Saturday, 17 January 2015

On Concentration


When Saul Bellow delivered the Romanes Lecture at Oxford in 1990, the Internet was a dubious prophecy of tech specialists and mobile phones resembled military walkie-talkies; they took ten hours to charge, functioned for thirty minutes, and weighed two pounds. His talk was called “The Distracted Public” and, despite a pre-digital absence of smartphones, Twitter feeds or even e-mail, he could still worry about what was happening to the average person’s—the average reader’s—attention span. TV was the culprit,  “the principal source of the noise peculiar to our time—an illuminated noise that claims our attention not in order to concentrate it but to disperse it. [W]hat we really look to it for is distraction—distraction in the form of a phantom or an approximate reality.”  

            Although it was a far-from-original point (he quoted Orwell in his defence: “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of civilized men”), he believed it worth making for all those technology-jaded lecture-hall listeners sunk glumly in their Information Revolution (to dust off an antique phrase…the Cold War was still in progress!).  He reminded them that they were being “overrun by a variety of forces—political, technological, journalistic, agitational. Vast enterprises described as the communications industry inform, misinform, or disinform the public about politics, wars, and revolutions, about religious or racial conflicts, and also about education, law, medicine, books, theatre, music, cookery. To make such lists gives a misleading impression of order. The truth is that we are in an unbearable state of confusion, or distraction.”

            Unbearably distracted—before BlackBerries, iTunes and Facebook? So what the hell kind of state are we in now? Johann Hari’s review of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (2010) by David Ulin, which appeared in the London Independent in 2011, offers an updated version of Bellow’s agony of distraction, all that “inner confusion and centrelessness of our understanding…[that] state of dispersed attention”:


All his life, [Ulin] had taken reading as for granted as eating—but then, a few years ago, he “became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read.” He would sit down to do it at night, as he always had, and read a few paragraphs, then find his mind wandering, imploring him to check his email, or Twitter, or Facebook. “What I’m struggling with,” he writes, “is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there’s something out there that merits my attention.”


A not unfamiliar scenario, surely; but what’s really going on in this all-too-representative anecdote? In Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (2009), Winifred Gallagher ventures a deeper diagnosis of twenty-first-century distraction:


It’s not a coincidence that the term distracted once referred not just to a loss or dilution of attention but also to confusion, mental imbalance, and even madness. It’s all too easy to spend much of your life in such an unfocused, mixed-up condition, rushing toward the chimera of a better time and place to tune in and, well, be alive. It’s the fashion to blame the Internet and computers, cell phones and cable TV for this diffused, fragmented state of mind, but our seductive machines are not at fault. The real problem is that we don’t appreciate our own ability to use attention to select and create truly satisfying experience. Instead of exercising this potential, we too often take the lazy way out, settle for less, and squander our mental money and precious time on whatever captures our awareness willy-nilly, no matter how disappointing the consequences.


Really? Our gadgets aren’t to blame for our tendency to waste time? The accelerated, indiscriminate, superficial consciousnes of the average laptopper or iPaddist is the product not of time-wasting technologies but of his own worst impulses? His capacity for idleness, his antipathy toward seriousness, concertedness, commitment, effort, personal responsibility? Isn’t this a rather moral position to take? Doesn’t it sound preachy to say so? But Carl Jung was no churchman, and he once said, “Hurry is not of the devil; it is the devil.” And if we’re all mentally hurrying about, where does the deeper restlessness come from? Maybe restlessnes is all we are. But if so, why indulge in Luddite daydreams of happier times, when people were supposedly calmer and more focused? If Gallagher’s right, our ancestors were only less scatterbrained than us because they lacked the means to become as distracted as we are. In other words, seventeenth-century Puritans, spending hours in church every Sunday, and hours more in private prayer or frowning through the latest Cotton Mather bestseller (Magnalia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England in seven volumes, anyone?), did so only because they couldn’t spend whole weekends scrolling joylessly through eBay, MySpace, Instagram, YouPorn, CraigsList, reddit, Yahoo and LinkedIn. A depressing thesis. Do we want to be distracted; is it delicious relief from our own company? Bellow certainly thought so:


I have suggested that distraction is…inviting. It can be seductive. It is often flattering. Pascal, a great observer of such things, said that the happiness of highly place persons was due to their having a crowd to amuse them. “A king,” he wrote, “is surrounded by men who take wonderful care never to let him be alone and think about himself.” So in a sense we are all highly placed persons—kings even—or treated as such by those who control (but is control really the word for it?) the electronic instruments that disseminate information-entertainment-opinion in hypnotic words and images.



Great. So we’ve devised technologies that perfectly pander to our perennial wish for effortless pleasure, just as we’ve designed fatally delicious fast food that targets our tastebuds’ weakness for salt, fat and sugar. Now what?


Bellow, a writer of serious novels, thinks reading serious novels can help, and talks at length about a state of mind he calls “aesthetic bliss,” total absorption in a fictional narrative. Which is fine, but the problem is, as he himself just pointed out, more and more people find it impossible to succumb to that particular spell. Another novelist, Philip Roth, even predicted that the novel would nearly die out in a few decades (in an October 2009 article in the Guardian), a victim of “the screen.”


According to Winifred Gallagher, who’s concerned about concentration in general and not just readers’ attention spans, a basic adjustment of attitude is called for, from the passive to the active: you have to choose what to target with your attention, and the cost of concentration, the effort involved, will be repaid, with many subjective benefits collectively defined as “quality of life.” Much neuroscientific data is marshalled to make her point, which is that personal well-being is closely dependent on becoming attentive to present experience, or what Buddhists would call mindfulness. It’s an interesting book but I mention it mainly for her point that distraction must be actively resisted. It’s a choice, and maybe a moral one. 


Because let’s say now that in the future technology is going to increasingly crowd, cajole and complicate our consciousness, and that thrilling new methods of pleasantly wasting time will pile up on top of each other in ways we can’t imagine at present. At some point, in that context, reading a book will become a very deliberate undertaking, a quite willful act, of implicit criticism, of dissent, of absconsion, of resistance, almost a political act. Screen-era citizens will stare and whisper, pity and despise the page-turner. Determined book readers may need encouragement, an example of how it can be done; mentors and models, if you will. And, nice guy that I am, I’ve gone and kindly supplied them with several, in the heroes of my new book, The Concentrationsts, set a hundred years ago, but addressed to readers a hundred years hence, if there are still any, as well as to you, who have read this far (if there are any of you). Give it a try. You might like it. It repays concentration.




Renaissance Man.


I got excited when I discovered the subtitle of Duncan Fallowell’s book, How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits (2013), concealed an anagram—memento mori—until I realized I’d badly misspelled the Latin. It doesn’t matter. The mortal warning (“remember you must die”) is, along with its sunnier counterpart, carpe diem, implicit in the title. The title, though, is ironic, since this is no manual for recluses but a proposition on how best to make use of that disappearing thing called a life, how to rage against the dying of the light…how, almost, not to disappear, but to leave traces of oneself behind, and to find and appreciate those left by others. It’s also a lesson in, as Fallowell puts it at one point, “how not to be shy of the heart.” It’s advice dispensed to misfits, as if the level-headed conventional majority might miss what’s implied in this message from the margins.  

A memoir is a piece of personal curation, a selection and arrangement of details rescued from the tendency of everything in one’s life, mental or material, to degrade or disappear over time. There is a sort of background hiss in the book, the sound of time passing (“a crunchy noise, like that of a death beetle”), which manifests itself in frequent references to demolished hotels, destroyed grand villas, vanished villages and defunct academies. But museums and archives also abound, symbols of a counter-entropic effort, an effort to spare specimens of memory from the universal slippage; as are the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, whose funerary monuments, for Fallowell, “remind us once again of the oblivion which awaits us all.” Not that awareness of what awaits makes for a gloomy tone—rather for frankness. If the grave gapes there’s no time for subterfuge or not facing facts. This is a book of unveilings, of searches and researches into personal oblivions, both the inevitable, unsought variety and the self-imposed sort pursued by those “shy of the heart” who “stew and hide.” A couple of these Fallowell tries to track down; but he’s a tactful, at times almost tender, detective. If he unmasks (in “The Curious Case of Bapsy Pavry”) the private misery behind the outlandish public pretensions of an Indian socialite, it’s done commiseratingly, not to mock; nor does he (in “Who Was Alastair Graham?”) buttonhole and then belittle the man who was once, to his great retrospective embarrassment, the boyfriend of Evelyn Waugh. Disappearance seems synonymous with dishonesty for Fallowell in this chapter, a sin he elsewhere can’t forgive, but his posthumous reconstruction of a lifestory its owner wanted kept secret isn’t undertaken in order to punish, as in many a recent biography specialising in digging up dirt and debunking the dead. It’s an exercise in nostalgia, which he defines, quite wonderfully, not as sentimentality but as rediscovery, almost restitution, of lost truths:


[C]uriosity and the pursuit of novelty does not exclude the past. Far from it. Nostalgia is often the route to rebirth. That is what the word ‘renaissance’ means, rebirth, and the Renaissance in Europe was the rediscovery of the old classical world, a discovery which enabled Europe to escape from the suffocation of the Middle Ages into a healthier light. Nostalgia isn’t a hankering for the past as such, but the desire to retrieve a loss. 


“Nostalgia,” in fact, is a Homeric word, a compound of the Greek roots “nostos,” meaning homecoming, and “algos,” meaning pain, and a journey homeward in pain is what Odysseus makes in the Odyssey, which ends in ugly confrontation, not sentiment. Fallowell, traveling the literal Mediterranean as well as Mediterraneans of memory, is unabashed about not prettifying the past, his own or anyone else’s, and is more argonaut than antiquarian. Although the ancients are his guide throughout, it’s their attitude more than their artefacts that interest him—specifically the sort of sanity summed up in those complimentary mottoes I mentioned, which try to balance a frank acceptance of death with a frank relish for life. These are attitudes which, Fallowell feels, have today largely disappeared or been marginalised:


The ancients did not veil sexuality and are at home with it in a way that the Christian world never is, nor the Muslim or Jewish worlds. Sex in Pompeii was simply everywhere, openly displayed in pictures, household objects, public statues, graffiti, brothels and books, surviving testimony to the ruthlessness of sexual repression by the religions which came after…. Something goaty and awe-inspiring trembles in the air and one cannot help feeling that in the arts of congress the Pompeian would find modern man a curiously worried child. Modern European psychology and art has largely been devoted to repairing this rupture from the elemental which was master-minded in private life by the Church and in public life by the indsutrial revolution.


With his unsentimental curiosity about the past, cleansed of Christian criticisms, Fallowell is almost a sort of latter-day Renaissance man himself, with a penetrating,  idiosyncratic eye. “I am describing the place in some detail,” he says of a hotel room at one point, “because it is a rarity, an example of a kind of sanctum which has almost disappeared from the world.” He is, in these pages, a collector and commemorator of rarities, drawn to, and delighting in, the eccentric, misprized, unofficial, and overlooked; the clichéd (notably touristy Venice) repels him. At one point he quotes Horace Walpole (“one hates writing descriptions that are to be found in every book of travels”) and appears to follow this example. His journeys take in Welsh fishing villages, Indian hilltowns, and the fringes of Europe—the Hebrides and a remote Maltese island called Gozo. This last place features in “Sailing to Gozo” (yes, an ironic echo of Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”; the chapter titles form a playful bricolage of references, from Beckett to Brad Pitt). If it begins with a storm at sea and features a Prospero-like wiseman on a lonely island (a polymath of an American professor who paints, recites Pope, and devises a private language), it’s not a teacup-sized Tempest, it’s a Calypso-like epsiode. Gozo is believed to be the site of that story from the Odyssey and here Fallowell encounters the same tendency to paralysis that afflicted Odysseus for seven years. All around him is a sense of stalled life, suppressed purpose, a dour Christianity hiding older impulses, pagan preferences. He sees through it, in a surprising epiphany at the end of the chapter, and this jolts him into his journeys elsewhere—and us into the book which follows. Which is a pleasure to read, and reminds me of a remark by Anaïs Nin: "The personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself." It won the 2012 PEN/Ackerley Prize. One can see why.  




“Of making many blogs there is no end,” the author of Ecclesiastes might have written, if the Iron Age had been online. Wikipedia says there are 150 million of them. Here’s one more. Sorry. An apologia for something few people are likely to read seems hardly worth making, but a systematic rationalization to myself—and blogs are nothing if not forums (or maybe only echo-chambers) of the “self”—is more apropos. Throw in Samuel Johnson’s centuries-old sneer at amateur scribblers, which never fails to deflate me, and it’s even more so. Here goes.


The earliest known blog was of course G.K. Chesterton’s wife (pictured). Just kidding. But, yes, that hideous neologism was, is, first a surname. Pity the possessor thereof, unless it’s a Tolkien character coiled in a crevasse in Mordor. (With Mrs Chesterton it was a case, notes biographer Ian Kerr, of   “[t]he original Huguenot French surname ‘de Blogue’ ha[ving] been unfortunately anglicized into ‘Blogg’.”) To me ‘blogger’ as job-description suggests something rank, a cesspit drainer or sewer mender in nineteenth-century London, an ugly word for a filthy trade—but does the connotation suggested by the sound of the term actually fit? Conceive of the blogosphere as a city and it’s clear the blogopolis has districts of intelligence and useful information as well as slums of virtriol, vanity and trivia. ‘Blogger’ doesn’t always or even usually mean ‘windbag,’ “bore,” “crackpot,” “narcissist,” “poseur,” “pedant” or “hack” but it does often enough that I think something of the cesspit, a faint reputational reek from all the awful others out there, does adhere to anyone publishing on a personal website. The taint of the utterly irrelevant, the unofficial, the unvetted and so potentially fifth-rate, hangs over everything you write without a publisher’s imprimatur. The preconception is hard to shake that the average blog resembles a ramshackle kiosk in a street crowded with hundreds like it, all offering doubtful wares, or even a pile of roadside junk hung with a cardboard FREE! sign. While much interesting writing certainly coexists with the logorrhoeic kooks and pointless online Pepys’s, it’s hard to find. The Internet offers the world’s first forum of the totally unmediated Individual, uncensored but also unsolicited, an ocean of Johnsonian amateurs: “take it or leave it, hit or miss, here I am,” could be a collective tag-line for the whole blogosphere. Caveat lector never seemed a fitter proviso for the prospective blog-reader. But for the prospective blogger? Maybe Mark Twain: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”


Then again, maybe Norman Mailer’s a better guide in this matter. Because if ever a book resembled a blog in spirit and style, it is Advertisements for Myself (1960). Notorious at the time, now more of a curiosity for American literature students, it’s a miscellany-cum-memoir of musings, manifestoes, half-finished novels, excerpts of scripts and stories, appalling poetry, execrable juvenilia, grandiose pronouncements on sundry (no longer) topical matters, angry rambles at enemies, unoriginal insights presented as brilliant new discoveries, and much else in a similarly deranged vein. It’s risible and bathetic as often as it’s stylistically sublime, and I highly recommend it, but my point is that it’s like a large percentage of the blogosphere or social media in general. It’s not that it’s unpolished or uniformly poor—Mailer was a fine novelist and his reputation as such stands—it’s that it’s so willfully unseemly, it’s so blatantly, unapologetically bad-mannered and makeshift: again, like online writing. Mailer boasts about (and prints parts of) books he hasn’t finished—actually, hardly started—and which never do get written, he explains at length why the bad books he wrote weren’t entirely his fault (and then reprints long passages). In the essays he is often polemicising for positions he hasn’t fully worked out, because his ideas are still in progress but he’s damn well publishing them anyway—better to send a half-baked idea to the printer in the white-hot, existential instant of inspiration, than to wait and let effete second thoughts and revisions spoil his style. Style—or the search for one in a time and place he feels has none—is the essence of the book. The horrors of the Second World War (which informed The Naked and the Dead, one of the works on which his reputation rests) and the atomic anxieties that follow it have made 1950s America a colourless, spiritless place, where “one could hardly maintain the courage to be an individual, to speak with one’s own voice…. No wonder then that these have been the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve. The only courage, with rare exceptions, that we have been witness to, has been the isolated courage of isolated people.” Mailer determines to be one such brave solitary, and to speak with his own voice, even if it’s found by endless crowing. Better that than conformist silence.


He speaks loudest and clearest in “The White Negro,” an essay likely to be left off many a university syllabus for years to come because, like much of the book, it fails the test of political correctness—as it was meant to. The political correctness of Mailer’s time, less finetuned and multifaceted than ours, was the stark Us-Them thinking of the Cold War, and Mailer was on the side of neither corporate capitalism nor socialism: both bred totalitarianism, he argued, and the American form of it was no better than the Soviet, only harder to spot, dressed in veils of patriotism and Red-scare paranoia. His advertisements are ironic anti-advertisements which deliberately set out to do the opposite of what ads normally do, namely flatter and entertain while insinuating their subtext into our unconscious. Mailer is blunt, rude, ridiculous, and bottomlessly self-regarding to a purpose. He wants to shock a generation out of its thrall to the pleasing messages of its own propaganda. He presents himself, the Self set free, ugly and unreconstructed, as the example to be followed by the brave few, the bands of hipsters who will balk at the values of military-industrial America and bring rebellion to the land of the formerly free. He offers, in all seriousness, the anarchic possibilities of the “nihilism of Hip,” a (dangerous, totally implausible) ethos of moral unrestraint, in place of the dull, killing stasis of mass conformity. His advertisements, his posturing and pontificating, are to be the poetry the spirit of the new age models itself on, like Whitman’s verses in a simpler time. As unbuttoned and full of gusto as Whitman, he replaces the poet’s optimism and fellow-feeling with a rousing, risky appeal to the id as the last answer to the despair of the millions of chronically repressed and alienated:


[T]he nihilism of Hip proposes as its final tendency that every social restraint and category be removed, and the affirmation implicit in the proposal is that man would then prove to be more creative than murderous and so would not destroy himself. Which is exactly what separates Hip from the authoritarian philosophies which now appeal to the conservative and liberal temper—what haunts the middle of the twentieth century is that faith in man has been lost, and the appeal of authority has been that it would restrain us from ourselves. Hip, which would return us to ourselves, at no matter what price in individual violence, is the affirmation of the barbarian, for it requires a primitive passion about human nature to believe that individual acts of violence are always to be preferred to the collective violence of the State; it takes literal faith in the creative possibilities of the human being to envisage acts of violence as the catharsis which prepares growth.


What would bring a bright writer living in middle-class comfort to make this kind of lunatic appeal to anarchy and “barbarism”? Mailer claims (as Herbert Marcuse would more systematically in “Repressive Tolerance” (1965) and One-Dimensional Man (1964)), that industrialized society limits the possibilities for human freedom and confines the heart in such a narrow preordained compass that the slavery under which the Negro suffered for centuries can be said to have overtaken the rest of society—even if the chains now are merely psychological. As a result, one must turn to the Negro to locate the resources that will keep one’s spirit from being crushed by the State. These turn out to be jazz, sex, violence, and a certain style of language—all of a specifically “Hip” variety, defined in detail in the text, and characterized by an anti-social swagger and menace. Hipsters, leaving the “Square” majority, join the ranks of the outlaws, the traditionally despised and suspected blacks, and drink in the raw uncorrupted vigour of the underclass, adopting the law of the street and making it their own, thereby becoming “White Negroes.” The soul of the contemporary intellectual is thus saved (though he may wind up dead or in jail in the attempt), and the lies of the Squares are exposed and civilization is revitalized. It seems silly if not insane sixty years on, but the malaise Mailer identifies so exactly was very real at the time, as was the influence of this book on the counter-cultures of the next decade, not to mention on Mailer’s own rich if irregular subsequent oeuvre. The Armies of the Night, Why are We in Vietnam? and The Prisoner of Sex, for example, owe their bold style and ideas to the directions his thought took in his Advertisements period.


So if you’re online thinking you might find something really interesting to say, if you just keep talking long enough, Mailer is probably your man, not Twain. Twain lacked the nerve to publish his “War Poem” and other pieces excoriating America’s imperialist takeover of the Philippines, c. 1900, which surely makes him, posthumously, the bigger fool, and Mailer the stout foe of aggressive American foreign policy, for all his irresponsible railery, well-advised in retrospect to have risked appearing an ass in order to go with his instincts and speak his mind.


So there. I’ve convinced myself. I shall blog, and Johnson take the hindmost. I shall be doubly, deliberately a blockhead—a very bloghead. Down with Künstlerschuld! Down with prevaricating, pusillanimous common sense and a plain style! I dare “the lash of the old Legislator, the Vulgar”(Cervantes)! I defy “the ill-placed cavils of the sour, the envious, the stupid, and the tasteless”(Swift)! I ignore the fact that, though I’m a scribbler named Martin, Martinus Scriblerus is one of the greatest satirical butts in English literature! Quod scripsi, scripsi shall be my cry.


More will follow in this space, mostly on books, because what else do I know? In the spirit of Mailer, I announce now these not-yet-even-started projects: a review of Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon; an essay on some of Rudyard Kipling’s late stories; and an essay on a certain species of character in the novels of Anthony Burgess.


Until next time (if you ever return), caveat lector.