Random finds (2018, week 45) — On negative capability, the art of attention, and why boredom is good
I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my fluid and boundless curiosity.
This week: Discovering ‘truth’ on the cusp of knowing and not knowing; the difference between attempting to pay attention to something and having our attention captured — arrested — by something; why boredom is good; Bertrand Russel’s praise of idleness; a failed experiment in dedicated listening; how sadness makes us seem nobler; elaborate Renaissance costumes created from recycled packaging materials; and, finally, Jane Goodall, whose job it is “to give people hope, for without it we fall into apathy and do nothing.”
“The task of finding a truly original voice while bound to a group is analogous to looking for your keys under a streetlight because it is too dark to search for them where they were lost,” writes Paul Tritschler in Negative capability. “In both instances, we might improve the search by not looking: lost things often materialise when we shut them from our mind. In fact, we are not closing our mind but opening it, waiting for the unconscious, that great unknown, to solve the riddle. And quite often it does.
The unconscious can perform astonishing feats of memory, but it can also play a remarkable role in creativity: sudden insights, solutions and life-enhancing ideas sometimes surface unbidden when the mind is adrift in unconscious reverie. If such chance awakenings are possible, how can you replicate those conditions to become more the author, and less the reporter, of your own meaningful life story? To find that elusive voice, we’ve got to search in the ‘now,’ in the moment of true, lived experience that fleetingly exists between past and future. It is within that space that we must seek the locus of personal transformation and change.
But being in the moment, developing an awareness of ‘now,’ means gaining control over our thoughts and the unconscious patterning of memory so that they don’t intrude.”
“Among the traps of the mind, there is preoccupation with the past (including attachment to intrusive memories) and preoccupation with the future (including continual desire). By definition, these lures are incompatible with being in the moment. We must offload this excess baggage to glimpse what we are and what we might become,” says Tritschler.
According to him, no one gave voice to this process more eloquently than the mid-20th-century British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion when he said that one discovers ‘truth,’ the ingredient essential to psychic growth, on the cusp of knowing and not knowing.
According to Tritschler, Bion’s line of thought was indebted to the Romantic poet John Keats. “Instead of taking preconceived notions of nature as the starting point, or vainly attempting to gain absolute knowledge of all life’s mysteries, Keats described a quality called ‘negative capability’ that requires the poet be receptive to artistic beauty, even if it comes at the cost of philosophical certainty. In a letter to his brothers in 1817, Keats wrote that the true artist had to feel ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. For the ‘great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration’. In short, a dynamic tension existed at the edge of knowing and not knowing, and its resolution was truth,” Tritschler writes.
“Negative capability promotes personal change by transporting us past the layered accretions of knowledge, norms and narratives that saturate us in infancy and shroud us in adulthood. Emptying the mind is like prying oneself free from the clutches of a cult.”
“Achieving negative capability might fall short of a complete psychological reboot — we are each subject to the influence of our biology, social class and environment, to varying degrees. But even a brief relief from memory and desire can reshape thinking and help us gain control over our lives. Negative capability also challenges the wisdom of living passively in a distorted reality, one that mainly serves the interests of a powerful and privileged minority at the expense of the overwhelming majority — perhaps at the expense of the planet itself. Seen from this angle, negative capability is a tool for activists: it is not only a means of self-realisation and a key to awakening the imagination, but also a means of resisting the imagined realities of exploitation and social hierarchy in favour of radical alternatives.
Whether our starting point is poetry, political philosophy or the process of psychoanalysis, negative capability is about personal discovery. Imagine what we might achieve if that discovery was unconditional love for all sentient life.”
The art of attention
“To pay attention, to attend. To be present, not merely in body — it is an action of the spirit,” writes Sven Birkerts in The art of attention, an assay on how the peculiar vividness of the world becomes clear when we slow down and attend, learning to see all things anew.
“Paying attention is striving toward, thus presupposing a prior wanting, an expectation. We look at a work of art and hope to meet it with our looking; we already have a notion of something to be had, gotten. Reading, at those times when reading matters, we let the words condition an expectation and move toward it.
Thinking of the ways that I look at art or listen to music, I easily distinguish between the dutiful and the avid. In front of the battle scene, the mythological set-piece, I make myself pay a certain kind of attention. I take in the shapes and colours, obey the visual indicators that guide my eye from one point to another; I know to make myself mindful of the narrative, its thematic intention. I can even experience certain satisfactions, noting and feeling the balance of elements, the accuracy of execution, the expressiveness of certain gestures and features. All of this betokens one kind of attention. But I am not at attention. I do not engage out of my own inclinations so much as obey a series of basic directives, much as when I read a novel that is solidly characterised and plotted but that, for whatever reason, does not have me in its thrall.”
But other works of art activate a completely different set of responses, Birkerts writes.
“When I move into the vicinity of a canvas by the 17th-century Dutch artist Jacob Isaacksz. van Ruisdael, for example, even before I have looked, when I have seen only enough in my peripheral vision to suggest that it is one of his, I experience what feels like an inclining toward; I ready myself to attend. I feel myself heightened in a Ruisdael way — which is different than a Vermeer way or a Giacometti way. It’s as if I dilate my pupils to absorb the particular colour tones, the marks that are his way of drawing trees, the strategies he uses to create distance in his landscapes. I am looking, moving my eye from point to point, sweeping along the width and breadth of the surface, but what I am attending to is more general, deeper, and hardly requires the verification of intensive looking. The paintings I love induce reverie. With Ruisdael, it’s easy: I draw the landscape fully around me. I suck it into myself, so that I might absent myself from whatever daylight spot I occupy in whatever gallery or museum. I am tantalised by its tones, the strokes of execution, but also by its profound pastness. Not its particular century or period, simply that it is a version of a bygone world.”
“Distraction is a shearing away from focus, a lowering of intensity, whereas daydreaming — the word itself conveys immersed intensity. Associational, intransitive: the attending mind is bathed in duration. We have no sense of the clock-face; we are fully absorbed by our thoughts, images and scenarios. Daydreaming is closer to our experience of art.”
“Here attention meets distraction or, better yet, daydreaming. They are not the same thing. One is the special curse of our age — the self diluted and thinned to a blur by all the vying signals — while the other hearkens back to childhood, seems the very emblem of the soul’s freedom. Distraction is a shearing away from focus, a lowering of intensity, whereas daydreaming — the word itself conveys immersed intensity. Associational, intransitive: the attending mind is bathed in duration. We have no sense of the clock-face; we are fully absorbed by our thoughts, images and scenarios. Daydreaming is closer to our experience of art.
Marcel Proust wrote somewhere that love begins with looking, and the idea is suggestive. But if that’s the case, the reverse might also be: that true looking begins with love. There’s the quote that I used to repeat like a mantra to writing students, from Flaubert: ‘Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.’ Again, the distinctions, the questions of priority. Is it that the looked-at thing becomes interesting, or that its intrinsic interest gradually emerges? Is the power in the negotiable thing or in the act of looking? If the latter, then the things of the world are already layered with significance, and looking is merely the action that discloses.”
Why boredom is good
“I’m dying of boredom,” complains the young wife, Yelena, in Chekhov’s 1897 play Uncle Vanya. “I don’t know what to do.”
If Yelena were around today, says Clive Thompson in How Being Bored Out of Your Mind Makes You More Creative, she would pull out her smartphone and find something diverting. But what if boredom is a meaningful experience — one that propels us to states of deeper thoughtfulness or creativity?
“That’s the conclusion of two fascinating recent studies. In one, researchers asked a group of subjects to do something boring, like copying out numbers from a phone book, and then take tests of creative thinking, such as devising uses for a pair of cups. The result? Bored subjects came up with more ideas than a nonbored control group, and their ideas were often more creative. In a second study, subjects who took an ‘associative thought’ word test came up with more answers when they’d been forced to watch a dull screensaver,” Thompson writes.
“Maybe traversing an expanse of tedium creates a sort of cognitive forward motion. […] Philosophers have intuited this for centuries. Søren Kierkegaard described boredom as a prequel to creation: ‘The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.’”
The problem, the psychologists worry, is that these days we don’t wrestle with these slow moments. We eliminate them. This might relieve us temporarily, but it shuts down the deeper thinking that can come from staring down the doldrums.
“So here’s an idea: Instead of always fleeing boredom, lean into it. Sometimes, anyway,” Thompson suggests. “When novelists talk about using Freedom, the software that shuts down one’s Internet connection, they often say it’s about avoiding distraction. But [Thompson suspects] it’s also about enforcing a level of boredom in their day — useful, productive monotony.”
Sandi Mann, not only the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good but also the psychologist who ran the experiment with the cups, gets some of her best thinking done when she is commuting by care and can’t self-distract with her phone. According to her, emotions have an evolutionary benefit. Through her experiments, she was able to prove that people who are bored think more creatively than those who aren’t. “When we’re bored, we’re searching for something to stimulate us that we can’t find in our immediate surroundings,” Mann explained. “So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.”
According to Blaise Pascal, we fear the silence of existence, we dread boredom and instead choose aimless distraction, and we can’t help but run from the problems of our emotions into the false comforts of the mind.
“The issue at the root, essentially, is that we never learn the art of solitude,” Zat Rana writes in The Most Important Skill Nobody Taught You.
“If we take it back to the fundamentals — and this is something Pascal touches on, too — our aversion to solitude is really an aversion to boredom.
At its core, it’s not necessarily that we are addicted to a TV set because there is something uniquely satisfying about it, just like we are not addicted to most stimulants because the benefits outweigh the downsides. Rather, what we are really addicted to is a state of not-being-bored.
Almost anything else that controls our life in an unhealthy way finds its root in our realization that we dread the nothingness of nothing. We can’t imagine just ‘being’ rather than ‘doing.’ And therefore, we look for entertainment, we seek company, and if those fail, we chase even higher highs.
We ignore the fact that never facing this nothingness is the same as never facing ourselves. And never facing ourselves is why we feel lonely and anxious in spite of being so intimately connected to everything else around us.”
But there is a solution. We need to let the boredom take us where it wants so we can deal with whatever it is that is really going on with our sense of self. “That’s when you’ll hear yourself think, and that’s when you’ll learn to engage the parts of you that are masked by distraction,” Zana writes. “The beauty of this is that, once you cross that initial barrier, you realize that being alone isn’t so bad. Boredom can provide its own stimulation.”
Adding, “When you surround yourself with moments of solitude and stillness, you become intimately familiar with your environment in a way that forced stimulation doesn’t allow. The world becomes richer, the layers start to peel back, and you see things for what they really are, in all their wholeness, in all their contradictions, and in all their unfamiliarity.
Embracing boredom allows you to discover novelty in things you didn’t know were novel; it’s like being an unconditioned child seeing the world for the first time. It also resolves the majority of internal conflicts.”
And also this …
“From the beginning of civilization until the industrial revolution a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard and his children added their labor as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by priests and warriors. In times of famine there was no surplus; the warriors and priests, however, still secured as much as at other times, with the result that many of the workers died of hunger. This system persisted in Russia until 1917, and still persists in the East; in England, in spite of the Industrial Revolution, it remained in full force throughout the Napoleonic wars, and until a hundred years ago, when the new class of manufacturers acquired power. In America the system came to an end with the Revolution, except in the South, where it persisted until the Civil War. A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impression upon men’s thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technic has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”
“It will be said that while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours’ work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. Serious-minded persons, for example, are continually condemning the habit of going to the cinema, and telling us that it leads the young into crime. But all the work that goes to producing a cinema is respectable, because it is work, and because it brings a money profit. The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy. The butcher who provides you with meat and the baker who provides you with bread are praiseworthy because they are making money but when you enjoy the food they have provided you are merely frivolous, unless you eat only to get strength for your work. Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good but keyholes are bad. The individual, in our society, works for profit; but the social purpose of his work lies in the consumption of what he produces. It is this divorce between the individual and the social purpose of production that makes it so difficult for men to think clearly in a world in which profitmaking is the incentive to industry. We think too much of production and too little of consumption. One result is that we attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and that we do not judge production by the pleasure that it gives to the consumer.”
Thinking about buying a media streamer to complement my analog listening habits, I came across an article by James Jackson Toth, titled Too Much Music: A Failed Experiment In Dedicated Listening.
“It has been said that we are living in a golden age of music fandom; with a single click, we can access almost every piece of music ever recorded, and for less than it would cost to hear a single song on a jukebox in 1955. But I’ve begun to feel that my rabid consumption of music, when coupled with the unprecedented access encouraged by new technology, has endangered my ability to process it critically,” Toth writes.
“Streaming has become the primary way we listen to music: in 2016, streaming surpassed both physical media and digital downloads as the largest source of recorded music sales. There are plenty of valid complaints about a music world dominated by streaming. Among the many arguments musicians level against Spotify, for example, one typically repeated is that the artist is the only link in the food chain getting the proverbial shaft. This argument is often predicated on notions of economics, intellectual property and ethics. Missing from a larger discussion is the radical idea that maybe it is the consumers who are being done the greatest disservice, and that this access-bonanza may be cheapening the listening experience by transforming fans into file clerks and experts into dilettantes. I don’t want my musical discoveries dictated by a series of intuitive algorithms any more than I want to experience Jamaica via an all-inclusive trip to Sandals.”
A few years ago, Toth started noticing his brain was no longer retaining song titles. This was “[p]artly due to the ubiquity of music playlists and partly due to supply outweighing even my most insatiable of demands.” All music was rapidly becoming Muzak, and in the interest of trying to experience it all, he was fast approaching a saturation point that was rendering him numb. “This fact troubled me, and I wanted to do something about it,” he writes. So, Toth concocted a bold experiment. For the entirety of 2017, he would listen to just one album a week. But after just four days of listening to Autechre, he resigns himself to the fact that the experiment is a complete failure.
The experiment failed not only because it was unpleasant, Toth writes, but especially because “[m]odern life, with all of its informational density, has rendered filtering out the noise virtually impossible.”
When Cormac McCarthy was asked in a 2009 interview with John Jurgensen for the Wall Street Journal whether he believed a 1,000-page book would somehow be too much, he said, “The indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ or ‘Moby-Dick,’ go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.”
Toth feels he may be right. “As long as we try to maintain the Sisyphean task of trying to experience everything, our brains, unable to adapt and forever lagging behind exponential technological progress, will continue to struggle. […] The diluvial nature of modern media leaves us little time to pause. The challenge, then, is to cultivate the patience and the discipline necessary to engage more deeply than the modern world allows. Just because we are flooded doesn’t mean we have to drown.”
“If depression is a foul miasma wreathing the brain, elegant sadness is more like a peacock’s tail, coloured in blue-gentian and rich marine greens. Is it also universal? To this question, anthropology offers no definitive answer. Yet the condition certainly manifests itself in a suggestive array of cultures. It is the sadness to which the Japanese phrase mono no aware gestures (物の哀れ, literally ‘the beautiful sorrow of things’). It is the haunted simplicity of those musical traditions that spread from Africa into the New World as the Blues. It’s the mixture of strength, energy, pity and melancholy that Claude Lévi-Strauss found in Brazil, encapsulated in the title of his book about his travels there Tristes Tropiques (1955). It’s the insight of Vergil’s Aeneas, as he looks back over his troubled life and forward to troubles yet to some: sunt lacrimae rerum; there are tears in everything, said not mournfully nor hopelessly but as a paradoxical statement about the beauty of the world (Aeneid 1:462).”
“It would be possible, of course, to construct a ‘cost benefit analysis’ of the sorts of sadness I am describing here. We might suggest that it is a signal that the individual in question has the strength, leisure and sensitivity to indulge in being sad. Saying so invokes what evolutionary scientists call ‘the handicap principle,’ a hypothesis first framed by the Israeli evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi in 1975. The idea is that extravagant traits such as the highland deer’s massive antlers or the peacock’s tail are useful because they are so ostentatiously expensive, manifestly inconveniencing the owner. They are a way of saying: I’m so strong, my genes are so desirable, that I can afford to schlep about with this manifest — and, by the way, beautiful — disadvantage attached to my body.
Sadness, according to this model, is a kind of conspicuous consumption. It takes more muscles to frown than smile, and maybe that’s the point. It signals ones capacity to squander a resource precisely by squandering it. Any fool can live and be happy. It takes greater strength to live and be sad.
All the same, this analysis loses the most important aspect of this emotion; not that it costs, but that it is beautiful. Happy can be pretty, but some species of sad have access to beauties that happy can never know.”
Captured across two series, entitled ‘Mind over matter’ and ‘Kindred spirits,’ the interdisciplinary artist Suzanne Jongmans recycles packaging materials to create elaborate Renaissance costumes. She uses these materials as a reaction to the present and the mass consumption that surrounds us. “Most people throw away foam rubber, but like a child I see a diamond in the rough,” she explains.
Jongmans recently captured Pierpaolo Piccioli’s collection for Moncler. “The images were similarly reminiscent of works by flemish masters like Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin with both bodies of work depicting what appear to be fragile scenes of renaissance life. It’s as though the artist has changed history by time travel, revisiting and reworking actual moments to create an alternate, almost humorous adaptation. And whilst there is a light theatricality to her images there is also a serious reflection on the mass disposal of materials in stark contrast to an age that made clothes to last, with an appreciation for fine silks and lace.”
“Because many policymakers and corporations — and we as individuals — tend to make a decision based on ‘How will this affect me now, affect the next shareholders meeting, the next political campaign?’ rather than ‘How will this affect future generations?’ Mother nature is being destroyed at an ever-faster rate for the sake of short-term gain. This, along with our horrifying population growth, poverty — causing people to destroy the environment simply to try to make a living, and the unsustainable lifestyles of the rest of us who have way more than we need, is the root cause of all the planet’s woes.” — Jane Goodall in The most intellectual creature to ever walk Earth is destroying its only home