Wanderlust, distraction, quiet
I’m reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines now. I’ll spare you the several things that give me pause about his whole enterprise, but this is a passage worth reading, and I think it holds up well even without context.
“I had a presentiment that the ‘travelling’ phase of my life might be passing. I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen those notebooks. I should set down on paper a résumé of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness.
Pascal, in one of his gloomier pensées, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room.
Why, he asked, must a man with sufficient to live on feel drawn to divert himself on long sea voyages? To dwell in another town? To go off in search of a peppercorn? Or go off to war and break skulls?
Later, on further reflection, having discovered the cause of our misfortunes, he wished to understand the reason for them, he found one very good reason: namely, the natural unhappiness of our weak mortal condition; so unhappy that when we gave to it all our attention, nothing could console us.
One thing alone could alleviate our despair, and that was distraction (divertissement): yet this was the worst of our misfortunes, for in distraction we were prevented from thinking about ourselves and were gradually brought to ruin.
Could it be, I wondered, that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?
All the Great Teachers have preached that Man, originally, was a ‘wanderer in the scorching and barren wilderness of this world’ – the words are those of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – and that to rediscover his humanity, he must slough off attachments and take to the road.
My two most recent notebooks were crammed with jottings taken in South Africa, where I had examined, at first hand, certain evidence on the origin of our species. What I learned there – together with what I now knew about the Songlines – seemed to confirm the conjecture I had toyed with for so long: that Natural Selection has designed us – from the structure of our brain-cells to the structure of our big toe – for a career of seasonal journeys on foot through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert.
If this were so; if the desert were ‘home’; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigours of the desert – then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal’s imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings a prison.”
-Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, 1987, p. 161-2.
I started doing zazen the final semester of my senior year in college. It was a pretty rough patch in my life, and it helped me get past the general the noise in my head around the terror-of-the-future. (Aside: I think my life would have been a whole lot better if I’d have kept up with it.)
I came to a lot of the same conclusions that Chatwin attributes to Pascal above, about our inability to sit quietly in a room (in fact, maybe I somehow encountered that quote along the line, because those were exactly the words I used in my own head about the subject). And it led me to the belief that I had to at least temporarily separate myself from the people around me who not only had more trouble sitting quietly alone than I did but who were hell bent on turning up the volume knobs.
There’s something to the idea of doing journeys on foot that I find appealing too, which is something to take up later.
Probably moving, but…
Have been feeling the need to blog a lot these past few months, but am both out of the habit and am somehow feeling like I’ve come to the end of this particular notebook and have been craving a new one with all blank pages.
Not entirely sure why, mostly just that when I get the occasional urge to look back through old posts, the person that wrote them feels very far away from who I am right now. I’m happy I wrote it all, and I’m not disowning that person, but that little self-exhibitionistic urge that leads to blogging— that thing that makes you write something and put it online and say “this is me”— feels frustrated putting new “this is me” alongside a bunch of stuff where I feel “this is not me”.
Anyway, since I don’t have anything set up, I’ll blog here today…
Last year when Netflix started releasing whole seasons of shows at once, the term “binge watching” came on the scene.
I’m not a fan. It makes it sound somehow unhealthy.
You wouldn’t call reading two chapters of a novel at once “binge reading”, right?
Back when TV was broadcast only, it was formulaic and repetitive by necessity. Each episode had to assume little or no knowledge of the characters or prior happenings on a plot arc, or risk permanently losing viewers who happened to miss one week. The increase in quality of TV programming, at least partly because of the increased on-demand nature of the medium, has been well-documented, and the new “golden age” has been well-publicized.
But we still feel that that watching 3 hours of the same show on TV is unhealthy, in a way that we don’t feel about in watching a 3 hour long film.
Ditching the “binge” terminology would help purge that lingering sense of guilt.
How about “reading TV” instead?
Morse, painting, and loss
You’ve probably heard of Samuel F. B. Morse in the context of his contributions to telegraphy.
I first learned that he started out life as a painter during my sophomore year in college. I was editor of the campus newspaper and was interviewing Andrew Ford, the then-new president of my school, in his office. He pointed to the portrait of former president Elihu Baldwin on the wall, and said “did you know that Samuel Morse painted that?”
Turns out that the story of Morse’s Wabash connection is moderately interesting (er… at least if you went to Wabash).
But for a really good story, check out this episode of The Memory Palace podcast from a couple of years ago. It tells the somewhat heartbreaking story of how Morse the painter became driven to improve the speed of communication.
(By the way, The Memory Palace is produced way too infrequently, but is absolutely worth a listen every time).
And we’re back
Even though I have not been blogging much (okay, any) these days, I was horrified to notice a couple of weeks ago that I had let my registration lapse on realfake.org. Happily, I was able to get it back. And here we are.
Small wisdoms for Saturday morning
When T & I were gardening more seriously I read a book — can’t remember what— that said “gardening is easy; you just need to learn to think like a plant”. It’s true of many things. Once a colleague told me “configuring firewalls with iptables is easy; you just need to learn to think like a packet”. That was true, too, and suddenly networking in general no longer confused me.
Giants in those days
You know, I update this blog for the first time in months, and then go about emptying the dishwasher and catching up on my podcasts for the first time in weeks, and something magic happens. And that magic thing that happens happens to be about whether or not magic happens. And—— it’s about giants.
Do you listen to The Memory Palace? If you don’t, please, just go do so now. It’s wonderful. And it’s terribly infrequently updated. Pentultimate entry was 7 weeks ago. And then, just now, today, a new episode pops up. And it’s great. And it gets to the heart of the real and the fake quite directly.
Here’s a random thought for graduate work in some discipline that probably doesn’t exist (some combination of art history, literature, sociology, psychology, folklore, maybe comparative religions, but hey, let’s just say History because that’s what I did my undergraduate degree in because I couldn’t pick any single one of the above (or because I think most of those fields are flawed or have too many limiting assumptions to be fields of serious study)).
Many if not most cultures have stories and artistic depictions of giants. Most of the depictions of giants I can think of have humans coming up to right below the knee. Is that true? Are the sizes of the giants in proportion to average human height constant over time and cuture? If they vary does that tell us something about the culture or time? Where do giants come from? Is it because we all viscerally remember being children and having to navigate a world of terrifying giants, whose strange rules you need to learn to survive?
Lately the kid has been saying things like “Daddy, I want to go home!”
While we’re home. The only place he’s ever lived.
And he keeps saying this.
This makes me thinks of three things.
- First: They Might Be Giants: “Cowtown”:
We yearn to swim for home
But our only home is bone
How sleepless is the egg
Knowing that which throws the stone
Foresees the bone, the bone
Our only home is bone
Our only home is bone
- Second: a haiku by Basho:
Even in Kyoto –
hearing the cuckoo’s cry –
I long for Kyoto.
(translated by Robert Hass)
- Third: Talking Heads, “This must be the place”:
Is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there.