Friday, August 29, 2008

Bernstein and Silence

Discussed one Berstein quotation earlier in the week, but this one really gets me.

"Stillness is our most intense mode of action. It is in our moments of deep quiet that is born every idea, emotion, and drive which we eventually honor with the name of action. Our most emotionally active life is lived in our dreams, and our cells renew themselves most industriously in sleep. We reach highest in meditation, and farthest in prayer. In stillness every human being is great; he is free from the experience of hostility; he is a poet, and most like an angel."
We often refer to philosophical questions as "the sort of thing that keeps you up at night" or "Questions you think about at three in the morning."

The idea is that in the middle of the night there is nothing but silence. You are there with just your thoughts and the deeper issues that can be pushed aside for the more mundane matters in day-to-day life that give rise to a clamor which drown out these more existential concerns.

But that is not true anymore. In the middle of the night, we catch up on bad movies, I Love Lucy re-runs, or Ron Popeil infomercials. Or read blogs. Advertisers have made sure that there is no time when we are left with our thoughts. We get commercials played in doctors' office waiting rooms and in elevators. Ipods and cell phones make sure that we are distracted no matter where or when.

This is a distinctly contemporary capitalist state of affairs. For virtually every human who has ever walked the planet, life has alternated between back-breaking labor and mind-numbing boredom. The search to fill these gaps has been the source of human culture for all of our history. It is only now that we complain that we are bored, before now it would seem odd to complain. Of course, you are, we all are, find something to do. Learn to play an instrument. Crochet a blanket for the winter. Read. Write. Walk. Boredom was a natural state.

But now we have so filled culture with passive leisure time activities that there is little place available to be still, to be in silence. In such silence, we are bored and someone will figure out, to our relief, how to distract us before we are left alone with our thoughts.