On Living Lukewarm

I stay alive. And that’s enough.

There are very few good associations with “lukewarm.” Its bad reputation is as old as the Bible. Jesus hated people who are “neither cold nor hot,” those who are “lukewarm.” So much so that he would “spit them out” of his mouth. Likewise in the secular world, lukewarm feels bad (who wants lukewarm coffee?). It lacks a kick. It is not passionate like hot or piercing like cold. A lukewarm touch doesn’t leave any impression or sensation on the skin. The skin can’t remember it.

(image source: photo by Nicole Queiroz on Unsplash)

Cold and hot, on the other hand, shock the senses alive. Per the recommendation of a health op-ed, I have been finishing up my shower with icy cold water lately (the benefits are contested, but there was no reason for me not to try). Once the paralyzing pain around the heart muscles passes, I start feeling hot in my stomach. The bizarre heat spreads to my limbs and fingertips as if they are charged with electricity. The entire process doesn’t last longer than 25 seconds but feels like I’ve tapped into a sort of fiercer biology of my cells. Many people would describe this sensation as “feeling alive.”

“Feeling alive” is different from staying alive. The body only needs to function decently to be alive. But to feel alive, no nerve should be left unstimulated. This vivid, sensory moment is usually brief. Yet, from that briefness comes an illusion of transcendence. Extremely intense sensation concentrates one’s body and mind on that point of stimulation, stopping the rest of perception. For that moment, the humdrum passage of time, the confines of space, and the chugging of bodily physiology disappear. This is why we feel a curiously timeless and quivering aura around the language of vivid sensations. Such language is a marker of fierce existence, of leaving nothing in reserve to reach that brief transcendence. And the more focused and engaged one is with sensory stimulations, the more intricate and intense the language becomes.

Lukewarm, then, means disengagement. A lukewarm person lets the monotonous flow of time carry them. One simply exists, like the countless repetitions of inhalation and exhalation. To those who desire the electrifying feeling of being alive, lukewarm is living death.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Could there be a way to redeem a lukewarm life? Is lukewarm just an irksome state that needs transcending? Yiyun Li’s novel The Book of Goose (2022) and Ling Ma’s short stories collection Bliss Montage (2022) stroke and claw these questions to reach different answers. On the surface, the two books have practically nothing in common from their spatial setting, historical period, and form. The Book of Goose, often called a historical fiction and coming-of-age novel, is set in a rural village in post-war France, England, and Pennsylvania, US. The ambiance of each place saturates the narrator Agnès’s recollection of her intense friendship with Fabienne who is now dead. The more boring and neutral one of the pair, Agnès’s devotion and attachment to Fabienne reminds us of the less dazzling yet observant Elena to “brilliant” Lila in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2012). The Book of Goose is filled with Agnès’s quiet rumination on her passionate friend and the meaning of their young friendship.

Compared to the restrained atmosphere of The Book Goose, Bliss Montage feels fantastical and “outlandish” as per the publisher’s description. The collection is made up of eight stories of roughly ten to thirty pages. Where or when the stories are set is not clear. While there are places that claim to be Los Angeles or New York, it’s hard to tell if they are real or have been conjured up by the narrator’s peculiar mind or desires. The narrators, different in each story yet similarly disillusioned with their lives, either dream about or attempt bizarre escapes in which they seek momentary “bliss” (more about this later). One character spends a vacation with her unborn child whose arm is sticking out of her body. Another goes back to the home country to be reborn literally. Compared to the serene, beige atmosphere of The Book of Goose, these flights in Bliss Montage are wild and neon, and sometimes totally fantastical.

The two utterly different books, however, share a preoccupation, which is the impressions on the body, the sensory. Lively sensory experience and minute, descriptive language are an intuitive and familiar pair. But, both books start by asking, are they really? Detailed sensory language does not equate feeling alive in these books. In fact, it is the opposite. The most descriptive and tactile moments in both books are when the characters feel unbearably hollow. For instance in The Book of Goose, upon the encouragement of her austere headmistress, Agnès starts journaling her daily life and surroundings at Woodsway, a boutique English finishing school where she accidentally becomes a pupil because she is misunderstood as a prodigy author. Agnès’s sentences are luscious and beautiful:

[T]he first syringas of the season, filling the air with a fragrance that grew stronger after nightfall. The flowering trees in the orchard: hawthorns and crabapples.

Beautiful, and that’s about it. This is one of the most fragrant and visually colorful moments in the novel, which also happens to arise when Agnès is most unhappy and drained of life.

The association between descriptive language and feeling alive is even more prominent in Bliss Montage where the sensorially detailed language signals that something is not right:

[W]hen I wake up in the morning, I make myself coffee in a French press. Next to my cup and saucer, I put a small spoon on top of a linen napkin, folded diagonally. It’s like my favorite thing.

The gradual pressure of the French press on the palm, the linen’s lightly coarse texture, the spoon set vertically on top of the geometrically folded napkin. This scene may look like a peaceful and refreshing morning for someone who appreciates the small things in an ordinary day. But later in the story comes a real sensation. The narrator meets a guy in a bar for a one-night stand. He / it turns out to be a yeti, the mythical mountain monster. And in this improbable and ridiculous setting the narrator feels alive as if she hasn’t lived before.

Lively sensory experience and descriptive language are an intuitive pair. The Book of Goose and Bliss Montage ask, “are they really”?

On the other hand, when the characters in both books seek to shed surface-scratching relationships or stagnant realities, the language becomes sensuous but not in a physically detailed manner. It’s as if the characters jump to an alternate realm of sensory where specificity does not matter, whether such space actually exists or not. For Fabienne and Agnès, the make-believe universe they conjure up is more “real” than the world they share with others, where everything is “hideous” and “boring.” Their make-believe realm, which Fabienne calls “game-real,” is not thoroughly described as the realm of dry sensation. Yet, the game-real world pulses with a sort of lethal vitality absent in the other world. Death and the “exhilaration” from being so close to it abound the girls’ universe. The paralyzing sensation on their backs from the dead-cold tombstone makes the girls shudderingly alive.

In Bliss Montage, the alternate realm where “real” life happens is more literal. It includes the world behind an office closet where everything is evergreen. Still, its physical details remain similarly vague as in The Book of Goose. We don’t know how big this world is or what populates it. What we feel instead is a sort of colored, scented air like breeze-swaying tree leaves whose blurry outlines make them look like a wave of sunlit green.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Awakening by Kate Chopin

But even with the descriptive language out of the picture, The Book of Goose and Bliss Montage don’t seem totally disruptive of the common-sense impression of the sensory because invigorating sensory still corresponds to feeling alive in both books. A numbed body speaks of numbed existence; pulsing senses sing of life full of vitality. The idea is romantic and familiar in everyday life and also in literary history. Think of Hester Prynne, letting loose her luscious hair for the first time in the forest overflowing with light and life. Or consider Edna Pontellier, walking toward her death in the sun-drenched ocean, to really live for the first time. When Fabienne howled at the graveyard with a knife against her throat, I thought of Edna Pontellier finally choosing to live / die—the burning morning sun forming a halo over her head as her lower body submerges. This is the most dramatic moment of feeling alive, which can be savored only at a step before death. Fabienne and a flock of people in Bliss Montage yearned for this old, literary ideal of life that also beaconed their death.

I see many literary heroines here, Hester, Edna, Fabienne, and more.
(image source: photo by Issara Willenskomer on Unsplash)

At this point, The Book of Goose pauses for another question: is this the only way to be fully alive? What if my cells just don’t perk up? Truly, isn’t this how one exists in most of the waking moments? Such state is less glamourous than ardent life, which makes it harder to defend. It is too prosaic, too lukewarm. 

The statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, London, UK (image source: WikiMedia Commons)

One who is dazzled by sensuous fire but doesn’t quite have it personally is the narrator Agnès. At first, making rather unremarkable Agnès tell the story about fiery Fabienne only seems to affirm the latter’s glamour and the former’s mundaneness. As a character and potentially as a person, Fabienne is more absorbing than Agnès. A teenage-girl version of the weird and mystifying Peter Pan of J. M. Barrie’s, Fabienne is feral in her perception of and reactions to her surroundings. Like a wild animal, she instinctively notices and toys with the presence of death that walks together with life.

On the other hand, Agnès’s needs and inclinations are legible and familiar. We could put Agnès in line with a long line of observers / admirers of desperate passion in literary history (before Elena next to Lila, there was Nick Carraway observing Gatsby). Like Elena watching Lila dramatically falling apart with her own passion and Nick Gatsby, Agnès notes for the readers the spirit of “vengeance” against the world in Fabienne’s unpredictable games. Put next to Fabienne’s “unfathomable” yearnings, Agnès’s life is very ordinary. She blends in with the lackluster world like the rest of us readers. The lukewarm gravitating toward the hot / cold—Agnès’s unconditional devotion to Fabienne certainly looks this way.

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Mina Murray (Olivia Llewellyn) from the TV series Penny Dreadful (2014). In here, the story of their friendship is not told by the sweet and compliant Mina but the magnetic and stormy Vanessa. And the narrative is equally stormy and volatile, unlike The Book of Goose. (image source: IMDB)

However, the narrative of The Book of Goose flips this impression. Despite all Fabienne’s charms, the narrative lets Agnès retrace and define the most important truths in the novel, the meaning and motivation of the girls’ friendship. And unlike her literary predecessors, the way Agnès recounts them does not intensify the dazzling brilliance of Fabienne’s life. Agnès gently lifts that romantic shroud off her friend’s life in a calm, uneventful tone. Her story sounds like “goose dreams” as she puts, without sparks and recurring like the cycle of day and night for the quiet animal. Yet, who knows what questions and secrets populate their dreams? Compared to the graphic and “myth[-ical]” spurs in Fabienne’s stories that she had Agnès dictate, Agnès’s has the murmuring rhythm of daily journal. The difference is the capacity to accept the low hums of repetition which moves the everyday world. Myth doesn’t have this. The journal does.

A lukewarm life is less glamorous than a fiery one. It is difficult to defend. Yet, The Book of Goose does.

In Agnès’s journal-like story, which she calls “the book of goose,” there are barely any sensory descriptions unlike her writings at Woodsway. The sense of life has little to do with heightened sensory experiences, if at all. Rather, it is the acknowledgment that simple existence, or staying alive, is enough: “To me, anything that happens is life.” This is a life of steadiness than perceptiveness. The life of a “whetstone,” not a “blade,” as Agnès says. A blade’s life is that of perpetual thirst, tension, and wandering, always looking for an encounter to crimson its edge. But eventually, the edge dulls. A whetstone’s life is the opposite. Whetstone remains the same, waiting for another sharpening that may or may not happen. With repeated sharpenings, it gets stronger. But even if there is no sharpening, whetstone can keep its shape and continue existing. Compare that to blade which will rust and dull, with or without shocks. Agnès knew this: “there was no point asking which one of us was made of harder material.”

While the answer is solid for Agnès, it doesn’t seem to be the most appealing one for others. The people in Bliss Montage for one, are still under the spell of blade. Understandably, their stories are more desperate than Agnès’s calm one, often on the verge of a break-down. Their desperation pushes them to “questionable choices” as a New York Times critic puts, such as following an ex-lover to his home or drugging your once-best friend to keep her forever. It’s not necessarily because the characters are just plain weird or morally unstable. It’s because only the “questionable choices” can break the people out of their tiresome realities.

This is a passive escape, not an active experiment. If Agnès tries trail-blazing a different way to be alive, Ling Ma’s characters flee to reach an ideal, lively state. What feels particularly tragic is that this state is reachable only in a certain space. The characters usually don’t know where it is or even what it is. It could be the home country that one never knew, an unknown inclination of an old friend, or a different past. It is likewise uncertain if that space would accept one and for how long. So, people attempt an escape with a very thin hope. This is why the fruit of such escape is “bliss[ful]”—an unexpected pleasure that feels too radiant to exist in the prosaic world.

Naturally, this is a fragile vitality for it relies on serendipitous finds that will not last. Will the body remember the satisfaction of stroking yeti’s unexpectedly soft fur the following morning?

How long can fingertips remember a smooth surprise?
(image source: photo by Alex Borland on Public Domain Pictures)

Maybe, maybe not. The body memory will fade away, leaving one hollow and sapped again. This is a maddening situation. How could one engineer another such encounter? The apparent impossibility drives the characters to “questionable choices.” The consequences can be cataclysmic. The choices can irrevocably dismantle the present conditions of life including oneself.

In Bliss Montage, people escape their lukewarm world to an ideal, lively space. But this is a momentary bliss. It is maddening.

A character in “Returning” decides to discard his career in the US, his wife, and the version of himself as a moderately successful immigrant writer and a participant in an okay marriage. He goes to his home country to be reborn from the dirt. A sort of primordial sense of life glimmers around the threshold of death—at least, he seems to believe so.

Burying oneself alive would be the most primitive and material way to be reborn. One returns to the purely corporeal state—flesh / dirt—, pushes through its weight, and “materializes” again or for “real” the first time. The word “materialize” pops up in Bliss Montage when a potential path for escape beckons. Of all the characters, the husband follows that beckoning most thoroughly and destructively. This pursuer kills his previous self, and with it every past connection, including that with his wife whose disoriented voice the readers follow in “Returning.” The story ends with the couple meeting again (or is it for the first time?) as the husband opens his eyes from the tomb / womb:

I was trying to see what had changed, how he had changed. Maybe the transformation was invisible. There was nothing I could immediately identify. “Peter,” I said again. Then: “Petru. Petru.”

            We looked at each other.

To me, the couple’s (re)union felt sinking rather than hopeful, much like the morning after the (pre)historic yeti-lovemaking. Will the material shock of death kindle new life in the couple’s interaction? Will that fire last? I don’t know and neither does seem Ling Ma, though the author may be hoping so.

A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women by Jeanine Basinger

Ling Ma mentioned that the title Bliss Montage was from a collected essays by the film historian Jeanine Basinger. “Bliss montage” or “the Happy Interlude,” according to Basinger, is a pocket of sheer happiness intentionally inserted in between the heroine’s otherwise uneventful, properly conventional life (marriage, wifehood, motherhood). Whether this bliss is innocent or morally fraught is not that important. What’s important is that this interlude is intentional, a cinematic apparatus than a natural part of the narrative. The happiness here is imaginary. Its sensory excitement is so absolute that it seems to stop time, though but briefly, which is exactly the point.

One of the films that Basinger mentions is Dead Reckoning (1947). In this interlude, Lizabeth Scott as “Dusty” Chandler looks picture-perfectly glamorous while scheming murder under the nose of clueless Humphrey Bogart as Captain “Rip” Murdock.
(post source: “Turner Classic Movies” Tumblr)

The luxurious touch of fur coat, the slightly earthy, acrid aftertaste of cigarette, the ambient noise from the dancing crowd filling the ears during a short silence in conversation, the sexual tension tightening the stomach—too perfect, all fleeting. A temporary escape from a coy life where excitement is non-existent.

I can’t help going back to the yeti’s “luxurious,” “soft” fur over Scott’s dramatic fur coat. And their ephemerality. Basinger is more affirming than I am about this transience. For Basinger, the bliss montage becomes ironically subversive because it was not meant to last. I’m thinking again about that morning after the night with the yeti and a year after the monumental rebirth. Most of the sensory fire will have gone. The woman would search for another yeti. Petru might want to be materialized, yet again. Basinger would see empowerment in these wanderings—look at you, walking out of that tedious old life! I, on the other hand, see terrifying weariness since these wanderings would never end.

The bliss that everyone chases but can’t possess feels like those oranges behind transparent plastic on the cover of Bliss Montage. The zesty color of the oranges dazes the eyes through the sheet and their chromatic surface rubs against the crisp plastic. It is sensorily and sensually arousing.

But to bite into that bliss, one must tear through the taut barrier. In The Book of Goose, Fabienne tried with all her might. “The oranges, in Fabienne’s stories, were always for us only. In truth we had seen oranges no more than a handful of times in our lives,” remembers Agnès. Fabienne tried and failed, and so will many in the grey universe of Bliss Montage. No one knew early enough that their craving was unquenchable, that a bite of orange, or millions of bites, would never be enough. When this truth became evident, Fabienne fell apart completely. I see the same ending awaiting Ling Ma’s distressed characters. And more heartbreakingly, they don’t even know.

But Agnès does know. Agnès’s story says that the conditions of this existence—for me, those are a 25℃ room, unpiercing shower, leftovers for dinner, and repeating that every day— are sufficient as life. This does not mean resignation or stagnation. It is about living outside of the grievous pull of sensory bliss. It is about recognizing that outside is also a way of being alive.

Hot cools down and cold warms up in the end. But lukewarm never loses itself.


Work Cited

Barrie, J. M. Peter Pan. 1906, Collector’s Library, 2008.

Basinger, Jeanine. A Woman’s View. Wesleyan UP, 1995.

Bliss Montage by Ling Ma.” US Macmillan, https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374293512/blissmontage.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899, Penguin, 2018.

Ferrante, Elena. My Brilliant Friend. trans. Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2012.

Gyarkye, Lovia. “Ling Ma’s Surreal Subversions.” The New York Times, 9 Sept 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/09/books/review/ling-ma-bliss-montage.html.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1852, Penguin, 2003.

Li, Yiyun. The Book of Goose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023.

Ma, Ling. Bliss Montage. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

The Holy Bible (King James Version). Revelation 3:16. King James Bible Online, https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Revelation-3-16/

Cover image credit: photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

2 Comments

a “blade” and “whetstone” metaphor is great, I think! and unlike what it suggests, your writing is never lukewarm. It challenged me to think about having a more prosaic and journal-like way of life, seriously. Thank you for sharing your piece of writing! I enjoyed reading it & grabbing your idea!

Thank you so much for reading! And yes, those “blade” and “whetstone” metaphors—gem. There seems to be a saturated narrative about living ferociously and “feeling alive,” but that’s simply not how people navigate everyday. A “lukewarm” living has resilience that is often overlooked and Yiyun Li brings this out. And she does it so beautifully.

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