Annie and I just returned from several days up in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, where I gave a series of lectures at the Wildacres Conference Center and Retreat. We had a marvelous time; the people - including the other lecturers - were both intellectually stimulating and enormously gracious; the food simple, kosher and plentiful; the temperature quite moderate, and the landscape (see photo) more breathtaking than anything ever painted by Corot, Turner or Claude Monet. About the only fly in the ointment was that WiFi and cellular connections were all but nonexistent. It took about 48 hours to quit feeling guilty about whatever calls or emails we were missing, and begin to see in the "loss," a significant "gain."
To wit, having the time to smell the roses, chill out, and be far more contemplative than our complexly-wired times permit. Once the chilling-out process got into full swing, I found myself wondering precisely how to best describe in words (to myself or indeed, anyone else) what the value of this non-internet, non-cellphone interregnum really was. During my spare time between lectures and meals, I read a couple of books: Theodore Rex (the second in Edmund Morris' biographic trilogy of Theodore Roosevelt), David Lodge's novel A Man of Parts (a brilliant fictional biography of the writer H.G. Wells) and a collection of Raymond Chandler stories entitled The Simple Art of Murder. And there, in one of Chandler's short stories - Goldfish - I found the description I was looking for; a cloud-clearing explanation of the value of being mostly disconnected from the rest of the world.
At one point in Chandler's intricate tale of murder, mayhem and missing pearls, detective Phillip Marlowe informs us "It was a quarter to five when I got back to the office. I had a couple of short drinks and stuffed a pipe and sat down to interview my brains." Again . . . "I sat down to interview my brains."
There it was: a simple description of a complex . . . well . . . complex. What our high-speed, interconnected cyber world has given with one hand - instantaneous communication, access to both the accumulated knowledge, wisdom and folly of humankind and the entirety of reality within 140 keystrokes - it has also taken away in terms of time to contemplate, cogitate, and consider what we think and believe before opening our mouths or putting our fingers to the keyboard. Because we have, to a great extent, lost the ability - even the desire - to "interview our brains." As a result, we find ourselves getting involved in far too many arguments and disagreements. Where once there was a dollop of civility about our debates and differing points of view, today we frequently, due to the necessity of rapid response, find ourselves getting angry, defensive and filled with animosity towards those who do not share our point of view.
In ages past, anger and hostility grew at a far slower pace than today; the time it took to have an exchange of facts, ideas or opinions could be measured in days, weeks or even months. Imagine sending a missive from say, Boston to Paris in the days before Morse's telegraph; the response could take months. Then too, a charge or accusation delivered in a campaign speech delivered in one part of the country in say, 1932, might not be answered for several days. Today, on the other hand, Hillary Clinton makes a comment at 6:05 pm in Cleveland, and by 6:06 pm, a thousand-and-one respond, claiming that she doesn't know what she's talking about. It's crazy; no one has the time to interview their brains.
During the week up at Wildacres, I spoke on two political topics - slightly shorter, more partisan versions of which have already run on this blog (ISIS 101 and Israel, the Middle East and the 2016 Election). I also performed my one-man "An Evening with Sholem Aleichem." The two other lecturers also spoke on various political topics - all guaranteed to stimulate debate and discussion. At one point during the week, a woman came up to me as we were heading back to the lodge and wanted to speak to me about something that was obviously troubling her. She began by telling me that she was going to vote for Donald Trump because, "like him, I'm in the real estate business, though on a far, far smaller scale." With both sadness and curiosity she told me that upon discovering she was supporting Mr. Trump, several people she thought of as friends, got downright nasty with her and more or less ended their friendship. "How in the world can you support such a #@%!! like Trump?" they would ask, further demanding that she justify her support right then and there. "How can otherwise intelligent, thoughtful people be so cruel and petty?" she asked.
"The first rule of political debate or discussion," I told her "is to avoid beating your head against a wall . . . unless you're really in love with concussions. Generally speaking, there's no case either side can present that will wind up changing minds or positions."
"But why do people get so angry just because we don't agree on a presidential candidate?" she asked. I told her that while ahl regel echat (Hebrew for "standing on one leg"), I really didn't know the answer, I certainly would think about it. And I meant it; after all, didn't I, like Chandler's sleuth Phillip Marlowe, now have the time and freedom to "interview" whatever brains the good Lord gave me? After a bit of solitude and reflection - all the while reading a couple dozen pages of Theodore Rex, I concluded that it is our age of instantaneous response and its attendant "intellectual gratification" which, in large measure, is responsible for this unsettling impasse. Nowadays, the need to be "right" is paramount; expressing our beliefs and opinions as if they were facts from The Mount has largely replaced the free and leisurely exchange of ideas. What I avow as "fact" you know is "fiction"; likewise, what you tell me is fact, I may well throw back in your face and call it fable . . . or even worse. In a time when search engines like Yahoo, Google, Ask.com and DuckDuckGo can pack more knowledge and information into a mere click than the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and the British Museum can in one hundred years of painstaking research, is it any wonder that "interviewing our brains" has become as quaintly fossilized as teatime or the cross-country train trip?
Back in 1969, legendary writer Norman Mailer ran a quixotic - though highly imaginative and entertaining - race for Mayor of New York City. Mailer's “left-conservative” platform called for a monorail, a ban on private cars in Manhattan and a monthly “Sweet Sunday” on which vehicles would be barred from city streets, rails or airspace altogether. In that way, he said, New Yorkers would be forced to walk, bicycle or stay at home at relax. And while Mailer did come in dead last (John Lindsay was the victor), he made a good point; that people should, slow down, take a walk and perhaps even "interview their brains." (It should be noted that toward the end of the campaign Mailer's running mate, fellow writer/journalist/dipsomaniac Jimmy Breslin told a friend, “I found out I was running with Ezra Pound.” Mr. Breslin was referring not to Pound’s poetry, but to his insanity.)
My suggestion is that we take a page from Marlowe and Mailer, and from time to time we all brew a cuppa tea (or like Marlowe and Mailer, pour ourselves a stiff drink) take a break, and interview our brains. Or, one could take a trip to a place like Wildacres, where WiFi and cellular connections are as rare as hen's teeth, and as infrequent as Halley's Comet.
It couldn't hurt.
Who would ever have imagined that Raymond Chandler and Phillip Marlowe could be so profound?
Copyright© 2016 Kurt F. Stone