The Preoccupied Mind



Fast                    -                    Slow
Shallow              -                    Deep




Emerson's “work and live” keeps us from scaling up; from indulging in the kind of “low curiosity” - the “culture of criticism” - that precipitates technological and cultural change.

There is a tendency, seen in Marx, to think of work as a drudgery that ultimately should be overcome, but this fails to differentiate between the alienated wage-slavery of large scale society and the more integrated and meaningful notion of work that prevailed in bygone, simpler cultures.




It is the mind which is tranquil and free from care which can roam through all the stages of its life: the minds of the preoccupied, as if harnessed in a yoke, cannot turn round and look behind them.

So their lives vanish into an abyss; and just as it is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind.

And so the preoccupied are concerned only with the present, and it is so short that it cannot be grasped, and even this is stolen from them while they are involved in their many distractions.

[Seneca]
On the Shortness of Life, p.16




Action preserves a sense of self-identity that reflection dispels. When we are at work in the world we have a seeming solidity.

It is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality. It is practical men and women, who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance.

In thinking so highly of work we are aberrant. Few other cultures have ever done so. For nearly all of history and all prehistory, work was an indignity.

... the work and prayer of medieval Christendom were interspersed with festivals. The ancient Greeks sought salvation in philosophy, the Indians in meditation, the Chinese in poetry and the love of nature.

[John Gray]
Straw Dogs, p.194, 195
 



[...] with the new tools of observation that psychoanalysis offers, we can recognize that so-called rational behaviour is largely determined by the character structure. In our discussion of the meaning of work for modern man we have dealt with an illustration of this point.

We saw that the intense desire for unceasing activity was rooted in aloneness and anxiety. 

This compulsion to work differed from the attitude towards work in other cultures, where people worked as much as it was necessary but where they were not driven by additional forces within their own character structure.

Since all normal persons to-day have about the same impulse to work and, furthermore, since this intensity of work is necessary if they want to live at all, one easily overlooks the irrational component in this trait.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.242
 



As this is written, a sow bug crawls across a desk. If he is turned over on his back, one can observe the tremendous struggle that he goes through to get on his feet again. 

During this interval he has a “purpose” in his life. 

When he succeeds, one can almost see the look of victory on his face. Off he goes, and one can imagine him telling his tale at the next meeting of sow bugs, looked up to by the younger generation as an insect who has made it. 

And yet mixed with his smugness is a little disappointment. Now that he has come out on top, life seems aimless.

[Eric Berne]
Games People Play, p.71
 



The East is grateful to the West for progress in medecine and increased life expectancy. These are things everyone appreciates. But on the other side, a civilization oriented almost exclusively toward that form of action on the world clearly lacks something essential that material progress can never bring - indeed, it's not what it's designed to do.

That lack appears clearly in the confusion so many minds are plunged into, in the violence that reigns in the inner cities, in the selfishness that governs so many human relationships, in the sad resignation of all those spending their last years in old people's homes, and in the despair of suicide.

If spiritual values stop being an inspiration for a society, material progress becomes a sort of facade that masks the pointlessness of life.

[Matthieu Ricard]
The Monk and the Philosopher, p.158




Has it been observed to what extent a genuine religious life […] requires external leisure or semi-leisure, I mean leisure with a good conscience, inherited, by blood, which is not altogether unfamiliar with the aristocratic idea that work degrades - that is to say, makes soul and body common? 

And that consequently modern, noisy, time-consuming, proud and stupidly proud industriousness educates and prepares precisely for ‘unbelief' more than anything else does? 

Among those in Germany for example who nowadays live without religion, I find people whose 'free-thinking’ is of differing kinds and origins but above all a majority of those in whom industriousness from generation to generation has extinguished the religious instincts: so that they no longer bare any idea what religions are supposed to be for and as it were merely register their existence in the world with a kind of dumb amazement. 

They feel they are already fully occupied, these worthy people, whether with their businesses or with their pleasures, not to speak of the 'fatherland and the newspapers and ‘family duties’: it seems that they have no time at all left for religion […]

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
Beyond Good and Evil, 58




Tocqueville repeatedly points out how busy Americans are, and he stresses that Americans make themselves busy. They “feel pushed by an irresistible need for action.”

Their activity, he argues, has the character of a flight from something. That something seems to be the contemplation of their own demise.

In America, he remarks, “you feel existence less,” and “you arrive at the great abyss without having had the time to notice the road you followed.”

Leisure becomes viewed as a break from paid work, which is regarded as the serious business of life. With the downgrading of leisure comes the demotion or loss of respect for the intellectual and artistic pursuits that people once used leisure to pursue. 

Americans thus tend to see leisure as a problem to be solved, as time to be filled.  

[Dana Jalbert Stauffer]
‘“The Most Common Sickness of Our Time”: Tocqueville on Democratic Restlessness’, The Review of Politics 80 (2018), p.450, 458
 



Whereas in volume 1 [Tocqueville] emphasized the efficiency and productivity that resulted from democracy’s unleashing of man’s energies, in volume 2 he points to a different consequence of social and economic mobility: no one has the time or the inclination for “meditation,” the kind of sustained attention that allows for in-depth study of a difficult subject.

[…] when confronted with literary and artistic productions, democratic peoples find it hard even to pay attention. The thought that they ought to be doing something more practical and productive is a constant drain on their focus. Moreover, democratic peoples are always in a hurry. They can give but little time and attention to each thing they pursue. “Habitual inattention,” he reflects, “is the disease of the democratic mind.”

Democratic habits of mind thus discourage people from deriving meaningful experiences from the artistic creations with which they fill up their leisure time. And yet they want to find meaning in them.

Tocqueville notes that, for the most part, Americans live orderly, productive, one might say bourgeois lives. They are practical, prudent, and focused on their work. “It is impossible to imagine anything as insignificant, dull, or encumbered with petty interests - in a word, as antipoetic - as the life of an American.”

Like all people of democracies, when they turn to literature and theater, they want to be transported. They want “deep emotions of the heart”; they long to be moved. But they are ill-equipped to be transported, because they are “impatient in their desires.” They want every moment to be profitable.

“They insist on facile beauties that yield of their own accord and can be enjoyed immediately. ... They have need of intense and rapid emotions, sudden illuminations, and glaring truths or errors to wrench them out of their own lives and plunge them instantly and almost violently into the heart of the subject.”

Needless to say, a certain skepticism about the depth of such experiences is detectible in Tocqueville’s characterization of the democratic experience of art.

[Dana Jalbert Stauffer]
‘“The Most Common Sickness of Our Time”: Tocqueville on Democratic Restlessness’, The Review of Politics 80 (2018), p.458-9




Carlyle's Puritanism discloses itself in the reminder that labor is the human lot; that the age-old dream of paradise, “where the the brooks should run wine, and the trees bend with ready-baked viands,” is an "impossible dream"; that labor alone, necessarily the “interruption of that ease, which man foolishly enough fancies to be his happiness," provides him with such ease as he ever enjoys; and that “what we call Evil” - the “dark, disordered material out of which man's Freewill has to create an edifice of order and Good” - will exist as long as humanity exists.

Work is our lot; and our works, indeed, bring order out of chaos - as long as they are carried out in good faith, with the understanding that the creative power that makes them possible comes to us as a gift of the gods.

In works lovingly and loyally conceived and carried out, we triumph over necessity, though not by surrounding ourselves with technologies that eliminate the need for labor. (Here again, the ideology of progress reveals its kinship with the nostalgic dream of a lost Eden; modern abundance, according to the myth of progress, will eventually relieve us of the need to work.)

Our triumph lies in our ability to transform labor, a necessity, into an act of faith and free will.

The illusion of self-sufficiency […] stands in the way of genuine insight and the heroic actions that issue from it. In the modern world, this illusion finds its characteristic expression in the machines by means of which mankind seeks to liberate itself from toil - that is, from the inescapable constraints of human existence.

The power and majesty of the sovereign creator of life; the inescapability of evil in the form of natural limits on human freedom; the sinfulness of man's rebellion against those limits; the moral value of work, which at once signifies man's submission to necessity and enables him to transcend it - these insights represented the heart of Calvinist theology, along with its analysis of religious experience, the psychology of despair and conversion; and they represented the heart of Carlyle's work as well, or at least of the work that continues to matter.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.238-40




"Work and live," Emerson exhorts his reader; but honest work is hard to come by. The more we need it, the more it eludes us.

An honorable calling, which Emerson regards, in effect, as the everyday form of heroism, helps to reconcile us not merely to everyday disappointments but to the metaphysical terror and pain of existence. We are oppressed by the disparity between our oceanic desires and our satisfactions, which are measured out in "drops"; between our longing for immortality and the certainty of death; between our need to know what will happen to us after death and the impossibility of finding out.

In a faithless age, Emerson seems to suggest, the religious spirit lingers on chiefly in the "low curiosity" that makes us demand definitive answers to everything, or again in the nagging speculation about the "origin of evil” that he compares to mumps, measles, and whooping cough - adolescent diseases to which the "simple mind" is immune.

"The only mode of obtaining an answer to these questions of the senses," Emerson says, "is to forego all low curiosity, and, accepting the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature, work and live, work and live."

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.277



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