Much of what goes by the name of pleasure is simply an effort to destroy consciousness – George Orwell, 1946.
I recently saw a youtube video of a 2003 interview with the late David Foster Wallace in which the writer expressed concern with what he regarded as a decline in the willingness of Americans to engage with complex and challenging artistic forms:
“Reading requires sitting alone by yourself in a quiet room. I have friends, intelligent friends, who don’t like to read because they get not just bored — there’s an almost dread that comes up I think, here [the US], about having to be alone and in having to be quiet. When you walk into most public spaces in America it isn’t quiet anymore, they pipe music through… it seems significant that we don’t want things to be quiet –ever — any more… and that seems to me to have something to do with when you feel like the purpose of your life is to gratify yourself and get things for yourself. There’s this other part of you that’s the same part that’s hungry for silence and quiet and thinking about the same thing for maybe half an hour instead of 30 seconds that doesn’t get fed at all and it makes itself felt.”
Setting aside time for peace and quiet requires extraordinary effort. Consider the morning tube journey to work, how many people are neither listening to an mp3 player, staring blankly at a phone or toying at a tablet screen? It seems that we now live in a world in which the most valued and rewarding experience one can achieve is that of distraction. Upon hearing Wallace’s thoughts, I was immediately reminded of a verse from WH Auden’s poem September 1, 1939:
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
I would never describe myself as any sort of sentimentalist. I’m not to be found lamenting the decline of rural society; Thomas Hardy has said more than needs to be said as regards that particular topic. The industrial revolution happened. That is that. It is probably for our own good that we live in a world of constant distraction, to stop and consider our current place in history is a terrifying exercise. The modern world is a polluted, overly franchised, genetically modified, commodified, fluorescent, overstimulated, air-conditioned nightmare. Frankly, I’m as bad as the rest. After all, it was my need for constant entertainment and distraction that led me to the David Foster Wallace video in first place.