Work over a drawing or a poem and all sense of passing time is suspended. The next day, watch television all evening, and you’re surprised at how fast the evening goes. These are common observations, common enough to abstract into principle: when the senses are full but inactive, time speeds up. When the faculties labor, time slows down. When we are passive consumers of information or entertainment, irrespective of the quality of what we consume, time flies. When we are producers, time stops. The intensity of the creative mind is inverse to the perception of passing time. (By creating, I mean most any active production, from origami to plumbing, as opposed to passive consumption, from reading novels to sitcom bingeing.)
After each of these experiences we sense how they are opposites. When a session of creative work is over, we feel integrated, whole. Consciousness is fuller. But when we come to our senses after hours of entertainment and realize the hours we lost, it feels like a loss of something we can’t quite say. We feel a little less whole; the field of consciousness seems to have shrunk. We feel alienated.
So we can actually punch the time button if we want, and suspend it. Or, toggle it the other direction and lose time.
Let’s aggregate this insight: as a society becomes more and more filled with opportunities to passively consume content, the sense of passing time grows more acute, individually, and enters the general air as a pop culture mood. There are ancillary effects. Hoarding, for example – here’s a phenomenon that has appeared in recent decades in the affluent West, like some emergent disease. Hoarders collect objects that have touched their lives in a desperate attempt to resist the sense that life is passing away like a flash. The piles of junk that fill hoarders’ homes are shored-up bulwarks against the empty present. Mounds of memory. Fear of death. Physical nostalgia.
So, this oddity: nostalgia and entertainment culture go together. I’d go so far as this: individuals who spend their time creating do not feel much nostalgia.
There are many needed distinctions at this point, but I can only list them. Each needs longer treatment. One: nostalgia and respect for the past are not the same thing. Another: reading can be active or passive, it depends on the larger context and not on the subject matter of the book. Reading good books is to be praised and encouraged, but can be just as passive a lifetime as one spent staring at a screen. The reader should do something with her reading – write something, sing something, use the information somehow, or let the poem inspire her to create in her own idiom. Good writing deserves to be responded, and the healthy reader will be UNABLE not to respond to a good book with active production of some kind. It’s not a rule, it just happens. Further, none of this contradicts the common and healthy advice to “read for pleasure”, which is good counsel. Read for pleasure, and with active engagement (but these are the same thing), then do what you will.
There are ancillary insights. For example, in the same way that time stops when we make things, God, who is pure creative act, experiences literal eternity.
Speaking of theology….in many religious anthropologies, much is made of efforts to fix some supposed heirarchy of the senses, or other. This effort is, partly, to make any sense other than the visual the one in charge, so it can slow or organize an increasingly fast and chaotic sensorium centered, typically, around our sight. Ellul wrote of “the humiliation of the word”; Postman writes of the loss of the “typographical mind”; the Desert Fathers were concerned about the cognitive “image” obscuring the theoria (or contemplation) of the adept.
The recurrent impulse to make pyramids of the sense-organs is understandable as a reaction to the panic of speeding time, and has suggestions of biblical warrant, ever since Eve preferred a vivid vision (her own picture of her own future) over a fading verbal proposition (“don’t eat from that tree”).
But this mistakes the symptom for the disease. There are indeed pathological rebellions of one sense over the others, and each unique person will have an idiosyncratic imbalance. Pathology has random permutations. But there is no prescribed heirarchy of the senses, either from God, or in historical experience. None works.
Another impulse is physical solitude. We sometimes want to just go apart, sit by the Walden pond or in the monastic cell or walk through Yosemite – just to get away from the kaleidoscope. Fine, if we’re just shutting out most of the world in order to concentrate on work. But if we’re just retreating from the distractions in self-defense, solitude isn’t the necessary solution. Work is. Work more on your own project, and you’ll find your sense-life has suddenly grown quiet and almost contemplative, in the middle of the traffic noises.
There is no correct hierarchy of sense. There is no redemption in place. There is only the active man, and the passive man. As man acts upon the world, craftsperson acting on the material, artist acting on the medium, all the senses swing into perfect harmony automatically, pulled into their proper roles and relations by the pressure of the external task. The glorious external task of keeping the garden, building the city.
Modern man is becoming more passive as his world fills up with things to do and watch and he gets busier and busier, and the dis-arrangement of his senses, culminating in actual mental illness, is a symptom of this entropy — not a cause.
Time will continue to speed up as the world fills with distractions. In the end, alienation is experienced more like a narcotic, like a not unpleasant buzz, with occasional startles from noticing the number of the year.