Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Distracted From Distraction By Distraction"

In "Burnt Norton" (which later became part of Four Quartets), T. S. Eliot wrote that we moderns are "distracted from distraction by distraction."  "Burnt Norton" was published in 1936.  Imagine what Eliot would think of "distraction" today.

In an "Afterword" to his Collected Stories, Saul Bellow has this to say about "distraction":

Our consciousness is a staging area, a field of operations for all kinds of enterprises, which make free use of it.  True, we are at liberty to think our own thoughts, but our independent ideas, such as they may be, must live with thousands of ideas and notions inculcated by influential teachers or floated by "idea men," advertisers, communications people, columnists, anchormen, et cetera.  Better-regulated (educated) minds are less easily overcome by these gas clouds of opinion.  But no one can have an easy time of it. . . . Public life in the United States is a mass of distractions.

By some this is seen as a challenge to their ability to maintain internal order.  Others have acquired a taste for distraction, and they freely consent to be addled.  It may even seem to many that by being agitated they are satisfying the claims of society.  The scope of the disorder can even be oddly flattering:  "Just look -- this tremendous noisy frantic monstrous agglomeration.  There's never been anything like it.  And we are it!  This is us!"

Saul Bellow, Collected Stories (2001), pages 441-442.

Years earlier, Bellow said something similar in Humboldt's Gift (1975):  "society claims more and more and more of your inner self and infects you with its restlessness.  It trains you in distraction, colonizes consciousness as fast as consciousness advances."

                 Harald Sohlberg, "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)


Steven Riddle said...

Dear Stephen,

Reminiscent of Dante's great description of Lady Fate:

"Her changes change her changes constantly. . ."



Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you for visiting again, Mr. Riddle. And thank you for the reference to Dante -- it does fit well.

Steve said...

Upon hearing this phrase for the first time, my thinking was, "What are we being distracted, or kept, from? My only answer is that distractions allow us to postpone wrestling with the central questions of life. It can be very uncomfortable to step out of the collective trance. Every generation has its distractions, whether that involves simply staying alive or having available the time and resources to create bright lights and gadgetry.

Stephen Pentz said...

Steve: thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts. I think that you have provided an excellent explanation of what Eliot was getting at. Thanks again.