Monday, June 27, 2011

A long and self-indulgent post that has very little to do with running and which raises more questions than gives answers, sorry about that.

I've been working my way at intervals through David Foster Wallace's The Pale King. The book, like much of his writing, is a meditation on the ways in which we keep ourselves from encountering reality, our selves, and each other. DFW's writing is simultaneously penetrating and distancing. He shows us directly the pathos of reflective thought--how it is always reflective, never direct--always skimming over its object. His work sits squarely in the genre of postmodern meta writing because he takes the constant indirection of experience as his direct object of inquiry. But unlike other postmodern authors in which indirection becomes something like a game having stakes only for the art-world, for DFW indirection is a concrete strategy for his characters; it is a learned habit, one that protects them from experience, sheltering them in a state of interiority that is somehow both fecund and infertile.

Click, and it will get bigger.

To read DFW is to realize simultaneously the infinite possibility of thought and the infinite distraction of thought. It's to reflect on the tremendous intellectual achievement of something like the tax code--which of course no single mind could comprehend in all of its complexity and nuance--while simultaneously recognizing that precisely because it is an achievement beyond the comprehension of any mind, its value is incalculable at best and downright stupefying at worse. The book suggests that language itself is like the tax-code: a jumble of meanings through which a few experts can weave more or less intelligent paths, but which in the end adds up to so much sound and fury as a whole, just as likely to signify nothing at all as it is to add meaning to life.

The life of DFW is horrifying. The guy had a tremendous mind. He was intelligent beyond measure. That intelligence was not a total waste; he left us books that will stand the test of time. But he could not use that intelligence to find wisdom. He ended up miserable, depressed, and he killed himself.

It seems to me that his life is representative of the problem of culture in America today. The connection between intelligence and wisdom is tangential at best. Our minds are growing, but their growth is erratic, becoming bureaucratic monstrosities like the tax-code. Who can make the connections between Afghanistan, global warming, rising unemployment, gas prices, radical Islam, immigration, unions, Hugo Chavez, the budget crisis, education reform, obesity....? What mind could process such a set of problems? And yet, we all encounter them, almost daily, as if we have a responsibility to deal with them adequately. Not to mention all of the ordinary problems of daily living like going to work and paying the bills and cooking dinner and cleaning up every now and then. Am I the only one that finds this situation demoralizing?

Reflection doesn't always solve problems.

My sense is that the only intelligent or wise way of dealing with these problems is through the strategy of indirection. As individuals, we can't deal with them, so we have to learn how to distract ourselves from them, or at least from most of them, so that we can tackle the tiny part of maybe one of these problems that we are prepared for. So, we learn not to deal with reality. We put all these screens in place: small screens, big screens, all of these screens that allow us not to deal with reality by substituting high definition for reality. They serve their dream function: just as vivid as reality but fortunately Not Real. The sun being quite too bright to stare at, we climb back down into Plato's cave, thank you very much.

So here we come finally to the grand meta-problem. Reality is one of those things that you can't live with but can't live without. We have to learn to distract ourselves from the problems of life as a mode of protection. But we also cannot bear to live lives of total distraction: that's depression itself. How can we find the right balance between distraction and engagement? How can a mind trained in distraction and self-deception as a mode of the preservation of sanity not destroy itself through those very same operations? How can reflection both protect us from reality through the production of fantasy but also occasionally direct us to reality in order to deal with the problems that face us?

It strikes me that this is a balance that each person has to find for themselves. It also strikes me that such a balance is incredibly difficult and would be very rare to hit without some sort of explicit effort (which I'm not sure how many of us are putting forth). My sense is that we first world middle class whitish Americans tend to err on the side of fantasy and protection from reality. Our politics is a fantasy: Paul Revere? The Gold Standard? Flat Taxes? Global Peace? Hope? Change? When we aren't discussing these fantasies, it's onto the NFL or the latest iPad or how many miles per week did you run or something of that sort.

Yes, running too is deeply involved in fantasy; I love it most because its form of fantasy draws so deeply on reality while remaining fantasy. It's not a daydream; it's a bodily fantasy, with actual feeling, pain, suffering, elation, problems, breakthroughs, effort, determination. All the stuff of life in High Definition.

But don't we want the stuff of life in actual real life, not just as a way of dealing with it?

6 comments:

  1. I didn't read the post, but I enjoyed the comics.

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  2. I think this is relevant...

    "One must needs make and seize his soul, and then cleave fast to't, or go babbling in the corner; one must choose his gods and devils on the run, quill his own name upon the universe, and declare, ' 'Tis I, and the world stands such-a-way!' One must assert, assert, assert, or go screaming mad. What other course remains?"

    (from The Sot-Weed Factor, by my favorite postmodern author, John Barth)

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  3. Definitely relevant, Rachael. Thanks for that, and thanks for reading. (See you soon!)

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  4. Firstly, the last part reminds of something from "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy". The talk about an SEP field, which stands for "Somebody Else's Problem". Effectively, what the field did was convince you that whatever you were seeing was, in fact, not your problem, so your brain would refuse to acknowledge its visual existence.

    Secondly, for the first part discussing interconnectedness, I believe that most people do not look, or are often unable to recognize, correlations between events and objects unless it is a linear type of connection. Most of our processes are drawn out in linear fashion. Linear thinking works great for some things, but it breaks down when viewing complex systems. This lack of a systems thinking (not my term, go Google it) approach to complex issues is what tends to create many of the issues we are now facing. Sometimes you need to pause and draw it out to see the hidden connections and points of leverage that hide behind the twists and turns.

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  5. Barefoot running on the beach. Ouch. My experiment with that was on the football field grass. Enjoyable, but difficult to fit into my routine.

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