(187): Artlessly Thinking of the Art of Thinking

Is he thinking about something or just sifting images? Image(cropped) by Theodor Esenwein via Flickr. License.

I often find myself suffering from what my yoga teacher calls “monkey mind,” vague flitting images and fleeting thoughts that change with the wind. If one were to ask me at that moment, “What are you thinking about?” I am not sure I could answer. My mind reflects only partially the data taken in by my eyes; for instance, today, as I sat waiting on my husband to get through a doctor’s appointment, I was assaulted by sounds, intrusive conversations, visual information, the television, noticing here and there the young twenty-something with blonde dreadlocks, a young mother with babe in one arm and bright green hair, an awkward looking middle aged professional that looked like he should’ve been the doctor but sat in the midst of a milling throng of penitents waiting for their audience before the great gods of Oral Surgery, HGTV playing in the corner, tearing out a “fixer upper” while a horse giving birth acts as a subplot, the sudden thought that I was in agony, then remembering that I had forgotten to take my pain pills, traveling out to the car without getting hit by the incoming traffic, noticing a sloppy man whose underwear are pulled up over his belt line reading the placard opposite the suite into which I returned….

And all this while trying and putting down and trying again to read a small paperback entitled The Art of Thinking, written long, long ago by a French priest named Ernest Dimnet. Characteristically, he also addressed in his introduction the tendency of people to do this: not to settle on a particular line of thought but to follow the images, the momentary distractions, all of it, and the hypothetical man on the street to whom Mr. Dimnet had asked his hypothetical question could not answer, for there was no one thing he could settle on to give for an answer.

I found my situation oddly appropriate to the book I was attempting to read and not really managing to get very far into. It was written in 1928, the better part of a hundred years ago. I wondered at how he gave Mussolini pride of place in his role call of great thinkers. Perhaps it is because he did not have the benefit of hindsight, for the tinder of Mussolini did not yet have the spark of Hitler to throw the world into chaos. How very much like an 18th century philosophe he sounds, his salon regulars attempting to predict how the Russian Revolution would play out by comparing it to the fall of Louis XVI and the French Revolution of 1789. There he hinted at more insight, as 1917 was in the past (but I believe this was a recounting of conversations engaged in as the Russian Revolution was taking place — he lived in France until after The Great War (World War I to most of us) and then emigrated to the US).

But all this was by way of introduction; I didn’t get that far into the book before my husband sauntered out of one of the two blank doors through which pass the seekers of health. The trip home took far too long, almost 2 hours, even though there was barely 50 miles to go (heavy rain and unfamiliar routes); I get sick if I read in the car, so, as I said, I didn’t get that far. But I suppose it is worth digging out of my backpack and putting by the bed for later finishing.

I often have a very hard time figuring out what I’m going to write about from day to day. I’ve made that promise to myself (and for what it’s worth, I said it out loud to all of you here, so if I miss a day, someone might notice and twit me!) But anyway, any little bit of advice helps, and it being vintage 1928, I think it will bring a fresh (perhaps a breath of the sachet long cloistered in the unused drawer) perspective and maybe more ideas. Stress makes me feel like I haven’t an idea in my head. Especially when that stress lasts for hours upon hours. I am lucky to have this short space in the evening to figure things out.

A final thought about this book: it is one of many that my father-in-law dumped on us awhile back, and it is liberally underlined. I opened the book at random as I made my final preparations for bed this evening, and it opened to a couple of quotes that makes me think that his (my father-in-law’s) life must have been a series of disillusioning moments and life situations.

“Utilitarianism in education is as disastrous to culture as so-called easy methods are to scholarship.”

On the next page:

“…but if education goes over to the enemy and begins to teach commercial methods, the minds, even of the elite, will be invaded by the parasite of utility at all costs, and the power of thinking in terms of beauty will lose in consequence.”

All this knowledge and its consequence as I know it — his life at first teaching high school English, then bowing to the necessity of making a proper living at a manufacturing plant — in this book is a slip of paper with his name and the name of the plant at which he worked. He bowed to utility because he had to support his wife and young son, and teaching English in the dangerous kingdom of Detroit wasn’t working out. His truth had to sacrifice, in some part, the beauty aspect of knowledge and learning in favor of becoming useful. And so it goes for many, many souls on this any other Earths.

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