Note: This is part two of a three-part series, inspired in part by Casey Neistat’s viral Nike ad. Read Part I – “No, Casey Neistat, Don’t ‘Do More'” – here.
Casey Neistat’s Nike ad is one of the neatest encapsulations of my generation’s vision of the “good life.” Thirteen countries in ten glorious days! The pyramids. The Vatican. Beaches. Beautiful girls.
What we want is change. To cast off the shackles of bourgeois respectability. To escape the numbing repetitiveness of modern living by taking to the skies and the seas. A backpack, a passport, and the open road. Hey man, that’s the life for me!
Well, so much for that.
Before Covid hit, and grounded the planes, and closed the ports, and generally killed all the fun, our Facebook and Instagram feeds were filled with photos of friends who had broken free, even if just for a week’s vacation in the Mayan Riviera. We shamelessly slavered over these visions of blue waters, plotting our own escape.
In our search for assurance that there exists another way, we even patronized the Patreon accounts of perfect strangers, attractive couples sailing the world, their toned bodies bronzed by the beating sun of far-off seas. These showcased their lives in vlogs uploaded to Youtube from bamboo-roofed cafes overlooking the sparkling lagoons of godforsaken ports on godforsaken islands in godforsaken corners of the Pacific.
Watching their videos, we became convinced that it is out there, in those far-off places, where real life is to be found. And if they can do it, why couldn’t we, some day? Maybe, then, we would finally really start living.
That, anyway, seems to me to be the message of Neistat’s ad. Go. “Do more.” See more. Move. That’s where you’ll find your bliss.
But now, motion’s not even an option. When Covid hit, a friend of mine was days away from setting out on a cross-Pacific journey in a sailing yacht. Now she’s back in Canada. And she can’t even go to the movies, let alone French Polynesia.
So, what now?
Curiously, even as the credits rolled after my first viewing of Neistat’s ad a few years ago, I found myself thinking, somewhat perversely, about Emily Dickenson – i.e. the 19th century poet. That is, my mind leapt to the one person whose life bears perhaps the least degree of similarity to the ad’s virile, but skin-deep “do more” philosophy.
Judged by the standard of action, of doing, of sheer quantity of motion, Dickenson did hardly anything at all. In the latter half of her life (and she only lived to 55) Dickenson hardly ever ventured beyond the borders of her family property. When visitors came to call, she chose to speak to them, unseen, from behind the door.
In life, Dickenson was best known as the town eccentric – the “woman in white” (on the rare occasions when she was spotted, she was almost always dressed in white) – and as the hand behind the remarkably beautiful gardens on the family estate.
And yet, behind closed doors, in the long, quiet hours of solitude, Emily was scribbling poems – by the hundreds. Only a handful of these poems saw the light of day while she lived. Even her closest friend and family had no inkling of the fecundity of her mind, which produced reams of poems that were destined to secure her place among the greatest of modern poets.
The impression that these poems produce is of a soul preternaturally alive to the hidden significances of the quotidian – of the thousand ordinary things that we all see a thousand times a day, and yet do not see: but that Dickenson saw, and absorbed into a mind so hot with the pressure of thought that the dusty ore of the day-to-day, once ruminated upon, emerged from her mouth glittering with refracted light, diamond-hard, and diamond-heavy.
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
(How – one marvels – did she impart a sense of crushing corporeality to light, and so perfectly encapsulate one of those ineffable human experiences, in a mere fifteen words?)
I have a particular fondness for “I taste a liquor never brewed.” There’s a decent case that the second stanza is the most delightful quatrain in all of English poetry:
Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue.
Somehow one feels quite certain, reading this, that Dickenson’s is not the idle boast of one of those sentimentalists – think of Catherine, Myrtle’s sister in The Great Gatsby – who shrilly insist upon refusing a drink at a party that they feel, “just as good on nothing at all.”
While the rest of us scrabble for our stimulants so that we might think or feel something new, Dickenson had no such need; her fervid brain, like the hummingbird, fed to satiety on the morning dew, and the air.
Ok, just one more:
They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still” –
Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –
That’s a hell of an image. It’s also an ironic one, because in the end Dickenson locked herself in her own “closet”, becoming a voluntary recluse. And yet, for all that, there was her brain, bird-like, soaring to visionary heights. Closet or no closet, she was never anything but free.
So, here’s the weird question that occurred to me over the past few days: What if Dickenson can show us a way that Covid lockdowns are as much as an opportunity, as they are a hardship? (And clearly, they are a hardship)
What if her life proves that, instead of suspending life, lockdown might actually be giving some of us an opportunity to start living – giving us the time and space and rest to really look around us, and to do and to actually see things that we’ve never really done or seen before? Or, at least, to reevaluate our vision of the “good life”?
What is it we want, after all, what is it we are seeking, when we travel, or dream of travel?
A few things come to mind: physical excitement, mental stimulation, intimations of the existence of a higher purpose, and the sense of the sacred. We want, in short, to see, and feel new things, things that will rip off the straitjacket of the ordinary and the humdrum.
But here’s the thing: Dickenson achieved all of this, and much more, and she did so with what seems to us an insanely impoverished store of experience.
There’s this really weird thing about travel. Anyone who has travelled knows that there comes a moment – usually way sooner than you would have expected – when you suddenly get tired of seeing new sights.
Surrounded by the thousands of paintings in the Louvre, or standing on the peak of yet another mountain, or tasting a dozen different exotic wines, you suddenly feels impelled to pause before this painting, and forget about all the rest; or to spend the afternoon on this mountain, regardless of the celebrated view of the waterfalls from its next neighbor over; or to sit with a bottle of this one, simple wine, and to enjoy it slowly with a single friend.
Or maybe you just feel the desire to lie in bed, and sip of a cup of chamomile tea, and watch the people strolling by outside your hotel room.
Faced with all the possibilities in the world, you suddenly realize that you don’t actually want any more. That you can’t even handle any more. That more would just run right off you, the way water does when poured over a super-saturated sponge.
This is, I propose, the universal human impulse towards contemplation: the impulse to consciously limit experience, in order to be able to mine the yet-unsurmised riches of experiences already had.
It is the paradox embodied in the case of every happy recluse: of every monk whose eyes and smile blaze with the light of some hidden furnace; of every serene old farmer who has spent his life working a single plot of land, and knows and loves its every furrow, every spring, every sapling; of every proud parent who beams with pleasure at every caper of his or her child.
All of these have learned that, all things considered, we don’t actually need a whole lot of stuff or experiences. We just need to see – and I mean, really see – the things that are right in front of our faces.
The thing that distinguishes humans from all other animals is not our capacity to act, but our ability to grasp meaning. If we surpass the beasts in action, it is only because we have first surpassed them in comprehension. And, unsurprisingly, it is primarily in exercising this latter capacity that we attain meaning and satisfaction.
As Dickenson’s example proves, it is possible to grasp worlds of meaning with very little action. On the other hand, Neistat’s ad – which I am only picking on because it perfectly exemplifies a certain modern mentality – suggests to me that a great deal of action without the opportunity to see and grasp meaning is…well…meaningless.
More, on that score, next time.
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