Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Being alive

I was just riding the bus home from work, struggling to read. I say struggling because I kept getting distracted by the noisy conversation the bus driver and a few of the people sitting near the front were having. And when I say "noisy," I mean noisy.

The conversation was wide-ranging. I first started picking up on it when they were talking about the various ways you can get electrocuted during a thunderstorm (we had thunderstorms here today), and the different things you can do to increase or decrease your chances of it. Then, via an anecdote about someone being electrocuted as a result of peeing on a third rail, they seamlessly transitioned to talking about the Acela and in general the viability of Amtrack as an enterprise. I got back to reading again, but then got distracted by some disdainful talk about celebrities who have recently bought property in Rhode Island (Nicholas Cage, Arnold Schwarzenegger on behalf of his granddaughter) and the possibility of turning the Westin Hotel and the Providence Place Mall, to which it is connected by a covered walking bridge, into a sort of refuge-living-space-casino complex for the very wealthy, which idea was met by much hostility (as far as I know, it is not likely to actually happen, and I don't think anyone's even talking about it).

And so on. As I said, I kept getting distracted from my reading, and was finding myself more and more irritated. Why don't they shut up, I thought. They seemed to be having a great time, and they were all manifestly smart and engaged and funny and lively and interested in the world around them, but: they were distracting from my reading, and it annoyed me.

The book I was reading was Derrick Jensen's Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization, which I have just started reading at Richard's suggestion. The passage I was so irritated at being distracted from was this one, which I have massively truncated from pages 19-20:
...if we dig beneath [the] second, smiling mask of civilization--the belief that civilization's visual or musical arts, for example, are more developed than those of noncivilized peoples--we find a mirror image of civilization's other face, that of power. For example, it wouldn't be the whole truth to say that visual and musical arts have simply grown or become more highly advanced under this system; it's more true that they have long ago succumbed to the same division of labor that characterizes this culture's economics and politics. Where among traditional indigenous people--the "uncivilized"--songs are sung by everyone...within civilization songs are written and performed by experts, those with "talent," those whose lives are devoted to the production of these arts... I'm not certain I'd characterize the conversion of human beings from participants in the ongoing creation of communal arts to more passive consumers of artistic products manufactured by distant experts...as a good thing.

I could make a similar argument about writing, but Stanley Diamond beat me to it: "Writing was one of the original mysteries of civilization, and it reduced the complexities of experience to the written word. Moreover, writing provides the ruling classes with an ideological instrument of incalculable power. The word of God becomes an invincible law, mediated by priests... symbols became explicit; they lost a certain richness. Man's word was no longer an endless exploration of reality, but a sign that could be used against him..."

[Jensen moves on to his next point, or rather to the next part of the same point]

...I'm not certain that the ability to send emails back and forth to Spain or to watch television programs beamed out of Los Angeles makes my life particularly richer. It's far more important, useful, and enriching, I think, to get to know my neighbors. I'm frequently amazed to find myself sitting in a room with my fellow human beings, all of us staring at a box watching and listening to a story concocted and enacted by people far away. I have friends who know Seinfeld's neighbors better than their own... The other night, I wrote till late, and finally turned off my computer to step outside and say goodnight to the dogs. I realized, then, that the wind was blowing hard through the tops of the redwood trees, and the trees were sighing and whispering. Branches were clashing, and in the distance I heard them cracking. Until that moment I had not realized such a symphony was taking place so near, much less had I gone out to participate in it, to feel the wind blow my hair and to feel the tossed rain hit me in the face. All of the sounds of the night had been drowned out by the monotone whine of my computer's fan... [G]iven the impulse for centralized control that motivates civilization, widening communication in this case really means reducing us from active participants in our own lives and in the lives of those around us to consumers sucking words and images from some distant sugar tit.
Once I got that far and the meaning of the words began, along with my increasing agreement with them, to sink in, I started to become ashamed of my previous irritation. I gave up trying to read, because after all I can do that any time I want*. I closed the book, and while I didn't go so far as to join in with the conversation (I'm shy), I did listen, appreciatively, and did feel part of a community, if only glancingly, and only briefly. It was nice.

Then I got home, turned on my computer, opened all the windows, and was immediately startled by the call of a bird. Not knowing at first how to interpret the sound, unfamiliar in this context, I thought for a moment that it was my computer issuing its death rattles. Baby steps; I guess I can't expect to become a fully functional life-form in an instant.

*Except of course during work hours!!!

6 comments:

Jack Crow said...

I really enjoyed V1 of Endgame. Since you don't yet appear to have finished it, I leave the remainder of comments off until you do.

Ethan said...

It may be some time--I've just started and I'm not the quickest reader around.

Justin said...

Reminds me of a moment with the girlfriend last weekend.

We were riding back through the city in her car and got stuck in horrendous traffic after the Pride parade. I bitched about being stuck in the car for a bit and concluded with the statement that this changes everything for me as far as gay rights go.

Ethan said...

I don't blame you!

JRB said...

I have to second an earlier commenter when he or she said you've been up to great stuff around here lately. I wish I had more time for comments in my life!

Ethan said...

Thanks!