Auden on the Crucifixion

From W. H. Auden’s A Certain World: A Commonplace Book:

“Just as we are all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worthwhile asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight – three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, ‘It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute people humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?’ Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the True, the Good and the Beautiful.”

“About suffering they were never wrong”

Musée Des Beaux Arts


About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or
just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the
torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything
turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

— by W. H. Auden

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Bruegel

Don’t Worry, Be Idle

Our’s is an age of anxiety, at least it seems to feel that way to many.  Of course, this is far from an original observation.  Among the several works taking this phrase as a title is W. H. Auden’s post-war poem, The Age of Anxiety, first published as the world emerged from the shadows of war into the disconcerting light of the nuclear age.  Since then anxiety has settled in as a permanent feature of the American cultural and psychic landscape.

In a recent Slate interview, Taylor Clark, author of Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, talked about anxiety in the United States:

Is the United States more prone to higher levels of anxiety than other nations?

Put simply, we are. Perhaps the most puzzling statistics are the ones that reveal that we’re significantly more anxious than countries in the developing world, many of which report only a fraction of the diagnosable cases of anxiety that we do. One of the reasons for this is that the people in many of these third-world nations are more accustomed to dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability. I talk about this a fair amount in the book, but lack of control is really the archenemy of anxiety. It’s its biggest trigger.

That explains the disparity in anxiety levels between the United States and the developing world, but why are we more anxious than, say, your average European nation?

It’s hard to pinpoint an answer, but I think Americans have become extremely vulnerable to the pressures of the 21st century. For the past 50 years, we’ve been getting progressively more anxious in good economic times and bad, so we can’t even blame it on the recession.

Clark goes on to suggest three factors contributing to our “deteriorating” psychic state:

  1. “The first is a simple matter of social disconnection. As we spend more time with our electronic devices than we do with our neighbors, we lose our physical sense of community. Social isolation flies in the face of our evolutionary history.”
  2. “The second major cause is the information overload that we’re experiencing with the Internet and the 24-hour media cycle. We’re all aware of it, but I’m not sure we realize how big an impact it’s having on our brains.”
  3. “The third explanation can be attributed to what one psychologist refers to as a culture of “feel goodism” — the idea that we shouldn’t ever have to be upset and that all our negative emotions can be neutralized with a pill. This to me feels like a distinctly American phenomenon.”

Clark seems to lay a good bit of the blame, if we may call it blame, for our anxiety on technology that paradoxically disconnects us and connects us too much.  This diagnosis will ring true and self-evident to some, but I suspect others will take issue, particularly for the exclusion of other significant social and cultural factors that predate the advent of digital media.  After all, social disconnection has a long history.  We may be talking much less on the phone, but Freud noted long ago that the wonder of being able to hear a loved one’s voice over the telephone was a slight salve for the condition that necessitated it to begin with, that is the loved one’s absence.

But regardless the causes, anxious we are, and quite clearly we are interested in doing something about it which quite often amounts to popping a pill.  While that may sometimes be a necessary and helpful remedy, I’d like to also pass along a prescription written by Sven Birkerts in his recent essay, “The Mother of Possibilities”: Idleness.

While admitting that Idleness, as he is envisioning it, is a difficult concept to pin down, Birkerts suggests that,

Idleness is what supervenes on those too few occasions when we allow our pace to slacken and merge with the rhythms of the natural day, when we manage to thwart the impulse to plan forward to the next thing and instead look—idly, with nascent curiosity—at what is immediately in front of us …

Birkerts leisurely traces the tradition of idleness from the Greeks to the much too harried present via pastoral and lyric poetry, Milton, Montaigne, the Romantics, Baudelaire, Proust, Benjamin, and Camus, to name a few.  It is a pleasant jaunt. Along the way we find Montaigne claiming, “It seemed to me that I could do my mind no greater favor than to allow it, in idleness, to entertain itself.”  And according to Birkerts,

Through the figure of the flâneur—via the writing of critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin—the idle state was given a platform, elevated from a species of indolence to something more like a cognitive stance, an ethos. Benjamin’s idea is basically that the true picture of things—certainly of urban experience—is perhaps best gathered from diverse, often seemingly tangential, perceptions, and that the dutiful, linear-thinking rationalist is less able to fathom the immensely complex reality around him than the untethered flâneur, who may very well take it by ambush.

Yet Idleness has its enemies, not least of which is a bad reputation to which Birkerts addresses himself early on, but also the pace of modernity, and yes, alas, distraction, which is not to be confused for Idleness proper.

The spaces and the physical movements of work and play are often nearly identical now, and our commerce with the world, our work life, is far more sedentary and cognitive than ever before. Purposeful doing is now shadowed at every step with the possibilities of distraction. How do we conceive of idleness in this new context? Are we indulging it every time we switch from a work-related document to a quick perusal of emails, or to surf through a few favorite shopping sites? Does distraction eked out in the immediate space of duty count—or is it just a sop thrown to the tyrant stealing most of our good hours?

We are a task oriented people, equipped with lists and planners, goals and objectives, action points and plans.  Productivity is our mantra.  Distraction pour into our work and our plans, but it has not introduced Idleness; it has rather elided work and play, labor and leisure by their convergence upon the devices that are now instruments of both.

But here again we feel the anxiety rising and with it, perversely, the guilt.  Birkerts remedy:

The mind alert but not shunted along a set track, the impulses not pegged to any productivity. The motionless bobber, the hand trailing in the water, the shifting shapes of the clouds overhead. Idleness is the mother of possibility, which is as much as necessity the mother of inventiveness … “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau. In idleness, the corollary maxim might run, is the salvaging of the inner life.

The (Un)Naturalness of Privacy

Andrew Keen is not an Internet enthusiast, at least not since the emergence of Web 2.0.  That much has been clear since his 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and his 2006 essay equating Web 2.0 with Marxism in The Weekly Standard, a publication in which such an equation is less than flattering.  More recently, Keen has taken on all things social in a Wired UK article, “Your Life Torn Open: Sharing is a Trap.”

Now, I’m all for a good critique and lampoon of the excesses of social media, really, but Keen may have allowed his disdain to get the better of him and veered into unwarranted, misanthropic excess.  From the closing paragraph:

Today’s digital social network is a trap. Today’s cult of the social, peddled by an unholy alliance of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and communitarian idealists, is rooted in a misunderstanding of the human condition. The truth is that we aren’t naturally social beings. Instead, as Vermeer reminds us in The Woman in Blue, human happiness is really about being left alone. …. What if the digital revolution, because of its disregard for the right of individual privacy, becomes a new dark ages? And what if all that is left of individual privacy by the end of the 21st century exists in museums alongside Vermeer’s Woman in Blue? Then what?

“Human happiness is really about being left alone” and “The truth is that we aren’t naturally social beings”? Striking statements, and almost certainly wrong. It seems rather that the vast majority of human beings long for, and sometimes despair of never finding, meaningful and enduring relationships with other human beings. That human flourishing is conditioned on the right balance of the private and the social, individuality and relationship, seems closer to the mark. And while I suppose one could be raised by wolves in legends and stories, I’d like to know how infants would survive biologically in isolation from other human beings.  On this count, better stick with Aristotle.  The family, the clan, the tribe, the city — these are closer to the ‘natural’ units of human existence.

The most ironic aspect of these claims is Keen’s use of Vermeer’s “Woman in Blue” or, more precisely, “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,” to illustrate them.  That she is reading a letter is germane to the point at issue here which is the naturalness of privacy.  Contrary to Keen’s assertion of the natural primacy of privacy, it is closer to the truth to correlate privacy with literacy, particularly silent reading (which has not always been the norm), and the advent of printing.  Changing socio-economic conditions also factor into the rise of modern notions of privacy and the individual.  Notions formalized by Locke and Hobbes who enshrine the  atomized individual as the foundation of society, notably, with founding myths which are entirely a-historical.

In The Vineyard of the Text, Ivan Illich, citing George Steiner, suggests this mutual complicity of reading and privacy:

According to Steiner, to belong to ‘the age of the book’ meant to own the means of reading.  The book was a domestic object; it was accessible at will for re-reading.  The age presupposed private space and the recognition of the right to periods of silence, as well as the existence of echo-chambers such as journals, academies, or coffee circles.

Likewise, Walter Ong, drawing on Eric Havelock, explains that

By separating the knower from the known, writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity, opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self agaisnt whom the objective world is set.

Privacy emerges from the dynamics of literacy.  The more widespread literacy becomes, as for example with the printing press, the more widespread and normalized the modern sense of privacy becomes.  What Keen is bemoaning is the collapse of the experience privacy wrought by print culture.  I do think there is something to mourn there, but to speak of its “naturalness” misconstrues the situation and seems to beget a rather sociopathic view human nature.

Finally, it is also telling that Vermeer’s woman is reading a letter.  Letters, after all, are a social genre; letter writing is a form of social life.  To be sure, it is a very different form of social life than what the social web offers, but it is social.  And were we not social beings we would not, as Auden puts its, “count some days and long for certain letters.” The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter reminds us that privacy is bound to literate culture and human beings are bound to one another.


Updates:  To reinforce that it is a balance we are after, also consider this article in yesterday’s Boston Globe, “The Power of Lonely.” Excerpt:

But an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking.

My attention has also been drawn to an upcoming documentary for which Andrew Keen was interviewed.  PressPausePlay will be premiering at South By Southwest and addresses the issues of creativity and art in the digital world.  Here’s  a preview featuring Andrew Keen:

Agitate for Beauty

One of the convenient consequences of posting one’s thoughts on a blog is that readers (the happy few in my case) will send along links to interesting ideas or stories related to what I’ve written.  Yesterday I wrote about resisting the temptation to communicate thoughtlessly and artlessly via digital media and pushing back against the pressures for more efficient, mechanical, and soulless communication.  In response I received a link to a post titled, “How ‘EOM’ Makes Your Email More Efficient.” (h/t:  DFR)

EOM, for the blissfully uninitiated, is short for “End of Message.”  The idea is pretty simple: turn your email subject lines into the actual content of the message and add on “EOM” so that the recipient knows they don’t need click through to read the body.  This saves you the time of writing a subject line and a greeting and a body and a closing.  It also saves the recipient the effort of clicking through to the main text of the email.  But wait there’s more!  Actually there are TEN listed benefits to EOM-ing (might as well — texting, emailing, Facebooking, Twittering, friending —  in our exciting, transgressive times nouns become verbs!).  Other advantages include:  if you do it, others will do it too and EOM encourages 100% readership!

All very efficient to be sure.  Reading the cheerfully and engagingly written post I was almost convinced this was a wonderful, life-changing practice.  Okay, dropping the sarcasm, I get it, seriously.  There are certain exchanges that happen over email that do not need to be packaged in the style and form of a royal proclamation or a papal encyclical.  Fine, fair enough.  And to their credit, one of the advantages listed is that you encourage more face-to-face communication.  If you can’t say it efficiently via email, then maybe you just need to go talk to the person (pause for audible gasp).  Great, that would be wonderful (unless our face-to-face adopt the syntax and style of our online communication).  The work place is busy, hectic, stressful; easing the demands of always online work life is commendable.

But (you knew it was coming), there is still this lingering fear that the ideals of efficiency and instrumentality, perfectly appropriate at some points and in certain contexts, will spread into realms of human communication where they ought properly to be unwelcome and shunned.  Yet, efficiency and instrumentality are alluring ideals that make few demands and promise great rewards, and so they insidiously infiltrate and colonize.

Sometimes I wonder if we are not operating under the unspoken assumption that perfect communication is something like the telepathic communication depicted in science fiction and fantasy.   That would be efficient indeed.  No words, no sounds, no effort.  No risk, no charm, no beauty.

So my tendency is to resist the push for increasing efficiency and instrumentality in our communication; not because I fail to see the advantages, but precisely because I recognize their appeal.  I tend to think Goethe was right, “We should do our best to encourage the Beautiful, for the Useful encourages itself.”  Agitate for beauty.

I’ll leave off with another poet, W. H. Auden, who also knew a thing or two about language, beauty, and responsibility.

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

(“Their Lonely Betters”)