How Art Can Defeat Boredom and Loneliness
To Preserve the Need for Wonder, We Must Look Inward
To understand our experience, we need to look inwards. But our mental and imaginative resources would soon be exhausted if they were not replenished by looking outwards, and engaging imaginatively with the external world. Our minds and selves need nourishment, as much as our bodies; and if leisure has sometimes been seen as the foundation of culture, it is because it allows for the cultivation not only of self-knowledge, but of what might be called non-instrumental knowledge and non-productive aspects of the self: a disinterested curiosity, the capacity for aesthetic appreciation, the need for wonder. If we are to remain internally and intellectually alive, we need to make time not only for introspection but for imaginative exploration—for following our intellectual predilections, say, or our aesthetic impulses, without keeping an eye on the outcome or the speciﬁc goal. In a way, we need to remember that such activities are hardly superﬂuous; and that we need to give time to them not because they are worthy or improving, but because they enlarge our perceptions and understanding of the world, and nurture those parts of the self from which we perceive and understand.
We all know that reading is a good thing. There is no need to promote it as a fully approved activity, something that a self-respecting educated person should do as much of as possible.
But why, exactly, is it such a good thing—what do we read for? This may seem like an odd question to ask, but it needs to be posed if only because reading in the age of hyperactivity raises new questions and problems. For one thing, the very form of the book and the time required to read can seem incompatible with the digital time in which we spend so much of our lives. Our coexistence with digital devices has aﬀected our patience and shortened the span of our attention—which often does not extend beyond the abbreviated forms of internet communication. At the same time, the problems of choice can be as daunting in our dealings with books as with other, less worthy commodities. The sheer number of books produced each year and available to us in various formats can overwhelm our ability to choose and our powers of discrimination.
Like all human activities, reading has its history and its phases, and the 20th century was perhaps the heroic age of reading. Mastering the literary canon was part of an educated person’s equipment; reading “everything” was seen as a powerful, almost an athletic achievement. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his wonderful memoir The Words, describes a childhood spent almost exclusively among books—in a Parisian bourgeois household ﬁlled with these totemic objects, and dedicated to their worship. (Eventually, this period of extreme sedentary bookishness led him to develop a philosophy of action called existentialism—but that’s another story.)
Mind you, young Sartre had a lot of time on his hands, as we mostly do not. Why read, then? Why should we take the time to sit down with a “long-form” text (as it is sometimes called, in distinction to those default digital forms) and give it the requisite number of hours? There are several bad or insuﬃcient reasons to do so, and perhaps one of the poorest is “because we should”—because we want to be in the swim, to read what “everyone” is reading, or as a form of high-minded consumerism, or what the writer Tim Parks calls “this business of acquisitiveness and conquest”—so that we can tot up the number of titles we have to our credit.
Of course, we may want to read a much-discussed book for perfectly legitimate reasons—perhaps to ﬁnd out why it’s important, and if indeed it is; or simply to be part of the wider cultural conversation. It is after all one important role of books to stimulate such conversation, to create common points of reference within speciﬁc communities, or the wider society. Books help to create a sense that we live in a shared world, or what some sociologists have called “imagined communities.” But the fundamental reason for taking the time to read is because books (good books, that is; books that matter) are the best aid to extended thought and imaginative reﬂection we have invented. In our own time, this is particularly important, as an antidote to the segmentation of thought encouraged by digital technologies. Cruising among the inﬁnite quanta of data oﬀered on the internet is ﬁne for ﬁnding out information; but the disparate fragments we look at on our various screens rarely cohere into continuous thought, or a deepening of knowledge. For us, it is part of the value added by—and the importance of—books that they require us to focus our attention and to slow down our mental time; to follow the thread of thought or argument until new insight or knowledge is reached.
Unlike the ﬂat data of the internet, books are multidimensional; and they engage and nourish all our mental faculties—our whole selves. There are books that answer the basic impulse of curiosity; and for people of a certain temperament—or perhaps for all of us, if it isn’t stiﬂed—intellectual and imaginative curiosity can be as strong as libidinal desire. In various studies of such things, the urge to know has been shown to be deeply raveled with erotic energies, and following its direction and urgency leads to the best kind of reading. We may want to read a book about the latest discoveries in cosmology, or the latest studies of ant colonies, simply because such things are fascinating, and worth knowing; and because they reawaken our sense of wonder about the world. Or we may want to read a biography of a person we admire, or a history of a period which is of interest to us. Such books not only satisfy our desire for “objective” knowledge, but they give us a wider personal lens through which to view and understand the world, and our own location within it. They literally broaden our mental horizons and our perspective—and there is great enjoyment, as well as an intrinsic value, in that.
But it is imaginative literature—ﬁction, memoir, personal essays—which provides the fewest pragmatic answers to the question “why read,” and gives us the richest reasons. To make a rather sweeping proposition, imaginative literature is the art form most capable of encompassing all dimensions of human experience: the outer and the inner world, speciﬁc facts and the elusive textures of consciousness, the stories of individual selves and of the self within culture and society. Unlike factual texts which, at a pinch, can be summarized on Wikipedia, ﬁction and personal writing cannot be so condensed without losing something of their essence.
Reading of this kind cannot be done in a hurry. To enter a very good, or a great book (the latter are admittedly rare, but there are good reasons why we refer to them as classics), is to enter a world: the world created by the text, and the implicit world of the author’s voice, style, sensibility—indeed, the author’s soul and mind. This takes an initial stretching of the mind, a kind of going out of the imagination into the imaginative landscape of the book we hold in our hands. It is often a good idea to read the beginning of a book especially slowly and attentively; as in exploring a new house or place—or person—we need to make an initial eﬀort of orientation and of empathy. Eventually, if we are drawn in, we can have the immensely pleasurable experience of full absorption—a kind of simultaneous focusing of attention and losing our self-consciousness as we enter the imaginative world of the book.
The experience of absorption in a book is both very private, and universal. A book whose reputation has lasted has been, and will be, understood by many readers across various periods and languages; it speaks to something about the human situation that apparently transcends, or overarches, historical and cultural diﬀerences. But when we open a book we also enter a conversation between ourselves—a particular reader, with particular responses—and the text. Plunging into a novel or memoir and becoming absorbed in it calls for a certain receptivity, the willingness to “listen” attentively to the voice of the author and the minds of others. As we follow the plot of a book, or its logical and emotional argument, it is good to pause occasionally and enter into a dialogue with the voice we’re listening to—to check on what we’re thinking as we read, or whether an observation or an insight strikes us as true or insuﬃciently so.
Our literary heritage is so enormous, and the production of new books so constant, that if one wants to give examples of what literature has to oﬀer, one can only be very arbitrary. The writer who has been a lodestar for reﬂective readers for several centuries is Montaigne; his essays have been used as aids to introspection, and as stimulus to meditation on essential aspects of human experience. He was the ﬁrst to coin the term “essay” (“attempt”)—to describe what he was doing—and it is a form which perfectly suits his project, which was to observe himself and others without prejudice, and to ﬁnd out what he felt and thought. In a sense, he is the ﬁrst modern writer to attempt the individualist route to self-knowledge—that is, a method of investigation based not on religious precepts or prior philosophical ideas, but on close and uncompromisingly honest self-observation. Perhaps that is the secret of his continual appeal, despite the fact that his style is quite old-fashioned. If his writing retains its immediacy across the centuries, that is because in his essays he gives us the movements of his mind as it explores and circles around a subject, or around itself.
In a way, Montaigne was one of the ﬁrst psychologists, examining himself without preconceptions and without trying to arrive at any dogmatic conclusions. He knew that the human soul (what later came to be called the psyche) is full of “divers passions,” that we are not unitary in our moods or even our deeper inclinations. He understood that pain and loss are inevitable in human lives; and he believed that insight into those emotions can make them bearable. Above all, he believed in moderation. Even virtue, he thought, “becomes vicious, if we embrace it too stringently and with too violent a desire.” Drawing on the classical philosophers, and foreshadowing psychoanalysis, he intimated that the emotions needed to be mastered—but not stiﬂed or repressed. But he also valued his preferences and his pleasures, which he described without prior moralism or prejudice. He wanted, above all, to preserve his quirky individuality, and the particularity of his temperament and perceptions; and this makes him excellent company, interesting and surprising on every subject. One could do worse than spend some time with him—most of his essays can be read in less than an hour—and to remember the pleasures of self-observation, of sensing ourselves as speciﬁc personalities with individual predilections and temperament.
Montaigne is a central monument in the literature of self-observation, but since then, the literature of personal essay and memoir has grown large. Before the rise of formal depth-psychology, it was imaginative writing that gave us the richest examinations of human subjectivity. Freud acknowledged as much when he said that poets and writers were his true predecessors.
I still remember the sense of astonishment when I ﬁrst read Rousseau’s Confessions—perhaps the ﬁrst work of what has been called “deep auto- biography.” It was written some 100 years before the advent of psychoanalysis, but its insights extend not only to Rousseau’s traits or character, but into the origins of what might be called his neuroses or perversions. Amazingly, he is willing to reveal the irregular nature of his erotic desires—as a child, he enjoyed being beaten by a woman who adopted him after his mother’s death—and he understands the inﬂuence of his childhood sexuality on his adult behavior. At the same time, it is his capacity for pleasure—in nature, in his own perceptions, or simply in his existence in the world—which makes him so pleasurable toread. “But what did I enjoy when I was alone?” he asks. “Myself, the whole universe, all that is, all that can be, the entire beauty of the world of sense, the whole imaginable content of the intellectual world . . .” In Rousseau’s Confessions, the reader encounters a person exploring his inner life and giving forth his sensibility in all its contradictions. Ultimately it is the intensity with which he embraces experience, and the intensity of his quest to know himself, that underlies his sense of pleasure—and reading him puts us in touch with the more vivid registers of our feelings and thoughts. Reading creates a sense of human fellowship.
It is never (or rarely) a public activity, but in putting us in direct contact with other minds and sensibilities, it is a form of solitude which banishes loneliness. It can oﬀer the consolation of knowing we are not alone, in our pleasures or in our suﬀering. It is in situations of deprivation that the value of reading—the deep need for books—becomes more vividly apparent. This was evident to me, for example, when I met ex-prisoners in Eastern Europe who had been incarcerated for their political convictions. Those who had access to books—or even remembered the contents of books they had read, and could mull them over in their empty hours—preserved their sanity and strength much better. Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners, laboring in the terrible conditions of an apartheid prison, administered an education to themselves through the books they were allowed to read, and memorized passages from Shakespeare. In Romania I talked to a woman who, in her time of trial, kept reading and re-reading Anna Karenina. This was not because it allowed her to escape into a happier or a more romantic world; quite the contrary. It was because plunging into the novel assured her that human reality was richer than the constricted world she lived in. It was because every sentence in the novel had the quality of truthfulness. It is not easy to describe that quality, except to say that Tolstoy penetrates directly to each character’s inner life. His depictions of the social world his characters inhabit—their dress and domestic arrangements, the pecking order at social gatherings, their problems with work, but also, their struggles with social issues and ideological beliefs—give us a vivid sense of another time and culture; but it is his insight into the emotional texture of his characters’ inner worlds—their motives and desires, their longings and painful conﬂicts—that gives the novel an almost three-dimensional sense of depth. Tolstoy follows not only the mercurial ﬂow of his characters’ emotions, but the logic of their consciousness—their beliefs, their changing aspirations and interpretations of their own experience.
Anna Karenina, like many great novels, shows us the lives of others in three (or actually, many more) dimensions. And this is ﬁnally why time given over to reading is time richly repaid. Literature shows us the various possibilities of being human; it increases the range of our understanding and prompts us to reﬂect on our own lives—to see them, perhaps, from another, or a broader perspective.
Neuroscientists, who examine consciousness by brain-imaging or analyzing neurological connections, talk about certain kinds of perception or sensation called “qualia,” which so far cannot be captured through such investigations—the still ungraspable qualities of mood or emotion, the valences of pleasure and displeasure, or more delicate mixtures of thought and feeling which cannot be easily categorized. Such elusive qualities of experience are perhaps the unique domain of literature; it is not only what we experience, but how, that literature can capture better and more exactly than any other discipline or form of knowledge. Poetry and ﬁction give us images of human experience in all their dimensions; and great literature has the power to convince us that the complex inner lives of others are real; that others have suffered, loved and struggled as we do. Reading is not a project of moral improvement, but by broadening our perspective, it can make us less susceptible to the immediate seductions oﬀered by our environment; and in the best-case scenarios, it can enlarge the scope of humane understanding, and of empathy.
“Art is the nearest thing to life,” George Eliot said, referring to the art of ﬁction in particular. “It is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”
Our contemporary forms of reading threaten to reduce that ampliﬁcation. Aside from the fact that overusing digital technologies eventually makes us less mentally agile and more forgetful (as research increasingly shows), the kind of segmented, bite-sized reading we do on the internet fragments and constricts the “space to think,” instead of expanding it; in a sense, it reduces or even rubbishes our mental experience.
Our minds need to roam and stretch, to explore and discover, as our bodies do; and traveling through a long text gives us the scope for extended (perhaps on the neurological as well as imaginative level) mental exploration. But being in contact with rich imaginative worlds also reawakens and stimulates aspects of ourselves which we may forget, or suppress, if we move through our lives too fast: our capacities for reverie, lively curiosity, strenuous thought, deep insight, imagining other minds and lives.
D.H. Lawrence thought that it was better to re-read a great book six times than to read six middling books. Most of us do not have the time to revisit even a favorite masterpiece quite so often; but even if we cannot devote time to reading every evening, it is ultimately more fulﬁlling to spend, say, six hours a week absorbed in a complex “long-form” text than to trawl through 600 tweets that leave little or no mark on the mind.
Of all the cultural goods available to us today, it is the visual arts which stir our most consumerist instincts. Not to acquire works of art (not many of us can aﬀord to!), but to take tours of “big” exhibitions, and to look at paintings or other visual artifacts. Museums in big cities are crowded to the gills; retrospectives of painters from Velazquez to Picasso draw airport-density crowds. We rush to exhibitions and rush through them, in part to have seen them—and perhaps not to miss out on something that everyone else is apparently doing.
It is hard to object to crowds ﬂocking to museums, or the apparent increase of interest in art. It is part of being a mentally alive person to be aware of our cultural history; and it is one of the beneﬁts of globalization that the artistic heritage of the whole world is available to us through traveling artifacts—or through our own travels. Indeed, part of the appeal of visiting museums is the seeming ease of absorbing visual knowledge. A painting can be looked at in several seconds; walking through a comprehensive exhibition of an artist’s work, or of an aesthetic movement or period, takes considerably less time than reading a biography or a novel. At the same time, one of the pleasures in moving through galleries of a big museum is that images often contain a lot of information. Before the spread of literacy especially, painting was a way of conveying something about history—real or mythological—to people who could not get it from books. The Catholic church certainly understood the value of images in narrating foundational stories; and there is a whole heritage of paintings that tell us something about their period and place, or about changing mores and forms of belief, through portraits of signiﬁcant ﬁgures, or depictions of various kinds of craft and labour, or scenes of marriage or battle.
This is ﬁne, and can be a wonderfully enjoyable way of adding to our store of knowledge. But perusing paintings for their informational content, or ﬁghting your way through an irritable crowd in order to catch a glimpse of a masterpiece, is not conducive to making contact with a rich image and what it is trying to convey to us—in other words, to a full aesthetic experience. A more than cursory appreciation of painting requires a focusing and a quieting-down of attention; a kind of mindful looking. To absorb the full meaning of a fully conceived image we need to take in not only the texture of its colors, or its lines and rhythms, but also its inwardness. We need to intuit what kind of vision—literally and ﬁguratively—the artist has brought to the subject. Images come from deep within our psyches (we dream most often in images, after all)—and they speak to us eloquently. This is perhaps especially true of portraits and self-portraits—those representations of the human form and condition in its many aspects, from the assertions of power and shrewdness in the portraits of various Renaissance potentates, to states of dreamy reverie and trance in the depictions of (notional) saints, to visions of glamour, eroticism, despair, or modernist anxiety which have accumulated since then. Rembrandt’s portraits of aging men and women have an almost unbearable poignancy, but at the same time they remind us that aging and vulnerability also have their human appeal, their inward beauty—if we only look at them with empathy.
Giving such attention to aesthetic objects is the very essence of a non-instrumental act. It is a useless perceptual gesture, performed entirely for its own sake. And yet, our senses and our minds need the stimulus and refreshment of aesthetic pleasure—of what used to be called beauty. In the presence of too much ugliness—which is so copiously available in our world—we grow dry and discouraged, and less able to take relish in the act of perception, and of being alive. From the Greek philosophers on, beauty has been thought to express some important principles in the universe—harmonies, or sacred symmetries—and the love of beauty was seen as close to the love of virtue or truth. (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”) These days, we do not much talk about beauty, and indeed, a lot of modernist and post-modern art does not in any way conform to its classical deﬁnitions or requirements. But our enjoyment of art that violates the classical rules of harmony can also be intense; and the riddle of our need for aesthetic form is being increasingly looked at through the prism of neuroscience, and sometimes, of evolution. Certain landscapes, and painterly representations of them (especially those reminiscent of the African savannah), are thought to be satisfying because they go back to the origins of our evolution, and were conducive to it; the savannah, for example, created a vantage point that protected groups from their enemies, and allowed them to evolve in peace—and later landscapes which echo such views appeal to that archaic sense of safety. In a neurological analogy to sacred symmetries, the visual arts are thought to be satisfying because they allow us to perceive certain regularities and underlying structures in what is depicted—and the perception of such regularities is important to our understanding of the world. If we cannot see patterns, we literally cannot see—cannot understand what is in front of us. There have also been studies which suggest that aesthetic experiences draw on “networked” perceptual systems—that they absorb all our senses and mental powers. The best works of art give form to physical sensuality, emotion and conscious perception simultaneously, and they allow us to feel the pleasure of such integration—of feeling internally uniﬁed.
But surely our sense of beauty is also tied to a sense of attachment. The face of someone we love grows beautiful, as an unloved face doesn’t. The natural and urban landscapes we grew up with remain imbricated with allure, no matter what their character. Many of my friends are baﬄed by my predilection for the ﬂat, seemingly monotonous Polish landscapes, but for me, they make the strings of aesthetic response vibrate.
Of course, human and natural forms cannot be judged by the same criteria as works of art. But art reminds us that we are attached to the world through our physical perceptions—through our relish of the textures and colours of our surroundings—and it also helps us understand that the way we perceive the external world and the human form is informed by our inner vision. Hostility or fear makes the objects of our vision ugly; on the other hand, aesthetic appreciation arises out of an intense appreciation or cherishing—a way of looking that requires attentiveness and a kind of love.
Occasionally, we see faces of people in a museum looking up at a painting, rapt in focused concentration. At its most intense, the act of looking at art oﬀers and induces a kind of total aesthetic experience. It is an act of contemplation, in what might be called the Western mode—that is, contemplation focused on an object, rather than on the emptiness within. To achieve it, we need to look with both our physical and our inner vision—to open fully the doors of perception.
“All art aspires to the condition of music,” said the 19th-century essayist Walter Pater, and of all the arts, music most directly expresses and affects our inner states. It is also an art which happens in real time (as opposed to a book, which we can pick up and put down from day to day); and which moulds both external time and our internal pace and rhythms as we listen to it. The pace of listening to music cannot be forced (as we sometimes can quicken the pace at which we read a book); if we attempt to play an old record twice as fast, we get jarring gobbledygook. Time is the material of music, and part of its meaning; and in order to listen to a musical composition, we have to not only give it the requisite amount of real time, but to submit—give ourselves over—to its patterning of tempo and rhythm, its moulding of temporality. I’m speaking here mostly about classical music. Other kinds of music can of course be wonderfully enlivening, sexy, thrilling. But it is the works of the classical repertory which take us through extended stretches of time, and provide the experience of wordless, but often profound reﬂection.
Why, or how, music aﬀects us so powerfully is, like all fundamental questions about art and mind, not easily explicable. Undoubtedly, music developed as an extension of the human voice—a faculty that proceeds from within us, and is most directly tied to emotional self-expression and our moods (try to make your voice sound really cheerful when you’re feeling disappointed or dejected). Music is in part a gestural form, as the voice is; and it can give forth the movements of emotion, which always have a temporal dimension (happiness and sadness have diﬀerent internal rhythms); and which, as neuroscientists increasingly observe, involve both thought and a physical, inner motion. It is not an etymological coincidence that the word ‘emotion’ contains within itself the word “motion.”
It is also possible that music is directly tied to the evolutionary development of language. In a book called The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, the evolutionary biologist Steven Mithen suggests that musical communication preceded the verbal kind, rather than the other way around. Certainly, babies respond to melodious vocalizations and song long before they learn words and sentences. Indeed, babies respond to sophisticated music as well; and for parents who would keep their infants calm or give them an early injection of high culture, Mozart is the composer of choice. (Perhaps not so incidentally, having Mozart piped in to large dairies also improves the milk yield in cows. Let’s face it, Mozart is good for you!)
In a way that still cannot be analysed fully, Mozart’s musical language expresses states of sheer delight and deep serenity. Music rarely “says” anything; but music speaks—and it is, above all, the language of intensity. It is hard to think of music that is merely tepid; but the language of music can encompass the most dramatic and subtle palette of feeling: tenderness, suppressed fury, madcap joy, gentle melancholy. When you listen to a Beethoven quartet, you can be taken from moods of ﬁerce despair to robust humor, to the calmer movements of thoughtfulness and to serene, sometimes unearthly acceptance. But it is also the special trait of musical language that it can say everything at once, can suggest both grief and joy in the same chord. Chopin’s harmonic progressions can compress within themselves a ﬁerce anger and an almost erotic tenderness. It is that synthesis that music can most fully and powerfully express, and which is part of its profound eﬀect on us.
If we want to experience the full impact and the deep pleasure of music, we need to pull away from distractions and give ourselves over to the shifts of rhythm or tonality, to the emotional modulations of a composition; and to follow its thread of development, which corresponds to a kind of thinking in sound. A friend who is a neurologist has said to me that he knows he is in a highly anxious state when he cannot become instantly absorbed in music; and he deliberately makes the eﬀort of such immersion in order to calm down and renew his internal energies. Music, more than any other form of artistic expression, can affect and alter the listener’s states: it can induce moods of great calm, or the kind of catharsis that follows a full expression of sadness or sorrow. Great compositions can move us to cry, as paintings rarely do; and often, these are tears of release and consolation. Such responses are apparently cross-cultural; and in studies that ask people to name the emotions they hear in a piece of music, the feelings identiﬁed are thoroughly consistent. We know when we’re hearing joy, anger or meditative melancholy.
In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks hazards a guess that the love of music, which is nearly universal, is akin to “biophilia”; that we have a natural aﬃnity for music, as we have for organic life. Music, in his poignant case studies, heals the worst symptoms of dementia; it helps post-encephalitic patients organize their movements; in cases of severe memory loss, people often remember songs and melodies after everything else is gone. It is as if music has the power to shape and bring into focus our neurological systems, to depict, through its structured motion, the patterns and dynamics of our interior lives.
It is the power of music that it enacts the drama of feeling—of “thinking from within”—at a depth which is not easily translated into verbal language, but is nevertheless nearly universally recognizable. Music allows us to experience fully and deeply states of mind and feeling that we often keep at bay; and experiencing our inner states clearly and fully—even if they involve suﬀering or sadness—can be more profoundly consoling and cathartic than trying to suppress them.
We deem the idea of passion to be romantic and sentimental; but listening to music prises open those more intense and sometimes turbulent sensations and emotions which can only be called passionate. Being immersed in the musical language of Bach or Beethoven, Bartok or sometimes even Aretha Franklin, reminds us that we have inner lives which are more than superﬁcial or politely socialized; that we have the potential for powerful feelings and responses; and that if we consign ourselves to functioning only on the surfaces of ourselves we lose rich dimensions of experience, and a measure of our humanity.
From How to Be Bored. Used with permission of Picador. Copyright © 2017 by Eva Hoffman.