Thursday, August 27, 2009

Here's the Real Reason We're In No Rush
To Add Our Feverish Updates Via Twitter

'All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.’
—Blaise Pascal. He may have been a 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, but we think he understood plenty about that which has remained largely unchanged since his time: the human condition. We'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.


At 2:08 AM, Anonymous joan said...

Perhaps these ideas are hard to follow since they are excerpts, but I thought they might pictuesquely illustrate your point . . .

You you have spoken of Thomas Merton, so I guess you have read of him though do not know what or to what extent. Today I read part of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. There was a glorious part about the "point vierge" of dawn. It is when the first chirps of the waking birds speak to God, not with a fluent song, but with an awakening question that is their dawn state, asking if it is time for them to "be." He answers "yes." Then, they one by one wake up, and become birds. They manifest themselves as birds, beginning to sing. Presently they will be fully themselves, and will even fly.

Continuing on he says:

Meanwhile, the most wonderful moment of the day is that when creation in its innocence asks permission to "be" once agian, as it did on the first morning that ever was.

Several pages later Merton speaks of The Ox Mountain parable of Mencius. He takes the above ideas and puts them into the context I think you were addressing:

"Note the importance of the "night spirit" and the "dawn breath" in restoring to life the forest that has been cut down.

Even though the Ox Mountain forest has been cut to the ground, if the mountain is left to rest and recuperate in the night and the dawn, the trees will return. But men cut them down, cattle browse on the new shoots: no night spirit, no dawn breath--no rest, no renewal--and finally one is convinced that there never were any woods on the Ox Mountain. So, Mencius concludes, with human nature. Without the night spirit, the dawn breath, silence, passivity, rest, man's nature cannot be itself. In its barrenness it is no longer natura: nothing grows from it, nothing is born of it any more. "

At 2:18 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You're a close, careful and perhaps longtime reader, if you know I've mentioned Merton, because it's been awhile. And I haven't read enough OF him, in part because of the vastness and depth of his writing, and in part because there has been so much written ABOUT him, much of which I've read with growing interest. To me, he's like the deepest possible intellectual well, one from which you can continue to draw from and learn from. His writing is so pure, so mind-expanding, life-affirming and earthquake-inducing that it defies you to put your arms around it all. But it also keeps you coming back for more. And how many authors can we really say do that for us?

At 8:02 AM, Anonymous Donna said...

Good morning:

I'm trying to get through a book about Merton and other mystics this week, but it's not quite working out. Chief reason, my yearning to sit quietly alone and take in this man's philosophy is being overshadowed this week by a very deep yearning for human connection.

I'm getting some of that connection here - a good bit of it, actually, and some through Twitter and I've actually talked to some people face-to-face.

So, yes, a quiet room is lovely from time to time, but the premise above is simplistic.

There are many, varied reasons for man's discontent and they shift with the tides.

At 8:16 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

True enough. Connecting is ultimately what it's all about. We just have to make sure that includes connecting with ourselves.

At 10:21 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Merton is writing about propaganda here, but the lesson could also be applied to Twitter in specific, and the Internet in general, because his point here is about mass-media and group-think and how they can be manipulated and abused:

The real violence exerted by propaganda is this: by means of apparent truth and apparent reason, it induces us to surrender our freedom and self-possession. It pre-determines us to certain conclusions, and does so in such a way that we imagine that we are fully free in reaching them by our own thought. Propaganda makes up our minds for us but in such a way that it leaves us the sense of pride and satisfaction of men who have made up their own minds. And, in the last analysis, propaganda achieves this effect because we want it to.

The is one of the few real pleasures in life left to modern man: this illusion that he is thinking for himself when, in fact, someone else is doing his thinking for him. And this someone else is not a personal authority, the great mind of a genial thinker, it is the mass-mind, the general "they," the anonymous whole. One is left, therefore, not only with the sense that one has thought things out for himself, but that he has also reached the correct answer without difficulty—the answer which is shown to be correct because it is the answer of everybody. Since it is at once my answer and the answer of everybody, how should I resist it?

—Thomas Merton, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

In Faith and Violence, Merton writes, equally relevantly:

Today, the with enormous amplification of news and opinion, we are suffering from more than acceptable distortions of perspective. Our supposed historical consciousness, over-informed and over-stimulated, is threatened with death by bloating, and we are overcome with a political elephantiasis which sometimes seems to make all actual forward motion useless if not impossible. But in addition to the sheer volume of information there is the even more portentous fact of falsification and misinformation by which those in power are often completely intent not only on misleading others but even on convincing themselves that their own lies are "historical truth."
—Thomas Merton, from Faith and Violence

REmind you of anything lately?

At 10:29 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Right on, Art. Thanks for taking the time to expand this point and drive it home. What I meant to say earlier in regards to Merton is this: to me, he's perhaps the only American thinker/writer of the 20th century (at least the only one who comes immediately to mind) who can even begin to rival Orwell in the area of a deeply oracular vision about humanity. He's that piercingly good on the topics that really matter. So of course I'm not surprised that you'd be a fellow fan and student of his work.

At 10:34 AM, Anonymous joan said...

I love Merton's observations of nature. Though I do not pretend to plumb the depths he did, I now count him as a treasured companion.

This morning I wrote this:


so gently the soft footsteps of the falling rain
call my dreams to follow their cat-paw leaps across the garden.
I sidle in amongst the tall leaves
and the rub my sides pleasantly.
My eyes, wide with curiosity, alight on myriads of little creatures finding shelter under the canopy of flowers and arching leaves.
The infinite variety of their forms holds my rapt attention for what might be an eternity or the blinking of an eye –
such is their existence.
Full of earthy life the bed of flowers does not sleep,
but quietly nurtures life of countless exquisite wonders. The deep scent of it is lightened by the fresh greenery I rub wandering through. The air tingles with herbs and is crowned with perfume that wafts down with the raindrops.

Have you ever thrust your face in a flower wet with dew or rain?
The drops that touch your lips meekly offer with not a moment’s fanfare the perfect floral taste of incomparable sweetness that no queen with vast riches could ever hope to know with more delight than I.

My dreams carry me from one flower to the next
playing in the melody of colors patterns scents,
and soft sounds of childhood reverie.
I am the butterfly the cat-paws stalk to play
until I am happily filled.
Drowsy with dreams I follow her quietly across the yard of memories and gingerly up the steps to sleep deeply until I wake beneath my blanket bedecked with ribbons and flowers.
In the room I painted blue as the sky,
the lacy white curtains dance in the cool breeze
that blew the rain away.
The morning was blessedly hushed and the dog still snores beside my bed,
no doubt dreaming of joys that lie in our own backyard.
I rise and hope to focus my life with such sweet contentedness
to be found ever close at hand if I nurture the garden within.

P.S. I lauged last night when I realize I commented on your twitter thoughts with a response based on birds chirping.

Art, I was cheering you on in your spririted defense of the paragraph, and now eargly look forward to taking some time to absorb your thoughtful comments this morning.

At 10:40 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Our guy Art can be a little like Merton and Orwell: you really need to read his best passages more than once to soak up all they have to offer. That occasionally means you must let his words marinate a bit before you respond. Obviously, that's a sign of deep feeling & thinking as well as of good writing. Not everyone, alas, realizes that the latter is generally a result of (and requirement for) the former.

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I have no idea who Merton is (lil' ol' poorly-read me). Suffice to say if he lived with our cockatiel he would not have such a romantic notion about birdsong first thing in the morning that's all I've got to say.

I actually used your quote in a poem a while back:

       A Poem is not an Empty Room

       “All men’s miseries derive from not being

        able to sit in a quiet room alone.” – Pascal

       A man walks into
       an empty room.
       There is nothing there
       and no one there.

       That is to say no
       one else is there.
       He is all alone
       with his own thoughts.

       Entering the room
       is significant.
       Being in the room
       is significant.

       Where the room is
       is irrelevant.
       Who the man is
       is not important.

       What it really
       means to be alone
       is something he
       might consider though

       while he's waiting.

       Wednesday, 05 December 2007

At 11:13 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Nice, Jim. I think that quote of Pascal's tends to speak to a lot of writers (who tend to be interior people, if not necessarily loners), though I've found that it's interpreted in very different ways. Which of course is not such a bad thing. When I get a moment later today, I'll give you my snapshot of who Merton was and why he matters, at least to me. And of course I welcome the same from anyone else who cares to add their take.

At 12:17 PM, Anonymous joan said...

As I struggle to face some rather horrific realities the simple and rather stupid words I penned this morning were only an attempt to gather strength for the day.

The quiet momoents before we "become," show us to be insignificant and powerless as your empty room feels, Jim. It is a proper place, truly, to be humbled so.

At 1:37 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

My take on Pascal was that he was being quite literal. That's because, from my own experience, I know that my days go much better if I spend a little time each day, before starting my day, sitting silently in a quiet room. I read, I meditate, I do Reiki, I write, and often I just sit quietly in the big comfy chair doing nothing, thinking nothing, just enjoying the morning quiet. When I feel ready, I start my day for real. Days I miss this morning quiet time are always a little off; a little jittery, rather than settled. It keeps me grounded and helps me stay centered. So I think Pascal's comment is literally true. In my case, anyway.

Merton appreciated Pascal, if I recall, and viewed him as a fellow engaged monastic. A monk living in the world, but not of the world. There are obvious parallels in their thinking, which is why I'm glad Merton came up in this discussion.

I have been reading the Pensées more thoroughly through, this year, having found two excellent translations, that have helped me delve deeper into Pascal. I don't always agree with him, but his critiques about what Merton called the pseudo-events of culture, which are not real, are spot on. Pascal was attempting in the Pensées to use rational logic to prove that Christianity was the most evolved and perfect form of religion; needless to say, his attempt was doomed, but in the attempt he gave us some amazing insights and some brilliant aphorisms. I love his mind, even if his thesis was never one that I could accept.

At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Mike Q said...

I don't know, John, I think Pascal and many others could have used Twitter. Think of it: most of the quotes in Bartlett's would fit nicely into the 140 characters.

And Thomas Merton might still be around if he'd been more connected. Someone might have told him it's dangerous to grab an electric fan when your feet are wet - especially in Asia.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

What he's really talking about could simply be called meditation. And some would even call it silent prayer. So I suppose I've always taken that familiar quote literally as well.

Glad you mentioned Merton's horrific death, Mike, since that was also on my mind earlier this morning as I read some of these comments. I think that, as with Sylvia Plath, the unspeakable way they died helped increase their fame and you might even say secular sainthood, at least for some fans. But like Plath also, the work itself would have been more than enough all on its own to have justified that fame. Popular culture just seems to take kindly to heroic figures who die in tragic circumstances. And while Marilyn Monroe, JFK and James Dean might have left prettier corpses, Plath and Merton left richer, deeper legacies through their words.

At 5:24 PM, Anonymous Mike Q said...

My son went to St. Bonaventure where Merton spent some time. You could imagine him making the most of those quiet foothills.

My wisecrack notwithstanding, some have raised suspicions over his death, contending he was too intelligent to make a mistake like that. But I remember a documentary in which a longtime friend of his said Merton was something of a klutz, so that the accident was not at all inconceivable.

At 5:27 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Never knew that he spent time there, Mike, though I've often considered visiting his the retreat in Kentucky where he spent much of his time as a monk, which has become something of a shrine for his followers for years.

At 7:22 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

He taught at St. Bonaventure before entering Gethsemane Abbey as a novice.

His death remains unofficially unexplained, BTW. There are some details that no one has been able to satisfactorily explain. For whatever that's worth.

At 8:55 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I swear I had nothing to do with it. Really.


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