Melbourne writer and philosopher Damon Young’s wonderful, little book Distraction (MUP, 2008) landed on my desk recently, courtesy of a very old friend.
She had been struck by a reference in the book to the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza. A lens grinder by trade, Spinoza spent his leisure hours in pursuit of philosophical discourse and ultimately became one of the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment.
In 1673, Spinoza received a letter from the University of Heidelberg offering a well-paid job with a modest teaching load and ample time to pursue his writing. Spinoza politely declined the offer, stating he feared that academia, for a variety of reasons, would be a distraction to his work. Monotony is so often the friend of the writer.
Young’s book is a selective survey of the Western philosophical canon peppered with insightful observations on art, society, politics, the media and intimacy. The book chimed with me because Distraction is my middle name.
The various modes of distraction hardly need mentioning but, for the sake of clarity, let’s tick off the obvious ones first: iPhone, web browsing, daily broadsheets. A lethal combination of the seduction of information technology and the cosy familiarity of old media, deftly justified as ‘essential’ to the pursuit of my professional and leisure interests. On closer analysis, they are often time-wasting, empty pastimes that leave me either drained, or subject to further distractions. Beware the looking-glass effects of hyperlink.
The next category of distraction is more difficult to negotiate because it involves family, friends and work colleagues. Are my children distractions? My wife says that she should be a distraction. Are domestic duties distractions? My close friends, well, they are there for me and I for them but don’t we waste a lot of time going over old ground and counselling each other, seemingly to no long-term benefit? Young uses the life of the gregarious but emotionally aloof Henry James to illustrate the need to balance writerly solitude with the sustenance provided by personal intimacy.
And my work colleagues, do they even like me? And what of society? Given that I am a hyper-vigilant critic of western consumerism, isn’t the entire socio-cultural matrix I’m stuck in a distraction? Well, hell yes! But if all the world’s a distraction, what is it a distraction from? This question is at the heart of Young’s enquiry and my own personal battle with ubiquitous diversion.
I suffer from the curse of an open, enquiring mind. Rather like my new puppy Delilah, who is just old enough to take on walks and for whom everything is new, exciting and endlessly sniffable. I find it excruciatingly difficult to choose this from that, to find contentment in the prolonged pursuit of a single idea.
Yes, it took me two years to write my first novel and I managed to stay the course and keep the work on its rambling track. Yes, I can apply diligent concentration to assigned tasks. Yes, I competently manage my familial and domestic duties. No, I am not a recluse from personal intimacies.
But as the years roll by, I have become starkly aware of the need to engage with the work of being, with a capital B. Mindfulness in action, clarity of thought and a healthy body are my navigational points. This is the same question, the same challenge that has exercised the minds of philosophers from Aristotle to Foucault. It is not a matter that should be assigned to self-help populists living in beachside suburbs but, rather, it is the central task of the human endeavour and without serious engagement with it, my life will have been a distraction and not an opportunity.
I have long resisted active engagement with the blogosphere because I regarded it as the pointy end of a general oversupply of opinion in the public domain. Everyone has something to say and blogs make it public. Everywhere I turn I am overwhelmed by opinion or invited to participate in an orgy of Q&A and feedback.
To my mind, what is so often missing in Australian cultural and political discourse is the crucible of conviction, the reasoned choice between this and that and the sustained will to exercise it. Too much opinion can blur the vision and distract us from the tenuous web of conscious living. Damon Young says all this far better than I, so if you are looking for a useful distraction, read his book.