Monday, January 24, 2011

The wisdom of self-doubt

Almost the minute I’d opened this new media outlet I was filled with dread and self-doubt.  It was as if a wicked child had beckoned to enter a dangerous playground, even if that wicked child were myself.  The blank page is terrifying because it can be both a void and a mirror.  I may see nothingness, or myself, both potentially disagreeable prospects.  Or what I come up with may be disappointingly ordinary, like the “mere chitchat and common sense” Oliver Goldsmith was disappointed to discover in the words of his Chinese sage in The Citizen of the World.  An open-ended conversation risks going nowhere. If history "has many cunning passages," so does the self, all leading back to the same untended garden.  I become more powerfully aware of the courage as well as, at the time, the originality of Montaigne in making himself the primary subject of his book.  Now that idea is crushingly unoriginal, though obviously there are blogs and blogs.  Bad to use the word, especially twice in succession.  But some are outpourings of sought-out, specialized commentary and wisdom.  Some are immature day-to-day journals, chitchat without the common sense,  read by other adolescents going through the same crises or older people who want to comfort them and enjoy safe nostalgia for their lost youth.  And these plod and then flourish a while and then sputter out as their subject and sole contributor moves on.  

 And so much the better, because a journal that goes on faithfully with the same energy year after year may become ultimately daunting and numbing.   I'm thinking about two pitfalls here, the one of talking excessively and unamusingly about oneself and the other of lacking a specific structure.  So I seem to be embarking on a dangerous and dubious enterprise.  The self-doubt is largely out of fashion in America these days (if it was ever in). I'm not declaring myself indifferent to fashion, just to this one.

Speaking of fashions, there's a move these days among some to say electronic and computer tools are undermining human attention spans and even rewiring our brains to be less capable of carrying out challenging tasks or remembering things.  True, we are become the tools of our tools, as Thoreau said was happening. This could never not have been happening, since the invention of the wheel.  But I don't buy the idea that there are two ways of being, one of deep concentration and lengthy focus on single things and another of flitting about like a butterfly.  The concept of the "attention span" is naive and superficial and seems not to recognize in what complex ways the mind usually works. This seems partly again an American mindset, to think the drugstore clerk can only wait on one customer at a time, while in Cairo he can cheerfully and successfully deal with five at once.  Such head-shaking also seems unfair to women, whose lives have always involved juggling many tasks simultaneously.  But it also fails to recognize the approach of magnates who oversee broad enterprises and must move rapidly from one subject to another all day long. Gianni Agnelli was said to attend a play till he got the idea of it, and then leave.  

Then the argument says that books are dying out (not proven) because they contain long continuous trains of thought contemporary iPad-dissected minds cannot follow.  True, the writing and the reading of a book involve lengthy concentration, but it's not certain that concentration must come or could come all at once.  Finishing Infinite Jest and À la recherche took some focus on my part, but it was a matter of coming back, not sticking in one spot.  Who's to say that people's disjointed conversations, Internet-surfing, and reading aren't all long continuous strings as perceived and reconstituted in their brains, like a book read over a period of weeks or months?

Yes, you can go batty if you're so overstimulated you keep jumping from one thing to another and can't think about anything for long enough to conclude or enjoy it.  But doing several things at once is as natural as chewing gum and skipping rope or painting a picture while listening to jazz; and starting new things and shifting mental gears is good for the brain, and everything else, as long as it doesn't make you have a car crash.  As I said, my life itself is compartmentalized, always has been, bipolar, bisexual, bicoastal, hip and square, shifty and on the run, while also finding time to be in a rut, a variety of ruts.  I used to like the saying, Apprendre une langue, c'est vivre de nouveau.  To learn a language is -- what? -- to live anew?  There's some real doubt if this is actually a French saying, by the way.  French Google doesn't bring it up.  American Google takes you to American college language departments.  A French Canadian friend had never heard it and pointed out the predicate was ambiguous.  The idea to me is that a new language gives you a new start, a new personality, a new voice.  My first French tutor, the charming Breton lady Mlle Annick Soubigou, wrote a little note to my mother telling her that my "French voice" was good.  I hope my French personality was too.  A more pretentious saying is the blasphemous one that, as they say at the University of Dallas, "To learn a foreign language is to acquire a second soul."  A foreign one, no doubt.  I wouldn't go that deep.  I'd be happy just to lose my American accent.  And in fact the greatest compliment I've gotten in speaking foreign languages is that I had an accent but it wasn't identifiably American.   Oliver Sacks says learning new stuff, like a game, a musical instrument, a language, is good for old folks' brains.  Well, yeah.  We kind of didn't need a bestseller-writing British neurologist to tell us that.

My simple point is that switching subjects, spoken languages being a good example, is both a welcome escape from the tyranny of the quotidian and a freshening up of the brain.  Talking about nothing is good too, as is thinking about nothing.  As far as I can tell, thinking about nothing is a good basic definition of the thing they call "meditation."  And we know this lowers the blood pressure, calms the emotions, and perhaps soothes the soul, and if you do it enough and are lucky brings on moments of enlightenment.  Close down your computer and shut your eyes and begin slowly counting your breaths...

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