“What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others: this confidence accompanies even the most solitary and powerless thought” (1)
”the business of thinking is like Penelope’s web ; it undoes every morning what it has finished the night before. For the need to think can never be stilled by allegedly definite insights of wise men; it can be satisfied only through thinking” (2)
So it is precisely the futility & inconclusiveness of thinking which keeps us all thinking? But it wasn’t this tantalizing paradox that made me underline that first sentence – rather I was moved by the bestowing of confidence upon a "solitary & powerless thought".
And then cheered by the silent echo of the Penelope quote. (As if all those half forgotten thought fragments, floating about in my head , do make sense & might be woven into a web, one day).
Pensiveness did not yet surrender during the drive from Newark airport to NYC – a ghastly drive, through a grim industrial wasteland, in a battered cab with the radio tuned in to the Family Bible Radio Station.
But from the moment the beaming driver (whom I had over-tipped out of sheer relief to have safely arrived) pressed upon me a card with airwave and web coordinates of said Bible Station, my mind was forcibly switched into act/react mode.
I stumbled out of the cab into the revolving doors of the hotel – and was then efficiently processed through check-in via elevator into hotel-room - beamed up by colleagues, and out of hotel again into cab into traffic into tunnel onto business meeting out of meeting back to hotel out of hotel, hitting the crowded streets, plunging into ravines of flashing neon lights, eating in noisy restaurant - enthusiastically babbling with equally enthusiastically babbling & chattering waiters & colleagues & business acquaintances.
“ I hardly listened to that chatter [..] it didn’t give any food to the sort of musings I love […] the babbling would have needed to be very exciting indeed to revive my inner life during these mundane hours, hours during which I merely lived on the surface of my skin [...]” (2)
And thus each day speeded by – any reflective & pensive urges instantly evaporating in the day's whizz – seldom have I been swept along in such incessant stream of action & chatter & movement. Even during in-between moments spent alone in elevators, corridors and cabs, one is not left to one’s lonely wandering mind: beaming chattering people & lively colored images flash by on omnipresent little video screens (visual muzak).
Sleep-deprivation can induce a state of elation and manic energy. Perhaps that also goes for deprivation of reflection, a deprivation which brings on a state of innocent energy & verve & vigor. And is perhaps the key to materialist success.
The trick is just to keep moving. Never stand still – never look back – think ahead – plot purposefully – go for more. Work two jobs (like that taxi-driver, 8 hours as care giver at a nursing home and 7 hours as a taxi-driver). Or work at day and study at night (like that amazingly efficient secretary, scheduling and organizing at day, studying interior design at night). Go for it, found your own company and make billions (and keep working way beyond retirement age and get yourself a satellite connection on your yacht to control business at home while you’re sailing the Mediterranean (3) ).
It’s that heroic materialist dash that pulses everywhere – that drives New York on and upwards . And one feels both attracted and repulsed by it. Or rather, humbled, yes, perhaps I felt humbled (even humiliated?) by this triumph of vigor and verve – which is a complete refutation of what I stubbornly value: contemplation, pensiveness, reflective thinking. So, shall I convert? Shall I definitively trade in ponderous reflections for this irrepressible materialistic zest? Trade in contemplation for jolts & flashes & an incessant stream of impressions? (4)
After all, perhaps this is what humans are really wired for – the elation and concentration of the hunt, which has now evolved into this global economic video game. A game which keeps us all alert and active (and out of melancholia’s grasp...?).
So though I cannot but humbly admit the victory of materialistic verve & vigor – though medical science touts the beneficial effects of constant company & superficial social contacts as opposed to the morbid effects of lonely musing – though the material, tangible results of enlightened economic purposefulness are everywhere - though naïve philosophical ruminations & dreamy wanderings & a dilettante infatuation with art have gone completely out of social favor – still I willfully seek solitude to indulge in these useless pursuits.
And a measure of solitude can be found (even while trapped in a NY business trip), very early in the morning, when streets are not yet bustling, when waiters in diners are not yet vigorously obsequious (5) , when a few lines can be read in a clandestine book (6) .
Like in that friendly, engagingly shabby deli off Broadway, with the many steaming pots and pans waiting to feed famished commuters – with personnel still sleepy behind the counters – with its formica tables and chairs, yes there one did not feel out of place sitting alone at a table, behind a mug of tea, with a book. Or venturing into Central Park, enveloped in a morning haze – surrounded by silent skyscrapers, some stemming still from an era of weathered building materials which soothe the eye instead of rebuking it with flashy reflections.
The city never sleeps of course, so perhaps it’s indeed only at dawn that for a very brief while its pace slows down a bit – to prepare the leap from nocturnal frenzy into daylight activity.
And yet, the irony of this dazed NYC trip was, that in the end it did furnish me with unexpected insights into the nature of contemplation …. and made me understand my incongruous love for a 17th Century French painter of luminous Arcadian visions with an ominous twist (7).
Maybe those insights were gathered, precisely thanks to my sensory exhaustion and thanks to my woefully missing out (no time no time) on an exhibition of Poussin landscape pictures in the Metropolitan Museum . So in the plane back, seated next to a woman nervously zapping from canal to canal on the entertainment-system, and accompanied by the strident cries of an exhausted baby some rows further, I sought & found comfort in an illustrated review of the missed exhibit, “Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions”. (8)
Coda: Arcadian Visions on the Plane
First I let my eyes linger on a reproduction of a delicious, tranquil landscape, bathed in a limpid morning light grazing the treetops and the roofs of an antique city glimpsed very far off in a hazy distance. A pretty and orderly landscape – a sight for sore eyes – such a relief, this stillness . …. .
But looking on, there’s more than prettiness there. It’s a landscape with grave monuments (9) and with a woman gathering the ashes of her killed husband. The gravity of history is there. Reminders of evil and suffering are there. This is an image that demands slowly unfolding attention, emotional engagement, full concentration.
And reading on, the author of the article tells me why these paintings are so fascinating and moving. Not merely because of their classical erudition (Poussin is no dull pedant) – not merely because of their formally abstract perfection. But rather because of Poussin’s “focus on the varieties of longing and dreaming”, because he painted “images of heavenly beauty out of disgust for the malignity of our times”.
These paintings were painted out of a yearning, the same yearning for repose and beauty as they quell in the viewer.
“they were meant in part to be places of mental repose, images to dwell on, and to dwell in, at least for a while. […] Longing is experienced in the very space of the painting, as the viewer rapt in concentration and full of yearning and expectation, travels mentally further and further into the picture. […]
Nonetheless, Poussin’s late landscapes rarely depict visions of a simple paradise; many contain reminders of evil, suffering and death” . (10)
So they are paintings inviting contemplation – so very different from the superficial jolts and flashes one is bombarded with in a city – so very different from say, even impressionist paintings. (11)
They are paintings offering relief, at least for a while, from the unrelenting stress of the inexorably sequential, implacably moving forward pace of life.
(1) "Heroic Materialism" is the title Kenneth Clark gave to the chapter dedicated to the 19th century in his book about western civilization throughout the ages. The chapter opens with an evocation of Manhattan Island. And then he writes about this ‘vision’: “It’s godless, it’s brutal, it’s violent – but […] in the energy, strength of will and mental grasp that have gone to make New York, materialism has transcended itself”
(2) « J’écoutais à peine ces histoires […] elles ne fournissaient aucun aliment aux rêveries que j’aimais […] il les eût fallu d’une qualité bien excitante pour que ma vie intérieure pût se réveiller durant ces heures mondaines où j’habitais mon épiderme, […] c’est-à-dire où je ne pouvais rien éprouver de ce qui était pour moi dans la vie le plaisir » Proust - Le côté de Guermantes
(3) real life testimonies gathered during this trip
(4) L’ Allegro versus Il Penseroso?
(5) I certainly appreciate courtesy and friendliness in waiters – but I hate the idea of buying human kindness. I feel embarrassed by the thought anyone would have to be friendly and smiling just to earn their tip. Though some do turn ‘subservience’ into an ironic art – the way that waitress in the fashionable restaurant danced around the table & smiled & cajoled & flirted with the male guests …. and all that with a dash of mockery …. Yep, hers truly was a first rate performance.
(6) To be exact: I managed to read four (4) non-business-related pages in five days.
(7) Poussin - French classicizing painter – one of his famous paintings “Et in Arcadia Ego” shows some shepherds and a wise woman musing over a tomb in an idyllic landscape (the mythical Arcadia) suffused with smoldering limpid light – The beauty of the landscape contrasts with the wistful, musing air of the figures, and with the title … “Also in paradise, death is present”
(8) April 17th issue of the NYRB – Andrew Butterfield : “The Magical Painting of Poussin”
(9) William Hazlitt as quoted by AB: “with the gravity of history stamped on the proud monuments of vanished empire”
(10) AB in NYRB
(11) AB : “since the triumph of Impressionism we have lost the habit of taking time to study paintings. […]” Much as I am susceptible to Impressionism’s charming delights, it is true that they merely skirt the surface and resist contemplation.
the triumph of verticality & flashing neon lights
there’s elation in superficiality (far less exhausting than reflection or sounding the depths)
the incessant drone of the plane-engines still ringing in my ears
Reading Proust is of course a pilgrimage as such – and surely his soul lingers rather sous une haie d’aubépines (under a hawthorn hedge) than in a cemetery.