Friday, December 07, 2012

A Hundred Roots Silently Drinking

But when I lean over the chasm of myself—
it seems
my God is dark
and like a web: a hundred roots
silently drinking.

This is the ferment I grow out of.

— Rilke

William Deresiewicz:

Thinking well takes time: time for doubt, time for analysis and synthesis, time to let your intuition operate, time to have a second thought. The faster we write, the faster we respond (on Twitter or Facebook, in discussion threads or texts), the more superficial the level of consciousness we’re working from. We’re skimming the surface of our minds (which, like the surface of other things, is mostly foam and crud), forgoing reason, judgment, artistry, craft. That is not the place from which the most intelligent forms of communication, the ones that used to play a larger role in our lives—novels, essays, serious journalism—originate. But it is the place our public discourse, and our private discourse, too, increasingly inhabits.

The Rilkean imagery appeals to me in this context: roots, darkness, silence, fermentation. The type of thought I find most worthwhile needs time to develop, and it can't always be hurried along by conscious prodding. Those connective webs of understanding just seem to spontaneously emerge in the shadowed corners of our thought while our attention is elsewhere.

Complaints about the social web tend to take the form of curmudgeons lamenting the lack of spelling and grammar in text messages and tweets, but again, it's a mistake to consider the spectacle of people spending every waking moment typing pidgin-English on their phones as a deformation of writing. What they're doing is talking, in text. The problem is not that people in the last decade have suddenly gotten stupider and unable to learn basic writing skills; the problem is that those hours that used to be spent in solitude, where boredom or a mere lack of stress can come into play, are now filled with nonstop chattering. Those times when we used to find ourselves alone with nothing to do, when we might pick up a book out of curiosity, or when we would take a deep breath, relax, and stare out the window while letting our thoughts idly meander, or when we could just simply rest in that receptive state in which the seeds of new thoughts could begin putting down roots, in which the fragments of sensory stimulation acquired throughout the day, unimportant in themselves, could decay into organic material to serve as nourishment for those more substantial thoughts; those times, for a variety of reasons, are becoming more rare.

The rootless, constantly-in-motion nature of activity on the social web only puts me in mind of tumbleweeds rolling across sun-baked clay.


  1. This is something I struggle with a lot. I need to write and publish several thousand words a week. I try to be inspiring, or thought-provoking, or at the bare minimum, not trite. It's harder than hell for me to find the space to do nothing, to think nothing. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I suspect it has something to do with restricting stimuli.

    The only trouble is, the whirlwind, insane as it is, is still at a kind of equilibrium. It's the attempting to slow down that brings on motion sickness...

  2. I like your imagery of substantial thoughts growing in us. I have ideas about life and existence that seem important but incomplete, that I go back to and cogitate on for years.
    But can't people gain useful insights by "talking things out"? While most talk is pointless chatter, sometimes even that has a stream of consciousness quality - even randomness - that might produce something interesting. Maybe there's a sort of survival of the fittest for ideas - lots of mutations producing a few successes.

  3. I do think different people can get energized in different ways.

    But I also think there's a cyclical nature to the sort of thinking we're talking about, where ideas need to be allowed time and space to develop at their own pace. We think differently when we're by ourselves and maybe a little bored than we do when we're in conversation, whether frivolous or deep. How we divide that pie chart depends on things like the degree of our introversion and extroversion, but I do think it needs to be divided somehow to be most effective.