The dissipation of self?


30 April 2010, 23.11 CET

Sven Birkerts has a long article on the implications of how we shift back and forth between two highly evolved but starkly different forms of reading: contemporary media, and long fiction.

AFTER ALL MY JIBES against the decontextualizing power of the search engine, it is to Google I go this morning, hoping to track down the source of Nabokov’s phrase “aesthetic bliss.” And indeed, five or six entries locate the quote from his afterword to Lolita: “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss.” The phrase has been in my mind in the last few days, following my reading of Netherland and my attempts to account for the value of that particular kind of reading experience. “Aesthetic bliss” is one kind of answer—the effects on me of certain prose styles, like Nabokov’s own, or John Banville’s, or Virginia Woolf’s. But the phrase sounds trivial; it sounds like mere connoisseurship, a self-congratulatory mandarin business. It’s far more complicated than any mere swooning over pretty words and phrases. Aesthetic bliss. To me it expresses the delight that comes when the materials, the words, are working at their highest pitch, bringing sensation to life in the mind.

Sensation . . . I can imagine an objection, a voice telling me that sensation itself is trivial, not as important as idea, as theme. As if there is a hierarchy with ideas on one level, and psychological insights, and far below the re-creation of the textures of experience and inward process. I obviously don’t agree, nor does my reading sensibility, which, as I’ve confessed already, does not go seeking after themes and usually forgets them soon after taking them in. What thou lovest well remains—and for me it is language in this condition of alert, sensuous precision, language that does not forget the world of nouns. I’m thinking that one part of this project will need to be a close reading of and reflection upon certain passages that are for me certifiably great. I have to find occasion to ask—and examine closely—what happens when a string of words gets something exactly right.

Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won. To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one’s essential position.

Birkerts has his occasional moments of grumpy-old-man mode in trying to defend the readerly habits of his profession against the jackals roaming the web. No need I think.

Modern media is still incredibly unskilled at prompting and rewarding extended periods of concentration. That doesn’t mean media makers don’t try to accomplish this, it just means that even the best contemporary media manages only to impress its demanding audiences for a few minutes.

In today’s media environment that we flit from item to item; we are often judged socially by the speed, precision, and humor of the connections we can (re)produce. The skills of concentration have shifted, however, is concentration any less essential now than fifty or two hundred fifty years ago?

While readers and writers of novels have had hundreds of years to perfect (and vary) their techniques, we consumers and producers of contemporary media are making rapid strides, but still lag far behind. Despite the vast differences in tools and techniques, the goals remain similar: to focus, reward, and transform concentration, and thereby, the known limits of thought, imagination, and feeling.

Imagine, however, an argument proceeding the opposite direction. How might Birkerts defend—against a monk or scholar of the sixteenth century, accustomed to long periods of study, thought, and contemplation—the powers of a 400 page (or less) story to stoke and reward the abilities of human concentration?

To take another example, Goethe might well have thrived in our era, and would likely have challenged us and contributed to our society similarly as he did to his own culture. His own age saw many radically explosive transformations of media, politics, thought, art, and human self-identification. For Goethe, and for his friend and colleague Friedrich Schiller, aesthetic bliss was defined as a fleeting experience, often occurring by surprise. Bliss was composed of paradox and emotional complexity (and even instability), available because of, not despite, the chaos and change present in the experienced world. For it is chaos and creative transformation, not the precious contemplation of treasured objects, which make possible the world and all those who live in it.

If anything, Birkerts’s concerns are much too “Presbyterian” and ignore the bulk of thinking and writing of the early Romantics, who revolutionized the imagination and its abilities to connect creative observation with aesthetic bliss.