifference. We inhabit, in the words of the Italian social theorist Franco Berardi, "a cognitive space overloaded with nervous incentives to act", the non-stop inertia of the Duracell Bunny rather than the organic inertia of the real one. 

We are daily bombarded with an avalanche of data and stimulation, far exceeding our capacity to process or navigate it. If I succumb at this moment to the lure of the internet icon twinkling in the corner of my screen, I can be travelling within seconds through a proliferating landscape of far-right campaigns, pay-day loan companies, celebrity diet secrets, S&M fantasies and jihadist networks; or enter one of many social media applications and follow, like, comment, update, upload and link among a limitless array of friends and strangers; or download one of a myriad dating apps and swipe listlessly through unending vistas of beauty, sadness, guile, anger, vice and hope. 

Called upon perpetually to choose, to agree, to join, to prefer, how can we keep even the most minimal contact with what we actually want? Subjected to what Renata Salecl has called "the tyranny of choice", our desire, like a damaged internal organ, shuts down, and begs to be spared the crippling anxiety of choosing. 

I can’t help making a link between this generalised cultural condition and the crisis I find recurring more and more often in my psychoanalytic consulting room, of the impossible decision. Prospective patients come to me in the grip of an urgent yet irresolvable dilemma. Should I stay in my unhappy marriage for my children’s sake? Should I leave the stable job I hate for the risk of an uncertain and potentially disastrous new venture? She appeals to me to help her extricate herself from a swamp of indecision and ambivalence. But turning over the competing arguments in the session does little to clarify her wish or relieve her anxiety. In fact, after a few sessions or many more, she might complain that she’s no clearer about what she wants and that the uncertainty has only become harder to bear.

In focusing on the dilemma’s "right" resolution, we’ve neglected to ask what the very fact of having a dilemma means for her. Is she really set on making a choice, with all the loss and upheaval it will entail? Or in tortuously turning over the same arguments and counter-arguments, is her real purpose, concealed to herself as much as to me, to stay stuck? For as long as she can say she doesn’t know what to do, she doesn’t have to do anything – and this zero-point of action, or non-desire, may just be her secret aim. 

There’s nothing new or unusual in a patient bringing a life dilemma to the consulting room. Indecision is a good deal older than psychoanalysis, as old as human freedom itself. Yet when I hear these painful rehearsals of the same impasses, my analyst’s chair feels like a privileged listening post for a malaise specific to our time, a malaise audible less in the words themselves than in the monotone weariness of the voice that speaks them. 

Evidently I’m not the first person to notice this epidemic of indecision. Recent years have seen a plethora of popular books, articles and TED talks addressing the ever-greater proliferation of public and private decisions confronting us in the networked age, suggesting remedies for our inertia in the face of the choices they impose, offering to usher us through the thicket of our anxious uncertainty to the discovery of what we really want. But none of these seem to contemplate the possibility that what we really want is not so much the resolution as the cancellation of the obligation to decide, to be allowed to choose nothing. So thoroughly internalised is the spirit of compulsory activity governing our culture that we cannot let ourselves hear or even imagine the wish to put a stop to it, to flick the off-switch on the Duracell Bunny within.

Yet in many early morning and evening sessions, before or after the patient’s long day in some highpressure cauldron of corporate finance or law, I’ve heard the same wish expressed in the same terminally flat voice: "I’m so tired, I may just fall asleep."

The words I hear from a patient are frequently crosshatched by the words (and images and feelings) etched into my mind by both life and literature. When I hear this wish to sleep, to nullify all demands for action, Bartleby’s formula comes to me unbidden: "I would prefer not to." More than an association, the phrase is a kind of gift from my unconscious to my conscious ear, hinting at how to hear what the patient is saying. 

These messages from the interior aren’t mere fragments of free-floating text, but are deeply embedded in the memory of my first encounter with the books in which I found them. If the famous phrase from Melville’s story Bartleby, the Scrivener comes to mind, so too do the few sultry months of inactivity between school and university when, suddenly bereft of aim or direction, my bookshelf became a fragile liferaft adrift on an unnavigable sea. 

When I’d left the A-Level exam room for the last time, I had looked into the blazing June sun and seen a cosmic affirmation of my plans for the year to come. Following the well-worn trail blazed by so many before me, I would work, save and travel before returning, brimming with newly minted knowledge of the world’s many ways, to take up my university place. 

Tell me what to do, cause the sky to fall in, do something, anything so I don’t have to choose

Within a few days, my confidence had yielded to blind panic as I came face to face with the painful truth that imagining and doing are not the same thing. I’d devised my gap year plan without a thought for the vulgar business of actually carrying it out, and my complacency had finally caught up with me. Having failed to secure meaningful work, I was looking down the barrel of nine months of snide barbs from the pasty manager of a shoe shop, nine months during which I might save just enough of my risible hourly pay for a return flight to Hanoi or Bratislava. I had no companion nor, it dawned on me, any desire to travel. I visualized myself wandering the vestibules of Rome, the wats of Chiang Mai, the beaches of Goa, and felt only the heavy downward pull of indifference. 

When, from the depths of my gathering despair, I phoned my university and was told I could take up my place that autumn, my lungs filled with sweet relief, co-mingled with sour defeat. Now what? For the ten weeks before term started, I was free to do anything or be anywhere. I floated aimlessly through London, falling out of bed at noon to wander foggily towards one park or another, with one book or another. From my current place in the middle of my fifth decade, sunk deep in the mire of adult responsibility, it’s hard to imagine an existence more in tune with the blank contentment of Rr’s daily life. But for my adolescent self, that expanse of solitary days under the hostile white glare of the sky was a plunge into depressive confusion, an unaccountable fall from the grace of self-certainty. 

It was a good time to find Bartleby. He appeared in a volume of Melville’s stories. It sits to my left as I write this, a 1961 New American Library paperback bearing the chiselled bust of Billy Budd, its pages pulling so wilfully away from their binding I daren’t open them at an angle of more than 45 degrees, an experience more akin to peeping than reading. 

A sudden breeze had tickled me awake much earlier than usual that day. Shortly after, I pulled the book absently from its resting place atop a row of Biggles and Famous Fives and crept into the midmorning shade of the patio. Billy Budd seemed long and oppressively nautical. I skipped to Bartleby, the Scrivener.

There’s a moment towards the end of the story in which the narrator, an unnamed attorney, describes himself as "thunderstruck ... like the man who, pipe in mouth, was killed one cloudless afternoon long ago in Virginia by summer lightning ... and remained leaning out there upon the dreamy afternoon, till someone touched him, when he fell."

I looked up from the story’s last line and into the still, towering plane tree behind the house, catatonic with fright and excitement. It struck me that I’d joined this chain of thunderstruck men. I had been the attorney for as long as I could remember, guided like him by "the profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best", seeking always to restore equilibrium at the slightest hint of its disturbance. This was just what I’d done in cancelling my gap year, as though, intuiting the impending train wreck of my life’s story, I had pulled the nearest emergency cord and braked just in time.

Like the attorney, I felt bound by the imperative to keep life going on as usual, not to suffer any turbulence ‘to invade my peace’. Compulsively neutralising all conflict in the name of business as usual, the attorney (and here I ceased to recognise myself) is a spokesman for non-stop inertia, for an undisturbed flow of activity allowing of no interruption. 

But Bartleby won’t be absorbed into this flow. From the moment he arrives, the cadaverous, ‘pitiably neat’ young man casts a shadow over this clockwork universe, in spite of his initial insatiable appetite for copying. The problem for the attorney is that his new employee is not ‘cheerfully industrious’ but writes ‘silently, palely, mechanically’, exposing an inhuman deadness at the heart of the attorney’s seamlessly articulated world. 

And then, without warning or explanation, it stops. When the attorney asks him to examine a paper Bartleby replies, "in a singularly mild, firm voice ... 'I would prefer not to'." With those words, he announces his withdrawal from copying – a preliminary, as it turns out, to his eventual withdrawal from all work and activity. 

I had pulled the nearest emergency cord and braked just in time

Since the story’s publication in 1856, philosophers and literary critics have puzzled over the meaning of Bartleby’s refrain. But all this speculation only demonstrates that he outfoxes each and every interpretation. Bartleby is immune to all understanding; there is no getting hold of him. He is, observes the attorney, "alone, absolutely alone. A bit of wreck in the mid-Atlantic." Only he’s not in the mid-Atlantic but at its dry edge, and far from bobbing harmlessly in the oceanic drift, he is quietly corroding the world around him. With his mild insistence on "preferring not to", Bartleby collapses the foundations of his world as ruthlessly as Samson dislodges the pillars of the temple. 

With Bartleby remaining immobile in a screened corner of the office, the attorney flees to new premises, leaving the new tenants exposed to the rage of an angry mob. To prefer not to is to say neither yes nor no, and this quiet retreat from the binary logic of positive and negative has the violent force of an earthquake. In declining to assent or refuse, Bartleby mires those around him in a grey fog, paralysing their capacity to think or act. 

The attorney lives in a world in which everything is expected to slot into place, much like the world I’d lived in before running up against my unsuspected inner Bartleby and being cast adrift in my own mid- Atlantic. I was thunderstruck by the revelation that the course of the world isn’t guaranteed, that things need not proceed in the same straight line simply because that’s what I expected them to do. Like any good therapeutic intervention, the story didn’t so much cure my depression as open up my curiosity about it. 

The unspoken but inviolable rule of the Duracell ad is that we never see the Bunny run down; at the moment we think he might, he springs back into life, powering through his own threatened demise. That we might as easily stop as continue, that we aren’t duty-bound to become the pale copyists of our own lives, forever taking the same steps in the same direction, doesn’t come into view. This possibility is Bartleby’s "mild, firm" bolt of lightning, the source of the story’s startling resonance for me and its many obsessive readers. More than a story of mere defiance or refusal, it hints at some impulse in us to enter a zone of indifference, where the obligation to judge, choose, decide, is suspended indefinitely. 

And this is why Bartleby "invades my peace" when I hear a patient say they want to crawl into a hole or to become invisible or to be allowed to stop caring or wanting or feeling, or to remain in a state of indecision. They have reached the point at which to go on as usual feels uncomfortably like going through the motions, copying rather than living one’s own life. At the threshold of that fateful summer, my ill-planned gap year suddenly struck me as a stultifying mimicry of someone else’s gap year. Only rather than mobilise the insight to forge some new and different enterprise, I let it hustle me into the dubious safety of a no less familiar script. 

Perhaps what we call a breakdown is precisely a crisis of this familiar script, a feeling of sudden alienation from the role with which we’ve so long been identified. A protracted crisis of this kind befell Melville himself. The commercial success of his first two novels Typee and Omoo, brought intense pressure from his publishers, readership and growing family to repeat the generic formula. Driven instead to expand the boundaries and possibilities of the novel, he lost readers and income. Presaging Bartleby, Melville gave up copying his own work. 

But – and again like Bartleby – in giving up copying, he courted disaster. Either he could write the crowd-pleasing books the world wanted and end up hating himself, or write the strange books he wanted to write and end up penniless. "Dollars damn me." he complained to his friend Hawthorne in 1851. "What I feel most moved to write – that is banned, – it will not pay. Yet, write altogether the other  way I cannot."

Melville’s way of dealing with this impossible dilemma – to choose a path (in this case art over commerce) without resolving his gnawing doubt, to renounce ‘the calm, the coolness, the silent grassgrowing mood in which a man ought  always to compose’ – was courageous and very difficult. 

So difficult that most of us prefer to sink into inertia. In my consulting room, such impossible dilemmas often conceal a desperate appeal: tell me what to do, cause the sky to fall in, do something, anything so I don’t have to choose. With this appeal, they seek to fend off both the unendurable agitation that comes with not choosing, and the irremediable loss and pain implied in choosing. Our predicament is that we care about, want, prefer, in so many diverse and contradictory ways that we can’t help wishing we didn’t, can’t help getting snared in the desire for nondesire. If only we could be rabbits.

We go about life assuming the world we inhabit is both solid and meaningful, that we love and work and take up causes and cultivate interests because these things are real and they matter. But what if we have this the wrong way around? What if this so-called real world were a Truman Show writ large, a hollow film set built and propped up by our willingness to act as though it were real? 

One common enough response is that this we can’t know either way and in any case it doesn’t matter; if I relate to my family or workplace or country as if they’re substantial entities, then that’s what they are. By the same logic, if I don’t, then they’re not. This is the attorney’s way of dealing with the world around him, and many of us will recognise it: to make the world he sees coincide with the world he wishes. 

He employs two copyists, Turkey and Nippers, both of whom are prone to fits of irritability and nervousness, the latter before noon, the former after. The attorney remarks of these half-time employees on full-time salaries that "their fits relieved each other like guards. When Nippers' was on, Turkey’s was off; and vice versa . This was a good natural arrangement under the circumstances." In seeing the problem through this magically reparative lens, the attorney eliminates the negative, conjuring a seamless whole out of two fractured and fractious halves. 

Unlike his colleagues, Bartleby doesn’t disrupt, complain or protest. He stops working, but not in the name of some right or principle (for dignity, say, or against exploitation). "I would prefer not to" announces a withdrawal from the world of intelligible motives, from shared rules of communication. I found this withdrawal hard to endure in a rabbit. In a young man it would reduce me, as it did the attorney, to traumatised silence. 

Bartleby’s withdrawal brings to mind the Boston psychologist Edward Tronick’s famous "still-face" experiment, in which a mother engages in lively face-to- face play with her baby, attending lovingly to all his vocal and physical cues. She then abruptly turns stony, devoid of expression in the face of all his attempts to bring her back to life. His initial agitation turns rapidly to despair. His posture collapses, he turns his face aside, a picture of bewildered hopelessness, until the mother resumes her previous responsiveness. If we were to attempt a translation of this baby’s experience into adult language, wouldn’t we hear in the baby’s despair a realization that the world in which he’d hitherto been so invested had revealed itself as a hollow fiction? The same world which a moment ago seemed so alive, so various, so brimming with live objects to identify, differentiate and care about, has become a coldly indifferent wasteland. 

Hearing Bartleby’s "I would prefer not to", we experience something like this baby’s shock. Our unthinking faith in the meaningfulness of the world and of our actions falls away, making visible a shadow world in which it doesn’t matter whether life goes on or comes to a halt. I sometimes wonder if this is what the attorney is groping towards with the lament – "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" – that closes the story. 

Some commentators have caught in Bartleby’s refrain an echo of Pyrrho, the founding figure of philosophical scepticism. Born towards the end of the fourth century BC, Pyrrho’s name and ideas were claimed for the first century school of Pyrrhonism. His life and teaching exists for us only in the second- and third-hand transmissions of later writers, who inevitably interpreted both to suit their own interests and agendas. Travelling with Alexander the Great through the East, he encountered Indian mystics and philosophers, who had a profound effect on his thinking. 

Much of the folklore of Pyrrho’s life was gathered four centuries later in Diogenes Laertius’ famed but unreliable Lives of Eminent Philosophers. The disputed anecdotes have Pyrrho wandering through the world, taking no care to avoid the hazards of "wagons and precipices and everything of that sort", from which he was saved only by the solicitous friends following him close behind. 

His indifference to danger, it’s said, was fully matched by his indifference to drudgery. In a society which placed the highest value on nobility and highmindedness, he would do laundry, clean furniture and carry poultry to the marketplace. We’re told "he carried his indifference so far that he even washed a pig". Pyrrho evidently lived the ataraxia (unconcern) he taught. During a fierce sea storm, he directed his frightened fellow passengers to a little pig who continued eating as a model of "the unperturbed state in which the wise man should keep himself". 

Pig, cow, rabbit – these are the blank animal screens onto which we project desire for the nondesire we ourselves can never attain. The pig’s wisdom, Pyrrho suggests, lies in his intuiting the truth of ou mallon, that any given entity is "no more one thing than another." With this phrase, all judgements and all determinations are suspended at a stroke, and all clear distinctions collapse. As the later Pyrrhonists saw it, "a thing can never be apprehended in and by itself, but only in connection with something else. Hence all things are unknowable." 

We become who we are by judging, by saying yes to this, no to that

If all things are unknowable, there is no special reason to halt at the cliff edge, or to pay more attention to the storm than the trough; the instinct for life over death becomes mere prejudice. If life is a condition of irremediable ignorance, it is folly to care about it, to prefer rather than prefer not to. Wisdom lies instead in a progressive divestment from life, though it’s worth recalling Chōmei’s caution at this point – even as we try to detach ourselves from life we somehow fall more deeply into it. 

"According to some authorities", says Diogenes Laertius, "the end proposed by the Sceptics is insensibility; according to others gentleness." Pyrrho is said to have striven to maintain the same insensible countenance at all times, regardless of how he was feeling or what was going on around him. His aspiration to total indifference fascinates me, though lurking somewhere in that fascination is a baby’s terror of the still-face and the void it exposes. 

No one today is spared the shrill imperative voiced by politicians, advertisers and happiness gurus to be active, responsible and positive. 

In a vivid personal account of today’s persecutory culture of the job search, Ivor Southwood describes how as a claimant of Jobseekers’ Allowance, he was required to keep a detailed diary of his efforts to find work, showing evidence of his having done at least ‘‘three positive things per week’’, on pain of losing his benefits. Much less important than the content of those three things, he suggests, is the documented fact of doing them. Any deviation from this enforced positivity (what if you’ve managed only two positive things this week?) is punished. 

The culture that induces lethargic indifference also banishes its expression. Our exhaustion has been rendered unspeakable by the persecuting rage of a political class and mass media intent on casting it as a ruse of coddled malingerers, wasters, freeloaders and losers who want to live easy lives at the expense of others. Many of us may be feeling the same inertia, the same chronic seepage of meaning and desire, but in the absence of any humane or curious ear to listen to it, few of us have dared voice, let alone act on it. 

Perhaps this is how the spirit of Bartleby slowly insinuates itself into our inner lives; denied a direct outlet, inertia expresses itself in ever more extreme forms. The compliant Duracell Bunny will eventually run down; the skeletal young stranger who enters the office and "silently, palely, mechanically" churns out copy is bound one day to come to a halt. At a certain point, the gap between the relentless onrush of the world’s demands and our own capacity to meet them becomes unsustainable. 

This is more than dire prophecy. In recent years Japan, for so long held up as the model of a productive and efficient economy and culture, has seen this inertia take root on a mass scale. During the early 1990’s Saitō Tamaki, a young, psychoanalytically oriented Japanese psychiatrist working as a therapist in a hospital to the east of Tokyo, found himself increasingly inundated by requests for consultation from parents of children who had become chronically withdrawn. The stories remained strikingly similar even as they proliferated; adolescents and young adults, largely though not exclusively male, were giving up school, work or any other engagement with the world outside and retreating into the lonely privacy of their bedrooms. 

In the years that followed, Tamaki devoted himself to clinical and theoretical research into these young people’s lives, discovering in the process an epidemic of withdrawal or shakaiteki hikikomori affecting as many as 1 million individuals and their families, a figure eventually confirmed in a 2010 survey by the Japanese Cabinet Office. With regular media appearances and the publication of his best-selling book Hikikomori in 1998, Tamaki conferred on these lives, now known popularly as hikikomori, a place in the Japanese public conversation they have held ever since. 

He also began to stimulate professional interest in the phenomenon in Western countries. While he recognised the familial and social tendencies, in particular the ethic of unconditional duty of parental care and the cultural force of shame, which gave rise to the hermetic mode of withdrawal specific to Japan, he argued that withdrawal is a universal tendency that takes different forms in different contexts. He pointed to a parallel population of so-called NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) in the Anglophone countries, an invisible underclass more likely to be long-term welfare recipients or on the streets than secreted in the family home, as in Japan.

In his book, Tamaki takes us into the everyday psychopathology of social withdrawal. Perhaps the most striking feature of the inner life of the hikikomori is the sense of perpetual disquiet. Talking to these young men and women revealed less pacified indolence than tormented inhibition. "In reality", he writes, "they are spending their days assaulted by feelings of impatience and despair over their inability to participate in society." The difference from the classically depressive picture is that hikikomori are less likely to indulge in the false consolations of resigned defeatism. On the contrary, they are perpetually resolving to start again as soon as possible. Barely has this resolution been made, however, than it confronts the sufferer with his failure to carry it out. The impulse to a new beginning "just transforms into irritation and despair." 

The hikikomori is caught in a hellish non-place, unable to attain either the peace of the zero state or the gratification of the active state. Like the tramps of Waiting for Godot, they are condemned to repeat the same sequence of resolving to go and not moving. Social withdrawal, Tamaki concludes, is the exemplary pathology of our times, for what keeps the hikikomori  suspended in this purgatorial grey zone is the illusion, fostered by the Japanese educational system (but also, we might add, by the consumer capitalism in which that system is embedded), of their "infinite possibilities". In order to do or be something, one has to relinquish the freedom to do or be most other things, and this circumscription of possibility is what he cannot accept. The hikikomori can preserve his limitless freedom only by placing himself in prison. 

Are hikikomori the collateral damage of our otherwise sustainable culture of permanent activity and distraction, or an advance guard showing us its only logical universal outcome? Is this culture making hikikomori of us all? Granted, most of us haven’t taken their drastic measures. But there is a secret corner in all of us in profound solidarity with them, desperately seeking the unbroken peace we can’t attain, at least as long as life has us in its grip. 

Like Pyrrho before him, Rr lived in blank indifference to the dangers lurking at the edges of his world. He had no solicitous friend to prevent him from squeezing out of his run one morning, or to block his oblivious shuffle into the path of a waiting fox. I can’t help wondering guiltily whether he maintained his Pyrhhic equanimity as he looked up and saw the gaping maw of his nemesis. 

I certainly didn’t when I found him. But then even Pyrrho’s equanimity wasn’t invulnerable. When needled for his discomposure in the face of a canine attack, he replied "that it was a difficult thing entirely to put off humanity". This difficult thing is the lot of all of us. Caught in the avalanche of excitements, possibilities and dangers that assail us daily, lapine indifference eludes us. 

Like the hikikomori, I know the yearning for a reprieve from the world in which things happen, in which one is called on to play a part, do stuff. Sometimes I can even experience it, sink for just a moment into the painless, pleasureless nothingness of Keatsian indolence. But the fox is always there, prowling on the other side of my lowered eyelids, ready to spoil it all. 

Ah, Rr. Ah, humanity.

A Eulogy for Nigger and Other Essays – The Second Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize Winners, is available now