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Distraction

'Distraction'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.

Distraction.

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in theatre, literary fiction and politics. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for work on his first novel.

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Comments

  1. That is a really interesting conundrum: for writers, the world or life, it seems, is a distraction…from writing. All of the things that most people value in themselves are, for writers, a nuisance; they keep one away from the desk and from communing…with one’s self. Cixous wrote briliantly about how provocative an act reading and writing are in that you happily turn your back on everything – kids, husband, friends – in order to engage in those activities and escape from everything around you.

    As a result, a writer may initially seem, by definition, to be a misanthrope; but, in reality and more sympathetically, a writer is actually someone who turns away from the day to day interaction with humans in order to celebrate or deliver truth about the human condition through their writing. So they’re actually in on the human project without necessarily being part of it, day in day out.

    Can there really be good writing without the world (or experience)? Can there be good writing in an emotional or social vacuum? Probably not the kind of writing that moves us, because what moves us is the human. So I’m with Henry James on this, that the two must necessarily coexist.

  2. Great post Boris – and I note the irony that the infinite hall of distraction that is the internet and all its bounty (‘the looking-glass effects of hyperlink’), including the blogosphere, is the medium for your thoughts on distraction.

    Interesting that you say ‘as the years roll by, I have become starkly aware of the need to engage with the work of being’. Because I think I’ve done it the other way around. Probably under the influence of the French existentialists, I plunged into ‘being’ so early on, in my teens, that I almost got lost in deserts of abstraction and thought. I could have done with some lens grinding.

    So I’ve had to learn the value of busyness and engagement with the world of real living breathing human beings and Things. While fully valuing the need for solitude and deep thought. Because I agree wholeheartedly with you when you say: ‘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.’ And crucible is the key – it implies depth and duration, a space where deep-seated convictions can form over time from the chaos of daily impressions and experience. Alchemy.

  3. Thankyou Jane and Betty for those subtle observations. The irony of disdaining the distractions of blogging in a blog post did not escape me but I was heartened by a comment of Jessa Crispin’s (Editor of http://www.bookslut.com) who, in an interview on The Book Show, confessed to disliking and seldom reading blogs despite running one herself.

    I had my early affair with the Existentialists too. Sartre’s The Age of Reason was a turning point but I was unable to confine my peripatetic mind to the orthodoxies of existentialism and soon sniffed off in search of other points of view, modes of operation.

    Betty’s identification of the conundrum facing writers – the paradox of being both in and aloof from the world – is spot on. Damon’s book reminded me that freedom – intellectual, philosophical, political, spiritual – is the ideal domain of the writer and that the challenge of living/writing is to strive to Be there. Now I’m sounding like Timothy Leary et al so I’ll resist going any further down that path.

    I do find the political implications of all this very interesting. Damon makes some keen observations of Bakunin the anarchist theorist and Bakunin the man who could not control his appetites, for instance. I’d be interested to hear how readers who identify as progressive activists engage with some of the points raised in my post and the comments that follow.

  4. This resonates with me, too.
    I’m a very slow writer and the only way I can get anything done is to devote vast amounts of time to staring at the computer, time that is necessarily stolen from other (more human activities).
    Over the years, I’ve duly become, I think, a better writer but a worse person.

  5. Boris,

    Enjoyed the Timothy Leary digression. I was thinking another (maybe more positive?) way of looking at all of this distraction brought on by the world of technology – I am so distracted from my reading on modernist poetry by this forum by the way – is that it is actually facilitating intellectual engagement with the world of ideas, and therefore, probably helps most writing – and may also help activism in general. (And maybe we need to think more about the risks involved in the view that life/living/the world is a distraction; does not this view lead to the possible conclusion that only death is not a distraction, and if so, how nihilistic would that view be?)

    The physical coffee houses of the enlightenment have gone virtual, which means we can ‘converse’ with like-minded individuals in New York as easily as with those in a neighbouring suburb. Through email and web posts are we not just continuing the tradition of letter-writing and ideas exchange?

    When you say:

    “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.”

    I too had this view, but have found it dissipate as the number of excellent websites and quality online literary forums has increased. I have overcome my initial distrust and cynicism about the oversupply of opinions and now look forward to and value engagement with particular online forums (like this one) where I know I will find interesting conversations and exciting intellectual exchanges going on, rather than just fluffy opinions being aired. A good online forum is the old world of intellectual engagement being delivered through a new form.

    Jane, I love the way you talk about the crucible: maybe the more depth and duration blogs like this one have, the more they make possible the alchemy which happens with the sharing of contributors’ experiences and ideas. So the more they can escape their own ephemerality, the more valuable these forums could be.

    This online world is an incredible opportunity and a privilege. Sitting before a computer screen is probably one of the most privileged physical positions to be in, in this world today. For a start, it means I am not labouring physically, with or without pay, or in prison for a ‘political’ crime, or being tortured for a ‘war’ crime, or actually living in a society at war; it means that I have enough money for food and shelter to allow me the time to sit and type before a screen, and money enough for the computer infrastructure that enables me to engage.

  6. Thanks, Boris – this is a nice surprise.

    I also think blogs can be a distraction, but only when they’re bad, e.g. twee, prolix or just plain dim.

    The problem isn’t the technology, it’s using the technology clumsily, pettily or thoughtlessly; without an eye for what’s valuable in life, or in print.

  7. Yes, I completely agree about the blogosphere Betty – and have been mulling over such an answer all day (which has distracted me from 15C mathematics, which is possibly not so far from modernist poetry). I was meaning my comment on the irony of discussing distraction in a medium associated with distraction as a way of saying that you, Boris, had found through blogging an outlet and an interested audience for your thoughts. Not as a criticism. And so the blogosphere does have at least one upside – it lets us converse with people we’ve never met about subjects of mutual interest. As Betty says.

    I’ve also been thinking about the idea that life/living/the world is a distraction – and wondering how many women philosophers and artists Young references in his book. Because I’ve found that being engaged in life is what it’s all about, work wise as well as otherwise. You can see it as distraction or you can see it as parameters, structure. I went out adventuring for the ‘meaning of life’ for years and nearly drowned in it. When I finally clambered back on shore, fittingly lured by a siren in an experience the opposite of Odysseus’s sailors, I found myself bound to him and I stayed still for long enough to start making marks on the wall of the cave. I actually became productive. And started working.

  8. Jane, I think you’re absolutely right that life/living/the world is no distraction. Work, technology, relationships, children can all be part of a free, creative life. This is what my book’s about: not fleeing from life, but discovering what’s worthwhile in life, and grabbing it with both hands.

    On children (commonly seen as distractions), you might find this interesting: http://www.theage.com.au/news/books/driven-by-distraction/2008/07/03/1214950947979.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1

  9. The internet is evil. I give the cord to my partner every morning and take it back every night. If I don’t I don’t get any wring done – or housework.

  10. Yes, exactly (re your piece on children), Damon. Very well said. Thanks for the link.
    So I’d better read your book, before rambling on any more in ignorance of its contents! (I see you include a chapter on Matisse – whose obsession for mark making, insatiable urge to explore new ways of seeing and representing and incredible genius have only recently become blindingly obvious to me, when I was standing in a room of Matisses in the Hermitage. So I’ll be extremely interested to read what you say about Matisse and his hernia.)

  11. Doubtless someone’s already doing this but a detailed empirical study of what the online environment does to writing would be very handy. At the moment, so much of the discussion is dominated by anecdotes.
    Not quite sure how you would construct such a study but it would be interesting to investigate, say, the consequences of the random foraging for information that is how most of us consume the net. When Twitter sends me to fifteen links a day, is this a waste of time or does it facilitate a productive assimilation of coincidences? I suspect a bit of both.

  12. I was an early adopter of the internet, way back in the early nineties, when it was all shiny and new and people like Nicholas Negroponte were writing blue sky prose about the future of a world wired up. Well, now we have it and much of what the technopundits predicted has come to pass but, unsurprisingly, has brought with it negative impacts they failed to take into account in their SWOT analyses (or, more likely, wilfully neglected to publish in Wired magazine). The most disturbing and therefore the most interesting of these, to my mind, is the effect of the exponential acceleration of the transmission of information on notions of knowledge. As Jeff says: “the consequences of the random foraging for information that is how most of us consume the net”. An ambitious study of the type you suggest Jeff could factor in the longitudinal impacts of speed on epistemology. The Dutch writer Michiel Schwartz has explored this subject.
    See http://www.mediamatic.net/page/45047/en

    I agree with Betty when she says: “maybe the more depth and duration blogs like this one have, the more they make possible the alchemy which happens with the sharing of contributors’ experiences and ideas. So the more they can escape their own ephemerality, the more valuable these forums could be.”

    Cheers to Overland for kickstarting this blog where considered thought meets lively, distracting expression.

  13. Jeff, you can still look at the twitter links, but you can look at all of them, in one go, at night. The problem isn’t the information, it’s the distraction. For example, if I am trying to write and have the internet connected, I’m constantly checking my email and twitter and facebook. It’s a ‘oh – I’ll just have a look and see what’s going on’ type attitude and it is this checking and re-checking that consumes time but also hinders a writers ability to fully immerse themselves in the zone of writing. I still check twitter and my favourite blogs etc, but I just do it at night now, in the space of half an hour(except today, because I’m at school) 🙂

  14. To Blog or twitter – a great way to get to the crux of ideas as they, at that very moment, are being shaped in the copnsciousness, however I enjoy the freedom or ability to engage in multiple forms of discourse and actions concurrently – But I guess that’s the nature of me!

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