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9/19/07


Mind Shadows      We Neglect Recluses At Our Peril: Proust, Thoreau, & St Jerome in The Desert

In his prolonged solitude Marcel Proust created a new aesthetic out of tea biscuits, stewed chicken, twinges of jealousy, and found in that shadow world the most authentic thing about himself. Even in his Yankee pragmatism, Henry David Thoreau said “I have been thrilled to think that I owed a mental perception to the commonly gross sense of taste, that I have been inspired through the palate, that some berries which I had eaten on a hill-side had fed my genius.” Both men point the way to a time-honored mode of valuing, an inner sense of direction, a regard for the liberating effect of hermitic introspection. This perspective does not come easily as the innerness is revealed only to those ready for it. Isolation has little public appeal, even as a television series. Imagine, though, that this were not the case. Suppose that it become wildly popular, that they introduce a new, introspective fashion. Imagine for a moment two Advertising Age headlines about a different kind of TV series:

  • Proust Tops Arbitron For Five Months!
  • Sponsors Compete For Space On Prime Time Walden!

    Of course both headlines are preposterous and will appear on the same day China becomes the 51st state. Their very absurdity reveals the distance between real public figures and isolatos the likes of Proust and Thoreau. If you wish to know a nation, said Thomas Carlyle, look to its heros. While standing at the checkout counter, glance at the tabloids and the magazines and you will confirm Carlyle's words.

    The deliberate recluse has no consumer appeal. Toy stores sell no anchorite dolls. Television sit-com writers cannot devise humorous plots around St Jerome in the Calcis Desert. A book on Bodhidharma in a cave makes for a boring read unless one has mystical inclinations. The public has little taste for weirdos, unless they be hugely muscled bionic action heros wielding laser guns against cops in the way. Perhaps this is because the recluse is the public divested of its consensus. He is the mirror to be shunned. He is not a laugh from a sitcom joke, an erotic twinge from an underwear ad, a rush of adrenalin with a video game. But he is James Joyce's HCE, a Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, a Here Comes Everybody, alone in the world’s dream. He is each of us during REM sleep, far from our freeways, our TVs, our offices and without the faces we put on to greet the faces we meet. He confronts what people encounter only in slumber-- isolation, despair, and fear.

    "We are such things as dreams are made on," said Shakespeare's Prospero, and "our little lives are rounded with a sleep." Sleepwalkers, yes: Freud revealed its own unconscious to the world and despite this revelation people are no happier today as they catch double-entendres on TV sit-coms or approve some senator's thought-saving idea, and they then switch channels to learn of the latest urban rape or the newest Hollywood divorce, until finally they go to bed to arise and begin the next day. Caught up in a world of comings and goings, blind habit, job concerns, parental duties, economic downturns, and war threats, they do what they think they must. They start anew in the cycle described by W.H. Auden: They will be true to the wife. They will concentrate more on their work. ("September 1, 1939") In another poem Auden asks of "[Were they] free? [Were they] happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard" ("The Unknown Citizen"). They may feel isolated, in despair, and fearful, but certainly if something is wrong ten easy steps are at hand.

    Of such emotions popular wisdom says, Isolated? Then make friends. Despairing? Find a hobby. Afraid? Share it with your spouse. The deliberate recluse does not find acceptable advice here. Like Thoreau, this kind of recluse faces only the essential facts of life so that, before dying, he does not discover he has not lived. If life be mean he would “get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world,” or, be it sublime, “to know it by experience.” (Walden) This is not counsel found in the Sunday newspaper supplement.

    The public views the deliberate recluse askance. He abdicates their responsibility–the 9 to 5 drudgery, the hours in traffic jams, the children, the noise, the worries. He is seen as what society becomes after things fall apart–self-concerned, selfish, and escapist. He is a Ted Kazinsky alone in a cabin, using the US Postal Service to terrorize those in positions of responsibility. He is against all stability, this recluse, and threatens the American way of life. It is not nice to ignore Mother Culture.

    I am not an isolato. I like people, enjoy being around them, value community. My life has seen a career, wife, and fatherhood. I just see in solitude, deliberate, pensive solitude, a filter for the insanity of the modern world in which Hype is King. People have lost their way. John and Jane have become parrots of the public mind. They do not think to question the idiocy that prevails as received wisdom. Can diet increase intelligence? Are birds smarter than people? Is global warming a fraud? There have always been John's and Jane's; it's just that so many of them have been shaped by our brave new world of information.

    As for me, I think of our media in terms of signal and noise. There is so much static we have to listen closely for the signal.

    Before electronics, Thoreau knew well about signal and noise, well before the terms were coined. He wrote of the man who, upon waking from a nap, asked " 'What's the news?' " This, for Thoreau was a desire for noise. He found more noise in the news hyping "one man robbed, or murdered or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter." As for signal, it is this. Thoreau tells us that if we read one such event, "we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care of a myriad of instances and applications?"

    Thoreau was after real signals. He went to the woods to "live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

    Most people go through their days attuned to the noise, mistaking it for clues on how to live an authentic life. Sadly, that is a statistical fact, obedient to the laws of probability. Although I have not lived my life as a recluse, down the years these words by Thoreau have remained with me: "I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this" but "only that day dawns to which we are awake."
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