A Solitary Mind
Tonight the house is quiet and I am unable to focus. It is an old problem now. I may never get over it. I have come through a series of impossibles of the sort I gave myself to believe would never happen to me. For many of these impossibles, including the death of siblings and numbingly severe medical diagnoses for myself and close relatives, I have instinctively manned up. As part of coping with a seemingly unending series of 30 minute to three day emergencies over the past four years I have lost a number of disciplines which once came easier. As an overthinker, it is painful to lose control of the long vectors of thought in order to service more immediate and often selfless endeavors.
As the kind of person who remembers myself at the age of four it is painful to approach the age of sixty with a more or less comprehensive understanding at long last what ropes and chains I bound myself by over the years. I am humbled by my errors — the errors of arrogance and auto-didactic motivations. I am also comforted by my unwillingness by the same token to lament the intellectual mentorship I never received. I am thinking about that now, in my quiet house writing into this, my alternate computer, to you my newest audience.
It is because I have been reminded over the past week what it is like to recall when my vectors were more my own and I had the bearing of confidence that comes from a clarity of mind, purpose and discipline. The spark is still alive in my eyes and my hands don’t waver, but my resting heart rate is higher than it should be. I should not be so twitchy as I am. So I am decidedly resisting the temptation to spend more calories chasing the inevitable hits I would get from shaming more political addicts. I tried to listen to the local CBS radio station in line at the In-N-Out drive through and I couldn’t take it as the announcer did his horserace commentary on three or four ballot initiatives still in limbo. The last one was Proposition 19. He didn’t say what it was about. We’re all supposed to know that, right? I am resisting because it is quiet in my house and I have been reminded of what it’s like to love chess.
I can recall driving on Interstate 5, northbound while listening to Kasparov’s latest book on AI and chess and what intelligence is and is not. On the same roads I fondly remember Ferguson’s Square and the Tower, and Amir Alexander’s Infintesimal. All are books like dozens of others I only speak of to myself. On some rare occasion I might steal a reference in writing as I do with you now. Kasparov reminds me, like Robert Conquest, of someone who knows some things with life-wagering certainty. I do not doubt him. This is the fearsome realm of chess, a brutal contest of absolute honesty, terror and courage. I still remember the men who beat me, especially the one who beat me out of my fondness for its challenge. His name was Phil Driver and it was my sophomore year in high school.
The dramatic series ‘Queen’s Gambit’ on Netflix evokes my memories of the Ruy Lopez and the Caro-Cann. Forever in my mind are those long vectored afternoons with I.A. Horowitz in paperback and my fluorescent plastic pieces listening to the Isley Brothers in my bedroom. I reflexively think of the lack of a chess club or Boy Scout troop in my neighborhood and my parents inability to afford both the piano rental and piano lessons. It might have been chess. It might have been electronics. It might have been piano. Lord give that boy something to do. I had a hangry mind. I still do.
There is also the prospect of this other book that annoys me. It brings to mind that French phrase in my worried self-pity ‘fête manquée’. This one. I feel that I have to know it. So what if I do? Is my study self-medication or a searching for another way to reach out, or a way to satisfy myself that I don’t need to? I don’t know right now, but I do know that I felt a lot better to hear Harold Bloom say it his way back in 2012. It still feels a little like this:
Bloom within an hour reminded me of a number of authors I have rather forgotten. I’d dabbled with them but never gone as far as I might have. Chehkov, Mann, Coleridge, Maupassant. What’s wrong with me? But he really zinged me in ‘How to Read and Why’ with suggestions about the attitude I should take with me towards reading. What surprised me the most was that as I was just now rummaging through an old diary of mine (circa 1990). That used to be my attitude.
The biggest problem I have had in my intellectual career is that reading books has always been for me a zero-sum game with my sociability. I stay at home over the weekend and read 300 pages, that’s a whole weekend I make myself happy and one step less engaged with everyone in front of me. What do I do on Saturday night when the rest of the people are drinking beer and watching the game with friends? I’m reading, with no friends and alienating myself from the beer crew. Which is perfectly fine with me: in 1990. Then along comes the internet and I become convinced that I can catch up to the fete manque of where ever Yale humanities dorm bull sessions go after graduation. So I invent all sorts of online personnae (about eight including Cobb, now 20 years gone) for my projects using the internet as social media as I have been since 1993.
I sometimes feel that stuck way. But I know I still enjoy the quiet weekends I haven’t been getting reading for my own hangry mind’s sake. I’m not trying to impress anyone that I’m a Renaissance Man, I just find it convenient to externalize my self-criticism for those with the spare time to read me. You know who you are. You are genuinely welcome and I genuinely thank you.
On the trifecta of memory of the right, long and focused vector, someone reminded me of the old desert island record selection. In that group was Yuja Wang, someone I’ve never heard of. But I do know Rach #2 and Rach #3 and all of these, and what it sounds when Barenboim plays them vs when its Kempff or Gould or Volodos or Horowitz or Watts. It was a pleasant reminder that there’s enjoyment in all that complexity for its own sake. Yeah that, and there it is again, a kind of hangry sophisticated consumerism. Just like the fact that I’m awaiting the next annual download of the most sophisticated videogame I’ve ever played. I know that hundreds of coders have labored massively for me to run around in the world they’ve invented, all of this literature and beauty satisfies my hunger.
I’ve been inspired and grateful. This autumn I discovered Jodorowski’s Dune I had been putting off. One of the greatest films ever hyper-made, clear in his singular mind but distributed everywhere else over time. That’s how it works, I think. We only have limited time and resources to get our brilliant insights out. There’s something always disrupting our would-be masterpieces and shortening our attention spans. For heaven’s sake don’t let it be donkeys and elephants. So the trick, I suppose is to gather in all you know and to take some measure of comfort in the hyper influence. We do not live in linear time like the Victorians. We are too distributed to get it all in ranks and files. Our chess is four dimensional and interrupted by Klingon attacks. We should live so long as to prosper if only in recreated memories and virtual integrations of all the lovely fragments.
Puttering is what I’m learning to do. I may come all apart before I learn how to do the Silicon Valley Shuffle and get others to code what grand visions I have for the digital world. Even if that never happens in code, I’m still writing the book and so will have it in concept. I just learned almost the hard way to keep the manuscript in multiple formats as well as multiple places. “In 30 years I’ve never seen Apple screw up so bad.” says the guy who told me my laptop would be repaired in 5 or 6 business days three weeks ago. Puttering is about perfecting the moment. Taking time to do so. It accepts small focused perfections which may line up to be a vector over time. I can accept that.
Since this is November and the election is all over but the shouting, I am reminded as I sit in this quiet dark room and let the world in through my screens that I am a solitary mind. Nothing about what I feel today has to do with broad public events. I don’t even know if that makes me the least bit unique, but I feel the effort required to make conversation around the subjects. That’s for another night. Tonight is here to remind me that everyone dies alone and our efforts to make a mark on other minds will necessarily come in staccato bursts and timing not of our own design and desire. To be at peace with this is to accept ones individuality and to pay that cost willingly. That, to me, is the essence of personal integrity, the single and necessary counterweight to the madness of crowds.
Originally published at https://mdcbowen.substack.com.