Friday, May 29, 2009

Pastoral Thinking

At Sponge!, Lee Rourke writes about the great meditation on walking in Roubaud's The Great Fire of London, a marvelous bit of writing I neglected to mention in my long post on the novel (which Lee graciously links to):
When walking, he argues (and to paraphrase) we are in ‘possession of time’: each footfall counts its passing. We can choose to stop, to turn, to slow down at our own pace, to meander and wend, to backtrack and shortcut; within this act of possession things are infinitely freer. Whereas on a train, plane, or in a car, time has captured us, we are at its mercy, carried by it with no control, it dictates our decision to be free; we are not free in this sense.
Apologies to Lee for quoting the entirety of his post (but it's very short and my own paraphrastic powers are at an extremely low ebb these days), but I wanted to highlight the freedom associated with this "possession of time". We are so rarely truly in possession of our time, with jobs and commutes and so on. Even when we do have time to ourselves, it is bounded by those demands on our time over which we have little real control. This domination by speed, by time, this unfreedom, affects our very thinking. Some will argue, and do, that this is fine and dandy, a newer, quicker thinking has come into being. I might have made this argument at one point, but these days I find it wanting.

By coincidence, last night I was reading in Kafka's Diaries and came across an entry on Goethe's diaries (would that in Goethe's diaries he were writing about yet another's diaries, but it was not to be). Kafka remarks that Goethe's observations while traveling are different than they would have been in Kafka's day
because made from a mail-coach, and with the slow changes of the region, develop more simply and can be followed much more easily even by one who does not know those parts of the country. A calm, so-to-speak pastoral form of thinking sets in. (translation by Joseph Kresh)
I want this, this calm, this quiet, this slowness, space to think, time to work things out. Down with speed!

1 comment:

Rhys Tranter said...

Hi Richard,

A great post; it reminds me of a pub-quiz historical tidbit from the Victorian age.

When trains first became popular forms of public transport in the nineteenth century, the public were concerned about the physical and psychological damage such high speeds could induce on the human body.

As far as I know, this development in technology prompted the first suggestions that psychological disturbances could manifest themselves as physical symptoms of trauma. It has been suggested, as a result, that speed and technology can effect not only the way we think, but we way we feel and even function.

In the case of railway transportation, the public scare was more of a moral panic than a real threat to human safety; but culturally, technological advances in the speed of travel and communication have often prompted genuine concerns about the physical and mental stability of Western society.

Kafka, conveniently, belongs to a generation that was beginning to express the latent traumas and anxieties the new technology introduced to everyday life.

Since then, a whole academic discipline has sprung up around us, addressing issues of Trauma and Speed on the human subject. It's all pretty interesting, too, and well worth looking into.

All the best,