Thursday, 18 August 2016

Sauve qui peut

The modern world, this world we have so painstakingly created for ourselves, it is a terribly noisy place. There is an eternal din that greets us when we’re born. It ushers us out when we die. And I don’t simply mean, although it is loud enough, the literal noise of modernity. I mean, also, the noise of anxiety and fear, of hurry and haste. The noise of all our precious devices and newspapers and magazines and billboards, all with their endless demands on us, that constant bombardment we are forever subject to and which we can never escape, even in the sanctity of our homes—the noisy world slips in as we close the door and continues to hound us even as we try to sleep. And the result is that we hardly ever hear ourselves, hardly know ourselves, and live lives that are anonymous even unto ourselves. The world whirls faster and faster and faster, and we are spun, in the depths of the cacophony, into the deepest silence.

True enough that all this noise, this incessant doing, making, earning, losing and winning, it doesn’t bother everyone. Some would even be terrified at the prospect of a world so still, so quiet, they might actually hear their own minds, discover their own thoughts, contemplate their own existence. What was it that Pascal said, that the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me? Precisely. And yet, and yet, some there are who would hear their own voices, whatever the cost. And, for that matter, however banal, trivial, mundane or inconsequential the utterances their voices speak to them might happen to be. But that’s beside the point. It is not profundity that is at issue here. What is at issue is the possibility of being meaningfully alive. Just as we cannot be fully human if we are deprived of all autonomy, we cannot be autonomous if we cannot hear ourselves think. It may be an illusion that we are blessed with wills liberated from the bonds of cause and effect that enchain the physical world, but it is a precious illusion nonetheless, and one which is difficult to maintain if our own voices are forever drowned out. For some of us, at least, if we are not to go entirely mad, there must be some moments in each day—however few and however fleeting—in which we consciously choose this and not that.

Ah, but these are deep waters, and frankly, I might just as well say that Catherine, the dog and I, we were simply tired of all this noise, tired of rushing from one thing to another, and tired of doing the bidding of others. Quite simply, we wanted to turn our backs on it all, to walk away, to go to a place where we might, if we wished, spend our allotted hours pointlessly staring into the middle distance doing precisely nothing, a place where we would know nothing of what was happening in the world beyond our own little patch of existence. And, as it happened, we knew of just such a place, a place which the hands of fate had kindly delivered up to my family some decades ago. It hadn’t been lived in permanently for over thirty years, it was now only ever used as a temporary retreat from the world, but now it would do us perfectly as a permanent—or at least temporarily permanent—place of retreat, of exile. We knew it couldn’t be absolutely permanent—for one thing, the place belonged to the family, not to us, and for another, we planned on being gainfully unemployed, and the money we had stashed away would only last so long, even in a place so far removed from all the getting and spending with which we fill our lives today. So, it would not be forever, but it would be for a time, a year let’s say, a year in which we could be still and hear ourselves think, however terrifying—or banal—that might turn out to be.

For over two years we talked about doing this. And for over two years we found reasons for not doing it. Except they weren’t reasons, they were excuses, excuses for holding to the lives of safe predictability we had made for ourselves. They may have been lives that were growing a little stale, perhaps, stale while increasingly frantic, but most of us will tolerate considerable discomfort in exchange for security—the regular pay-check, the familiar faces, and all those routines that can be gone through effortlessly, automatically—thoughtlessly. And, to be fair, it’s reasonable enough to live like this—the great struggle of humanity, after all, has been to achieve a state of security, and the pay-off for having achieved it, the pay-off for all the dullness it brings, is a mind freed from anxiety and worry, a mind free to pursue more noble ends. That, at least, is the theory. But the practice? Minds that are too worn out by all that incessant haste and hurry our secure, predictable world foists on us. We never want for food on the table or a roof over our heads or clothes on our backs, but the price we pay is to be made slaves of our security, made slaves of the great machine we have created that delivers up to us our security in exchange for our freedom.

After all, if we asked ourselves, who is it that has the most secure, the most predictable life of all, the answer would have to be—a man chained to a wall.

So perhaps the pendulum has swung too far.

Perhaps it has, you say, but then what is the alternative? We can’t all just throw up our jobs and turn our backs on it all to go and live the good life somewhere far removed from the madness. The chains aren’t broken so easily, we have no Moses to lead us from captivity. True enough—but then I’m merely diagnosing the condition, I don’t have a treatment to cure it. Sauve qui peut, I’m afraid.
Eternal silence, infinite space.

Ah, but again, I can’t seem to help myself, off I go, straight into the deep waters where I’ll end up drowning myself one day if I’m not careful. So, let me just say this. I’m no Luddite, I’m not suggesting we break the machines and return ourselves to a lost golden age of the past. There was none, for one thing, and you can’t, as we know, repeat the past, for another. And it would be absurd to deny that our age confers all manner of genuine blessings upon us, the likes of which past generations would never have dared dream of. But the pendulum, as I said, it has swung too far—we can, as we know, have too much of a good thing.

So I am not suggesting we break the machines and hang the captains of industry from gibbets—although lord knows the temptation to do so is often strong—yet nor am I presenting this as a tonic for everyone. As I said, humanity has worked long and hard to attain the degree of luxury it now enjoys—at whatever cost and however few actually enjoy it—and most would think it madness to turn your back on all that luxury to live in remote, isolated, primitive seclusion, in a place so endlessly quiet you might actually hear your own mind.

I willingly concede—it is not for everybody.
But it was, most assuredly, for us.

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