Nanette Fabray, the legendary American television actress, singer, comedienne, and advocate for the hearing impaired, has died at the age of 97. Fifty years ago last month, she (and The Carol Burnett Show) provided just over two minutes of the most amazingly quiet and mesmerizing programming in the history of American broadcast television. These two minutes also reinforced what a truly talented singer and performer she was. I’m honestly surprised that CBS allowed this mini-oasis of meditative quietness to briefly inhabit the airwaves during the bombastic TV era of the late 1960s. Notice just how strikingly calm and silent people’s television sets got for 136 seconds as Fabray sang and signed a certain song.
From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, I kept a longhand journal. It was where I learned the sound of my own inner voice and the rhythm of my own thoughts, and where I gained a more conscious awareness and understanding of the ideas, subjects, emotions, and themes that are, through sheer force of gravitational passion, my given subject matter as a writer and human being.
This writing discipline, which was powered by a combination of conscious will and involuntary compulsion (so deeply intermixed that I could never fully figure out where the one left off and the other began), began to alter itself spontaneously with my plunge into Internet culture circa 1995. To condense a very long story to a single sentence, almost from the very minute I entered the Internet fray, my desire to write by hand began to dwindle until it almost disappeared — but it remains something that I deliberately return to from time to time for inner recalibration and recentering, and I invariably find it so full of beneficial, soul-healing effects that I wonder every time why I ever abandoned it to begin with.
Now comes digital culture commentator Tom Chatfield, writing in City Journal about information age anxiety and the danger that we will be utterly swallowed by the vortex of digital noise and distraction that we have created. And he talks cogently about this very issue: the relationship between, and in fact the conflict between, the clear-souled act of writing by hand and the swirl of digital noise and distraction that otherwise cocoons us:
I have noticed, for example, that I think and feel differently depending on whether my cell phone is switched on or off. The knowledge that I am potentially contactable subtly alters the texture of my time. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 67 percent of American adults have experienced “phantom” rings, thinking that their phones are vibrating or ringing when they aren’t. I now try to build some uncontactable time into each of my days — not because I fear technology but because feeling able to say no as well as yes helps me take ownership of my decisions. Without boundaries, without friction, value slips away.
I sometimes write in longhand simply to re-create some of this friction. When I write with a pen on paper, words flow with the sense that they exist just half a sentence ahead of the nib. The mechanical slowness of writing helps me feel words as objects as well as ideas, with a synesthetic pleasure in their arrival. Composing into a physical notebook helps writing and reverie mix, often unexpectedly: sentences and phrases arrive out of the blue. Pens and paper are themselves simply the technologies of another era. There’s no magic in them, no fetish to worship. It is the experiences they enable — not what they are in themselves — that I value, alongside the gifts of more recent innovations.
Yet I struggle to live up to my own plan. I check my e-mail too often. I ache for the tiny endorsement of a retweet. I panic at an hour’s loss of cell-phone reception. I entrust ever more of my life and library to third parties, from Amazon to Apple, whose “ecosystems” seem to absorb me.
Where is the still point of the turning world where I might stand, understand, and take back control?
— Tom Chatfield, “Anxious in the Information Age,” City Journal 23.3 (Summer 2013)
I can tell you that my own experience parallels that of Mr. Chatfield with uncanny precision. Perhaps yours does as well.
Relatedly, I encourage you to go and read Mitch Horowitz’s recent article about taking a “massive leap forward in your writing through one simple exercise.” And what is that exercise? It’s very simple, and also simply revolutionary, says Mitch:
First, identify a piece of critical writing that you admire — perhaps an essay, article or review — but above all, something that captures the vitality and discretion that you would like to bring to the page. Then, recopy it by hand.
In the action of copying the piece by hand — not typing on a computer or tablet — you will discover the innards and guts of what the writer is doing. Writing by hand, with pen and paper, compels you to become mentally and even physically involved in picking apart the work. You will gain a new perspective on how the writer says things, how he deploys evidence and examples, and how his sentences are designed to introduce details or withhold them for later.
— Mitch Horowitz, “How to Take a Massive Leap Forward in Your Writing through One Simple Exercise,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2013
Mitch goes on to describe how his hand-copying of an article by Jack Curry in The New York Times “reinvigorated my own passion for writing — and led me to focus on metaphysical history, which resulted in my two recent books: Occult America (Bantam, 2009) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, Jan 2014).”
Again, my own experience parallels what’s described here, because I myself have gotten enormous authorial mileage from copying down by hand the work of other writers.
And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I’ve got to log off, pick up a pen, and spend some time blackening a few pages in the notebook (as in, a bound stack of real paper pages, not a petite laptop computer) that awaits my real-world attention. But before I do, if any of this speaks to you, then I suppose the upshot is obvious: go thou and do likewise.
In this article — which is the first installment of a four-part piece — he combines all of these interests to present a reflection and meditation on an often overlooked aspect of cosmic creation and destruction.
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In mythic tales, the world often comes into being by noise. For example, in Enuma Elish, the Babylonian Genesis, the younger gods, begat by Apsû and his wife Tiâmat, engage in an incessant racket, and Apsû complains:
Their way has become painful to me,
By day I cannot rest, by night I cannot sleep;
I will destroy them and put an end to their way,
That silence be established, and then let us sleep!
The resulting war among the gods results in the creation of the world order that we know today, as the younger gods defeat their parents and use the dismembered corpse of Tiâmat to create the cosmos and the blood of Apsû to create the human race.
Other “noisy” creation stories include the Ancient Vedic traditions, where the world comes into being by the boom and quake of a “Great Breath,” and the apocryphal “Eighth Book of Moses” (also known as the “Holy Book of Moses” or “Hidden Sacred Book of Moses”), written by a Hellenistic Egyptian Jew and teaching that there have been seven “laughs” of God that created the forces in the universe. Obviously, the idea of noise at the world’s origin is one with a long, and in fact an ancient, pedigree.
If we think about the matter long enough, it gives rise to an obvious question: if the world as we know it came into being because of noise, then will it end with noise as well? And when that end arrives, what exactly will be the sound that accompanies the collapse? Will it be music? Will it merely be some tacky, meaningless noise in the background? Will it be a dramatic, crashing wall of inconceivable resonance?
Let me quote from Stuart Sim’s Manifesto for Silence:
Noise, noise everywhere indeed, as the headline had it: above the earth, below the sea. No doubt one day science will be able to determine if there are any significant effects on wildlife from such pollution, but whether anything can be done about it by that stage is another question entirely. There are such things as “tipping points,” as we are beginning to realize very belatedly with the phenomenon of global warming: damage cannot always be repaired, nor processes reversed. (pp. 28-29)
So the question becomes not just whether the world will end in noise but whether noise itself might bring about the end of the world. Have we already crossed the point of no return? Could the accumulation of noise become one of the causes of the downfall of our civilization? Read the rest of this entry
“[T]he internet seizes our attention only to scatter it. We are immersed because there’s a constant barrage of stimuli coming at us and we seem to be very much seduced by that kind of constantly changing patterns of visual and auditorial stimuli. When we become immersed in our gadgets, we are immersed in a series of distractions rather than a sustained, focused type of thinking … There are messages coming at us through email, instant messenger, SMS, tweets etc. We are distracted by everything on the page, the various windows, the many applications running. You have to see the entire picture of how we are being stimulated. If you compare that to the placidity of a printed page, it doesn’t take long to notice that the experience of taking information from a printed page is not only different but almost the opposite from taking in information from a network-connected screen. With a page, you are shielded from distraction. We underestimate how the page encourages focused thinking — which I don’t think is normal for human beings — whereas the screen indulges our desire to be constantly distracted.”
— “Information and Contemplative Thought: We Turn Ourselves into Media Creations,” Interview with Nicholas Carr, The European, January 31, 2012
“Has it really come to this? In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight. Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen. Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago. Even Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers … [T]he average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen … The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day … We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say … The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual.”
— Pico Iyer, “The Joy of Quiet,” The New York Times, December 29, 2011
“I am encouraged by services such as Instapaper, Readability or Freedom — applications that are designed to make us more attentive when using the internet. It is a good sign because it shows that some people are concerned about this and sense that they are no longer in control of their attention. Of course there’s an irony in looking for solutions in the same technology that keeps us distracted.”
— Carr, “Information and Contemplative Thought” Read the rest of this entry
It is said that we live in an age of light, but it would be truer to say that we are living in an age of twilight; here and there a luminous ray pierces through the mists of darkness, but does not light to full clearness either our reason or our hearts. Men are not of one mind, scientists dispute, and where there is discord truth is not yet apprehended.
– From The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary, by Karl von Eckhartshausen
What is it about the pursuit of truth that leads to so many conflicts? Eckhartshausen was writing in the late 18th century, and yet his statement reads no less true after 300-some years of “progress.”
An opinionated conflict rages today as it did during the Enlightenment — highlighted in many public disputes, provoked by writers such as Richard Dawkins — over trivial matters that have already been settled and problems that have already been overcome by leading thinkers across the history of intellectual endeavor. Yet, at heart, anyone who honestly applies to a study of existence, including even Dawkins himself, cannot help being seduced beyond conflict by the beauty of life.
Jerry L. Martin, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, posted a quote from Richard Dawkins on his Facebook page that draws out this truth:
There’s poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.
To this Martin added a simple, appended question:
Is he right?
And I have to respond: certainly. Science is one of the most direct, beautiful, and complete means of accessing the glory of existence, a raw and unequaled poetry! However, this assertion comes with the caveat that it only true when viewed through a proper interpretation. Read the rest of this entry