Saturday, June 28, 2003

In my two most recent reads I came across oddly connecting quotes that pertain to a point I made some time ago in my post on Richard Panek's book on astronomy, Seeing and Believing. J.D. Salinger says in Franny and Zooey, through Franny, that
Everything everybody does is so--I don't know--not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and--sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.
While I think the answer to this problem can be found in the rest of the book, I wouldn't have understood it fully without this quote from Jack Finney's absolutely terrific time-travel novel Time and Again:
Today's faces are different; they are much more alike and much less alive... there was... an excitement in the streets of New York in 1882 that is gone... Their faces were animated, they were glad to be just where they were, alive in that moment and place... they felt [pleasure] at being outdoors, in the winter, in a city they liked... [they] moved through their lives in unquestioned certainty that there was a reason for being. And that's something worth having, and losing it is to lose something vital.
Of course there have always been cynics and pessimists, but I think it is true that many more people nowadays have been so disillusioned that they can think of nothing worth living for, and spend their lives in a constant trudge of distraction until they forget even that there should be a reason for living.

Something I like to do to alleviate the boredom of driving is to observe the faces of drivers around me, particularly when I am stopped at a stoplight and watching the traffic go in the other direction; and while it may just be that driving is not conducive to any sort of enjoyment, the expressions on people's faces are indeed nearly all alike. Even emotions such as anger or annoyance are rarely apparent; rather a uniform dull quality masks each personality. And I don't doubt that I often have a similar mask, despite my lifelong belief in the best reason of all. Humans in general find it too easy

to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion. (Pascal, Pensees)
Diversion is even more abundant in this era of satellite TV, video games, magazines, sexual promiscuity, self-help books, and the Internet; at least the Victorians had simple parlor games that required imagination and creativity for amusement. When we do think about what we are, or what reason we have for being, it is in the context of self; there is no destiny or divinity or even community. Philosophy is not quite dead, but even those who still take interest in it often miss the mark. I'm not sure there's anyone alive today who really grasps what it is to be a philosopher, but I think it may rest in that unshakable faith in something beyond the daily grind, and the ability to, through that faith, find excitement in the wonderful world in which we are so privileged to live.

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