"I get up, put on coffee and pants, see if I have something to say."
I have never read Padgett Powell, but when I saw this quote of his some years ago, I remembered it. Because it was amusingly put, partly. But also because, as a writer myself, daily polling myself to see whether I had something to say, I found in it a mirror, in which I saw reflected an irksome creature: the modern writer. Its image gave offense to my internal editor -- the sleepless tyrant -- who, when I sit down to write, shrilly admonishes: "do not write as though you are stalling until you think of something to say! Do not be a loquacious bore!" It lashes me with Tocqueville's tongue: “to remain silent is the most useful service that a mediocre speaker can render to the public good.” And it mocks me as Evelyn Waugh mocked his fictional babbler Sebastian: when dear Sebastian speaks it is like a little sphere of soapsud drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, anywhere, full of rainbow light for a second and then - phut! vanished, with nothing left at all, nothing.
The modern condition is a world full of people, writers and talkers all, with nothing to say to one another, all breathlessly writing and talking at each other at once. And here I am, rising each morning, heading off eager to join them.
Neither I nor my internal tyrant will have total victory, so we have reached a pact, whereby I may be allowed write -- the editor's volume turned down, if never on mute -- until I think of something to say -- boring myself even right back to bed if I like -- on condition that I not consider publishing my impressionistic ravings. I have promised to try not to give to the reader, as a vain Alexander to a contented Diogenes, something he does not want by taking away what I cannot replace. There are, without my contributions, quite enough "superfluities as neither accommodate the body nor improve the mind," as Samuel Johnson said of modern writers, whose "wish is not to be studied but to be read." As I say, I've never read Powell, but frequently I feel, after reading the day's "takes" by those straining for something to say, the oily slick of so many burst soapsuds.
In this I am, the more I consider the subject, on to something. Dr. Johnson in fact forecasted Mr. Powell more than a few times. "It is strange that there should be so little reading in the world," he later observed, "and so much writing." And he counted it a vice -- a Frenchman's vice, no less -- to talk needlessly: "A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows any thing of the matter or not; an Englishman is content to say nothing, when he has nothing to say." Writing in the 20th century, Michael Oakeshott identified discrimination and restraint as vital organs to education and culture: “To be educated is to know how much one wishes to know, and to have the courage not to be tempted beyond that limit.” Genuine culture, he held, teaches that “there is much one does not want to know.” The prolific Tom Wolfe showed admirable restraint in slowing his pace eleven long years before publish his second novel, A Man in Full, though by then at age 68 surely he had begun to feel a twinge of urgency.
Searching for practical solutions, Joseph Epstein has wondered what it might take to get some of these people to stop writing. Should they merely name a figure an endowment could be established. The JD Salinger Chair in Keeping It to Yourself, perhaps. An annual awards banquet to recognize Remarkable Achievements in Restraint of Trivial Expression. Don't laugh. Architects stumbled onto this in the 1980s, after a run of historically ugly new buildings. “We used to give prizes to architects for doing buildings," observed Gordon Bunshaft." Now we give prizes to architects for drawing pictures.” It was true: in the wake of the disastrous experiments in worker housing (the visionary Pruitt-Ingoe projects having been put out of their misery in the mid-'70s), the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters awarded the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize for Architecture to Michael Graves ... for his drawings. The buildings, it was clearly implied, won't be necessary.
But such a temptation, for writers, is the internet! Truman Capote chided that Kerouac didn't write so much as he typed, but imagine even asking 21st century man to constrain his broadcast even through the funnel of a keyboard: with podcasts and vidcasts and digital dictation, anyone can publish simply by talking into a smartphone. "Put on coffee and pants," Powell said, and only then see if you have something to say? The piker! Why wait? Just talk at your phone whilst putting on coffee and pants and phut! published: it is the world's problem now. The trivial, Jean-Francois Millet said, gives expression to the sublime. We are all impressionists now. But the "sublime," alas, proved just another loquacious bore.
We are left with the leavings of all these bores, their coffee grounds and half-finished scribblings. Never has there been so much investment into human energy, with so little return. Think of the money spent on coffee every day. The number of hours devoted to writing, all sorts (think of the implications presented just in producing the writer's coffee and pants -- fair trade; rain forests; exploited labor; living wages; inequality; this pretentious blog post; &c). Add in the money invested in academia, with the rise of "academics" producing hyper-specialized books and papers and commentaries of commentaries. Is not the common introvert-writer's gripe against extroverts that they talk even while thinking of something to say? But one who talks at least limits his logorrhea to the spoken word, which biodegrades into the atmosphere and leaves us otherwise in peace. The loquacious writer, meanwhile, foists himself upon bookstores and blogs and internet search results of every sort, where his leavings seem never to disappear. Talkers only bend our ears; writers leave a permanent crease. One ducks out of a party for a moment's respite from extroverts vying for one's attention, only to find some introvert has carved his initials in the urinal.
Is this logorrhea stunting human intellectual development? Just as a thousand monologues do not make a dialogue, a thousand dialogues do not make for a public discourse. We are fractured, and not just in the political sense. Our attention is fractured, yes, but even that is not it. Our worldview is fractured, in that we do not even share a view of what the good life is, and so how are we to have a discourse about how to achieve it? Books, said Francis Bacon, cannot teach the use of books; knowledge must be accommodated to the purpose of life, which can only be known through honest commerce with mankind. One wants always to halt part way into any discussion and say, "but let's back up." Because there is always a sense, a pang of anxiety, that we've overlooked a deeper disagreement on some premise fundamental to carrying on whatever discussion we try to have.
I confess I cannot read a magazine anymore. I cannot follow the threads. I tried the recent issue of The Atlantic. There one may find a story about lice being separated from their hosts, a problem -- the generous reader is asked to grant -- for people who hoped there might be some new interesting facts to learn and report about the parasite-host relationship. I do not know what facts, of factoids, these might be, or what tendency they might have to advance the human project in answering our Big Questions. And perhaps we cannot learn to answer the Big Questions until we relearn how to ask them. But in The Atlantic, a politics and current events magazine, the piece about the parasite-host relationship strikes me as autobiographical of their magazine-reader relationship. Any net reduction in sources for new information -- including stories about parasites being removed from their hosts -- threatens the magazine with being separated from their readers. I am not saying the essay is not important. What I am saying is, I could do without it sucking at my eyeballs.
Think of how much an average politically-engaged person has to read and watch and absorb every day to stay informed. How would you teach a child to work up to your level? Would you even if you could? Don't you feel a sort of coldness, a chilly ickiness, after a day splashing about in those waters? Politics, the saying goes, is upstream of culture. The focus too often is on what's in the water. The fact is a burst dam will drown us before it poisons us.
But surely, you say, there is information we cannot do without? I would not begrudge anyone peeking to learn of any reports of imminent violent death. Or major disruptions in one's livelihood. The interest a farmer pays the news. But unless one is a microbiologist, one does not need to read a lice story about a future decline in lice stories. The reader -- and the writer -- looks out upon an ocean of web content, and asks: How can I consume this? Or: how could I add to this? One can only splash about in the shallows, or drown in the depths. It is not enough even to conclude, in fatalistic fashion, that there is nothing to be added, that it has all been said before. Perhaps it has been said before. But even so, there is the project -- perhaps the much more difficult project -- of giving the content shape and form. It is "not wholly without use to mankind," said Dr. Johnson, "that books are multiplied, and that different authors lay out their labours on the same subject; for there will always be some reason why one should on particular occasions, or to particular persons, be preferable to another; some will be clear where others are obscure, some will please by their stile and others by their method, some by their embellishments and others by their simplicity, some by closeness and others by diffusion."
Before you can learn a fact, you have to have a place to put it. I remember buying my first stereo (right around the end of the era when you could buy record players), I organized my entire room so that the prized shiny black box with lighted screen and impressive buttons and knobs and dials could be displayed with prominence. When we learn a fact, where does it go? Have we any place to put it? How are we to remember it -- what associations do we form? If intelligence is about the relation of ideas, then oughtn't we give some thought to our faculty for relation? Even in the land of flies, a spider without spinnerets starves. Santayana's observation was that ideology helps us bear our ignorance of facts. But the corollary is that ideology might also help us with the bigger problem of selecting, relating, and thus actually understanding facts. An ideology, in other words, helps us tie-break conflicting facts. The public has been provided more facts, and has become more ideological, and this, we are told, is a paradox. It is not a paradox. It is proof of the corollary to Santayana's observation: supply a person with more and more instances of conflicting facts and you have supplied that person with more occasions to rely upon his ideology.
Facts alone are not interesting. We have never in human history had so many facts, and yet, it seems, so little understanding.
So the project begins with learning a system of relation. What makes a fact relevant? Why am I reading this story? Or this news article? The writer wrote the story because it relates to that writer's system of values and meaning: what is the writer's system of values and meaning? Do I share that system? These are questions we never learn to ask. Not in school, God knows. My wife and I, homeschooling our two young children, often look at the mountain of educational resources and sigh in anticipatory exhaustion: how can we hope to climb this mountain? How can we possibly teach our children all of this? But this is precisely the wrong question. Our job is not to carry them up the mountain. Our job is first to show them the mountain. And then wait for them to tell us what part they might like to start climbing. And then help them like crazy to climb, as high as they want to go.
That's one part of education. The other is the system of values and meaning. Otherwise we become susceptible, like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, to the whisper coming from the emptiness, appealing to the emptiness within. "There was something wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. ... the wilderness... echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core…."
Hollowness begins with the inability to relate -- to relate facts into a system of beliefs, and to relate beliefs to a sense of meaning. "Orwell feared," wrote Neil Postman, "that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance." Irrelevance, and in, the lack of relation. The destruction of knowledge of the individual's relation to the world, to the beyond. That is the fate to be feared; it is the fate to be avoided at all costs; and yet it is the fate we are rushing toward with reckless abandon.