It seems that western civilization floats on a sea of violence and amusement. Best sellers come to mind. Sports. Anything with a screen. We want spectacle. We want to be entertained. We want to be amused. We want to consume and to be consumed. Or maybe we just want to be distracted. The opposite of engaging the imagination. The opposite of looking inward.
Which brings to mind an iconic display of amusement back in 2004 during the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner as George W. Bush looked under furniture in the Oval Office: “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere,” he said and the audience laughed. After a few more slides, there was a shot of him looking under furniture in the Oval Office. “Nope,” he said. “No weapons over there.” More laughter. Then another picture of him searching in his office: “Maybe under here.” Laughter again. He was joking about the missing weapons of mass destruction. He was making fun of the reason he had cited for sending Americans to war and to death, turning it into a running gag. His smile was wide and his eyes seemed bright, as the audience laughed.
Violence and amusement. It has to do with a lifetime of desensitization in a world of atrocities. It has to do with affluence and entitlement which removes the observer from the observed. When consumers are bombarded with empty phrases enough times (“war on terror” and “weapons of mass destruction” or whatever memes du jour) the consumers become zombified. It’s the artist’s job to un-zombify human beings. It’s the artist’s job to un-do what those who prostitute the language have done if we are to continue to tell the human story. If we are to continue to feel anything. If we are to ever become human again.
I plow through countless rows of shelves in bookshops with shiny covers designed to catch my eye. The words jump on the page. I myself can hardly sit still. My brain and body seethe with electric restlessness. Focus is a thing for scopes–micro and tele–and lenses. I call it ADD. My high school teachers only had one thing to say about my academic work: “Doesn’t work to potential,” which is the polite way of saying I was lazy. I was a C student. My inability to focus makes it that much more difficult to Velcro my seat to the chair and write until I’ve accumulated enough pages to matter. As George Saunders says, “Most of what our mind creates is banal. Most of what any mind creates is going to be the same as other minds create.”
On top of that, as I’ve written elsewhere, I’m also the slowest reader on earth. Around one this morning I finally finished reading Flann O’Brien’s small volume The Third Policeman, one of the funniest and most human books I’ve ever read. It made me laugh, but it also made me think. The protagonist’s experience is, I think, similar to writing fiction: “Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular and by nature it is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearable.”
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here, but it doesn’t have to do with being a snob. Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have time to read best sellers. I barely have time to read once-through all the great books on my list of “To Reads.” So I have to be selective. Why not? At Goodwill best sellers cost the same as books that “wear.” As for writing, it takes weeks, months, years of revisions, of slow cooking, of questioning the Self, in order to write what “wears.”
As Primus St. John wrote:
I believe in myself slowly
It takes all of the doubt I’ve got
It takes my wonder.