Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Inward Gaze (Part I), and “My Dinner With Andre”

The position Andre takes in My Dinner with Andre is a despondent one of privilege. He’s so conscious of his despair that it seems a thing of study, a project, and he comes off much like a maudlin Woody Allen character. Wally points this out to Andre, but in the process he becomes almost strident, and defensive, while Andre maintains a cool unflappability. For all of his despair--and outrageous experiences that verge on the implausible--Andre is the one we are meant to perceive as a sage. (Let me just say up front--I have always loved this film.)

The movie has much to say about the evils of capitalism, which, by virtue of its obviousness, you might think yourself crass to not immediately drop everything to go trek into the woods to live. This critique of capitalism is a position I am familiar with, and have found indispensable at certain periods of my youth. Yet seeing how entrenched society is, I have come to resist my old railing against the system in favor of the inward look, the solace of, for lack of a better notion, poetry (not poetry explicitly, but poetics, perhaps, the search for apt words, the struggle to speak, to articulate; this does include poetry, of course).

Brian Eno believes it is all inside of us--by which he means god or the divine, as does Jung (“...who looks inside, awakens.”), and I want to agree. It’s that which I give to myself that grows rich and spends me (Rilke). I don’t know when, or if, I have ever really had to go looking outside of my own passionate engagement with my creativity in search of something, an answer, a cure-all--though I’m sure I’ve made the effort; particularly when it was asked of me. Or expected.

Is the inward gaze an apt countermeasure to the perceived evils of our technologically driven society, or is it akin to apathy? I worry this attitude might be false contentment, or cold comfort: the world is going to pieces while I’m navel gazing. I recall a friend pulling the phrase out (“cold comfort”) in a way that made me think he was a tourist observing his own neurotic tendencies, as he seemed to have a new diagnosis every few weeks or so. This, again, is the privilege of the intellectual, the social commentator, the crank--the Luddite? That’s what I sense from Andre in the movie, that his despair is a pose bundled into a convenient cultural criticism that allows him to be clever, and self-regarding about his diagnosis.

For many of us, I suspect, observation and comment can seem like the only and main comfort. Is this any different than tweeting or sending text messages to cohorts? Is the resort to social media a quick fix--is the careful delineation of thoughts posted for an unknown audience in any way approximate to the inward gaze? Maybe only in terms of one being private, while the latter is public. The use of social media is often only a quick fix. It’s often merely reactionary.

To my own argument I’ll say, my expositions here don’t require the jittery feedback of an immediate response. My work is more on the slow burn of accumulating thought. I’m not looking to deaden my senses; the work I do is to awaken myself to the possibilities inherent in language. I consciously make the choices I do with my time. These activities are, to me, not escapes; of course, I can conjure the voice of an Andre saying, “You do not see them as this, but that’s what they are.”

I consider the plight of Andrew Sullivan, who laments his dependence on technology in a recent New York magazine, and imagine that for him, what he complains about is actually his bliss: his mind being sapped for a constant hit of dopamine. How is my presumptive bliss--this, writing, reading--any different? Isn’t the loss of our mind to a fictional world for hours at a time no less of a concern?

I think back to Mihaly Csikszentmialyhi’s essential book, Flow, which first established for me the importance of maintaining that inward gaze. There’s a popular class at Stanford, and now a book (Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life), in which the authors have utilized these concepts to help people figure out their true calling in life. Frequently, I try and fail to find flow in my work, but I’m not going to trade in the search to follow some daily stream of nonsense on a screen. I don’t have a smartphone to keep myself entertained. (Not to seem too virtuous, but I do have periods of my youth spent at mindless screens (video games), and later, mini-web rabbit hole searches; but I always resurfaced, and never stayed with these activities for long). Maybe this is the key to flow: ultimately, I find my own creative process more stimulating and satisfying than the soporific feed of the web.

I’m aware of how lucky I am. Maybe my concern be more of a concern for my fellow men, who may not have the same wherewithal. I tend to presume that everyone has enough self-restraint to wise up and take care of themselves to put their devices away when the muse beckons; I can’t complain about a lack of willpower.

In My Dinner With Andre, Wally reckons with the panic that he can’t still his mind--this film was made in 1982, long before we became immersed in the web 24-7, so this is prescient--and for a lot of technology junkies, a moment of quiet within one’s own mind is a difficult breach, possibly far more dreadful than anything imaginable. I believe I know this fear, also, but if anything have learned how to turn it into a tool for my writing; indeed, I think it’s the only way writing gets done.

What if this condition of the unquiet mind is as rampant as it seems to be, or we are led to believe? I sometimes suspect it is far worse than I can imagine; that the mass of men (and women) really do live lives of quiet desperation. Maybe this is the present form of quiet desperation: the immersion of our devices, another app. Is this why it can seem that people turn to technology for the next quick fix, much the way Andre goes hopping among pseudo mystical retreats in search of an answer?

I try not to imagine a bleak technological future, and maybe I’ve convinced myself that I remain at a safe, self-imposed remove. I neither feel a need to shout among the train riders engrossed in their devices, nor do I salivate for the next gadget.