Coaxing the sight and sound back to your life

In the first volume of Life of the Mind Hannah Arendt reflects on the “almost infinite diversity” of the appearances we find in the world, “the sheer entertainment value of its views, sounds, and smells” (pg 20) which philosophers have tended to overlook. This immediately reminded me of a letter C Wright Mills wrote to his friend, the historian William Miller, who was struggling with a new job he had started:

You ask for what one should be keyed up? My god, for long weekends in the country, and snow and the feel of an idea and New York streets early in the morning and late at night and the camera eye always working whether you want or not and yes by god how the earth feels when it’s been plowed deep and the new chartreuse wall in the study and wine before dinner and if you can afford it Irish whiskey afterwards and sawdust in your pants cuff and sometimes at evening the dusky pink sky to the northwest, and the books to read never touched and all that stuff the Greeks wrote and have you ever read Macaulay’s speeches to hear the English language? And to revise your mode of talk and what you talk about and yes by god the world of music which we must now discover and there’s still hot jazz and getting a car out of the mud when nobody else can. That’s what the hell to get keyed up about.

I blogged about this years ago when I encountered it in C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings. As often happens the blog post then stood in for the original source, leading me to forget about the latter part of the letter which I rediscovered here, finding Arendt’s observation of the “sheer entertainment value” advocated by Mills to his friend as a source of existential inspiration:

The trouble with you and what used to be the trouble with me is that you don’t use your goddamned senses; too much society crap and too much mentality and not enough tactile and color and sound stuff going on. So now if you’re like I was a year ago, you’ve got to coax the sight and sound back, carefully tease it to life again and it will fill you up.

I came to this sensibility almost exactly ten years ago at a time of significant change in my personal life. I’m struck by the fact I’ve semi-consciously circled back to it a decade later during extremely similar circumstances, with the difference being that I’ve now faced up to the rapidly accelerating destruction of the world, leaving me preoccupied by the question of how we find joy on a dying planet.

I don’t think a cultivated attentiveness to the ‘views, sounds, smells’ of the world which remains is sufficient for that undertaking but I suspect it is necessary, as a precondition for hope and the pathways which hope can open up. The simple pleasures which an attentive life affords which aren’t reliant on the accumulation of commodities, the inheritance of art & ideas which even the most studious amongst us only scratches the surface of in a lifetime and the mundane fact of embodiment in a world afford an endless range of subtly embodied experiences.

These are all part of life but the point C Wright Mills is making to his friend is that we have to “coax the sight and sound back” in order that “it will fill you up”. It means recognising the worth to be found in the mundanely sensual and aesthetic, striving to living in a way which is open to being filled by these experiences, rather than the peculiar mix of purposive rushing and deadening habit which so easily combines to leave us inhabiting a cold world which no longer speaks to us. Roberto Unger describes this in terms of ‘little deaths’ we all experience:

He faces the burdens of belittlement a third time as he grows older, and settles into an existence that he has embraced, or that has been forced upon him. A carapace of routine, of compromise, of silent surrenders, of half-term solutions, and of diminished consciousness begins to form around him. He turns himself over to the rigidified version of the self: the character. He begins to die small deaths, many times over. He fails to die only once, which is what he would desire if he were able fully to recognize the value of life. This third encounter with belittlement reveals belittlement for what it in fact is: death by installments.

What Arendt describes as the “the sheer entertainment value of its views, sounds, and smells” can be a life raft we cling to when we would otherwise be carried away towards these small deaths by behavioural tides which precede and exceed our capacity to act in purposive ways. They serve as a reminder of what is good, beautiful and true in the world, as well as the continual eruption of these qualities into being in spite of the debased circumstances in which they take root. These experiences constitute the psychic infrastructure which make hope possible and gathering around them makes that hope something which exists between us, rather than being hoarded as a psychic palliative to ease the despair. But that requires an openness to love as well as hope, neither of us which come easily after we’ve become used to inhabiting the coordinates of a cold world.

I’m listening to every little whisper in the distance singing hymns
And I can
I can feel things

But it’s so hard
We got our heads down and our hackles up
Our back’s against the wall
I can feel your heart racing

None of this was written in stone
The currents fast but the river moves slow
And I can feel things changing

Even when I’m weak and I’m breaking
I stand weeping at the train station
‘Cause I can see your faces
There is so much peace to be found in people’s faces

It occurred to me a couple of months after writing this that it could easily be recast in terms of mindfulness. The term has too many corporate connotations for me at this stage to be entirely comfortable doing that at this stage, but inhabiting our sensory relationship to the world certainly necessitates mindfulness.

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