nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura…
It’s the first Saturday in March. Here’s a passage from a book I’m reading:
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
This is Wallace Stevens. It was quoted in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a very pessimistic look at how our increasing dependence on fiber optic networks is causing very real atrophying of our neural networks. The word I learned from this book is “neuroplasticity.” I supply a link to the definition because it is so much faster to do that than to put it into my own words. This is an example of the phenomenon that worries Carr. With so much information available with a few clicks on the keyboard, we no longer have the need to commit information to memory, or to devote much cognitive effort to anything. Our thinking has become scattered and shallow.
I worry about this, I see the symptoms in my own behavior, but I feel powerless to get off the information overload express. Tim Ferriss talks about a low-information diet. It sounds good, and I try not to chase down every stray story that I see linked on the Facebook or Twitter. I don’t post on Facebook, although I occasionally comment or offer “likes.” I defiantly avoid listening to NPR news during the 70-80 minutes I spend commuting each work day.
But still, I feel I’m frantically swimming against the firehose of information. I’ve always tried to know everything, as long as I can remember–I was a very annoying kid–but now I am desperately looking for filters. I rebuke myself constantly: Do I need to spend five minutes reading this story about plane crashes in Long Island? Stop looking at Facebook the way you aimlessly open the refrigerator. Stop. Focus. Breathe. Look around.
It’s Saturday afternoon, and for the past few hours I’ve been rather joylessly trying to enjoy leisure reading. I told myself: “The next few hours, just relax and read. Don’t worry about what else you need to do. Don’t feel anxious about time slipping away. Just live in this moment.”
Here’s another good tidbit from The Shallows, about Nathaniel Hawthorne. I took photos rather than transcribe.
Returning to this blog for the first time in four weeks is part of losing myself happily. I promised to document things like the books I read and the movies I watch. I stopped drinking a year ago in part because I felt too much time slipping by too quickly, unnoticed in the happy haze of drunken hours. [Distraction: I just paused to look at this.] Now that my evenings pass without the lubricant of alcohol, I am far more conscious of every passing second. For the last year, I have reveled in the idea that I am lengthening my lifespan this way, eyes open and alert for two or three additional hours. I’m really, really “woke.”
But this could be another trap. I’m now reading Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. First published in 1990, it’s dated in some ways, but I’m finding myself responding powerfully to his description of our condition in today’s hedonic treadmill. A couple of extended passages:
…symptoms of disillusion are not hard to observe around us now. The most obvious ones relate to the pervasive listlessness that affects so many lives. Genuinely happy individuals are few and far between. How many people do you know who enjoy what they are doing, who are reasonably satisfied with their lot, who do not regret the past and look to the future with genuine confidence? If Diogenes with his lantern twenty-three centuries ago had difficulty finding an honest man, today he would have perhaps an even more troublesome time finding a happy one.
This general malaise is not due directly to external causes. Unlike so many other nations in the contemporary world, we can’t blame our problems on a harsh environment, on widespread poverty, or one the oppression of a foreign occupying army. The roots of the discontent are internal, and each person must untangle them personally, with his or her own power. The shields that have worked in the past–the order that religion, patriotism, ethnic traditions, and habits instilled by social classes used to provide–are no longer effective for increasing number of people who feel exposed to the harsh winds of chaos.
The lack of inner order manifests itself in the subjective condition that some call ontological anxiety, or existential dread. Basically, it is a fear of being, a feeling that there is no meaning to life and that existence is not worth going on with.
As people move through life, passing from the hopeful ignorance of youth into sobering adulthood, they sooner or later face an increasingly nagging question: “Is this all there is?” Childhood can be painful, adolescence confusing, but for most people, behind it all there is the expectation that after one grows up, things will get better. During the years of early adulthood the future still looks promising, the hope remains that one’s goals will be realized. But inevitably the bathroom mirror shows the first white hairs, and confirms that fact that those extra pounds are not about to leave; inevitably eyesight begins to fail and mysterious pains being to shoot through the body. Like waiters in a restaurant starting to place breakfast settings on the surrounding tables while one is still having dinner, these intimations of mortality plainly communicate the message: Your time is up, it’s time to move on. When this happens, few people are ready. “Wait a minute, this can’t be happening to me. I haven’t even begun to live.
… sooner or later we wake up alone, sensing that there is no way this affluent, scientific, and sophisticated world is going to provide us with happiness.
As this realization slowly sets in, different people react to it differently. Some try to ignore it, and renew their efforts to acquire more the things that were supposed to make life good–bigger cars and homes, more power on the job, a more glamorous lifestyle….
Others decide to attack directly the threatening symptoms. If it is a body going to seed that rings the first alarm, they will go on diets, join health clubs, do aerobics, buy a Nautilus, or undergo plastic surgery….
Daunted by the futility of trying to keep up with all the demands they cannot possibly meet, some will just surrender and retire gracefully into relative oblivion. Following Candide’s advice, they will give up on the world and cultivate their little gardens.
–Csikszentmihalyi, pp. 11-13
I suddenly remember a line from movie editor and amateur philosopher Walter Murch, a quote that I won’t look up right at this moment. The gist of it: He believes that people are happiest as adults if they can do the kind of thing they enjoyed most when they were in their preteen years.*
Movies I have watched since mid-January:
The Night Manager (Susanne Bier)–Teevee. A guilt-free, minimally taxing binge-watch.
The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet)–Museum piece, but intense. I really like the raw performances offered by African American actors. Morgan Freeman purportedly an extra in this 1964 film, but I didn’t spot him.
La La Land (Damian Chazelle)–Nothing to add about this film. Nice but forgettable.
O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)–Bravura study of a half-century of racial dysfunction in LA. Deservedly acclaimed, though I agree with Tony Scott that domestic violence gets short shrift.
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson)–I can see why this museum piece of English kitchen sink realism is so beloved. Generations of British punks seem to know this one, and I can see why.
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)–Whoa, Greta Gerwig.
Weekend (Andrew Haigh)–Powerfully intimate gay drama–it probably doesn’t speak well of me that the rawness of the sensuality made me uncomfortable. But then, so did the use of alcohol and cocaine by the film’s characters.
The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)–It feels like the over-ambitious script that Cianfrance put aside to make the simpler but more powerful Blue Valentine. PBtP, on the other hand, is a massive overreach for profundity and power, but with an unforgivably thin script, thin characters, and stupid scenes and character motivations, and a pointless ending.
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)–I like the idea of a film about sexy, bikini-clad young women that takes them, their needs, and their anxieties, seriously. After so many movies like Superbad and Risky Business and everything in between, where men get to do all the acting out, this time it’s the girls who have fun. To be sure, these girls are very, very bad. All this, plus James Franco. Otherwise, I don’t want to take this movie too seriously.
While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach)–Baumbach, with Ben Stiller as a Woody Allen stand-in, comes perilously close to Crimes and Misdemeanors, but it’s still good stuff. Stiller’s character hits perilously close to home.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Werner Herzog)–Seemingly an inspiration for the more recent documentary An Act of Killing.
*What did I like to do in my preteen years? I listened to awful music. I read books about history and sports. I obsessed over things like baseball history and drawing baseball fields. I played a tabletop simulation baseball game obsessively, keeping detailed statistics. My team was the 1972 Cincinnati Reds. I will think about this some more. Maybe I’ll ask my parents.