Diary

Joseph Epstein

Reading along in Elizabeth Bruehl-Young’s biography of the philosopher Hannah Arendt I came across an item that astonished me. Every afternoon when at home in her West Side apartment in Manhattan, Hannah Arendt used to set herself out on the couch in her living-room and, for an hour or so, do nothing but think. Professor Bruehl-Young doesn’t say about what Hannah Arendt thought, but then perhaps there is no need for her to have done so. One assumes she thought about things she was writing at the time, or about world events, or about personal relationships, or even about thinking itself. Hannah Arendt is generally described as a thinker – and a thinker, after all, thinks. Yet I find myself astonished at Hannah Arendt’s or anyone else’s ability to set aside a portion of the day for thinking, chiefly because of my own inability to go and do likewise. I see myself stretched out on the couch in my own living-room. I am on my back, shoes off, collar open, hands in my pockets or perhaps folded over my chest. It is quiet in the room; good light enters, aslant, through the windows to the west. I have set myself the problem of thinking through the difficulties I am having in organising a lengthy book I have begun writing. The elements of the problem, it seems to me ...

Dissolve and cut to the same room ten or even five minutes later, where we see a man of middle years snoring lightly, a faint smile upon his face. Why, you might ask, is this man smiling? Possibly it is because he is dreaming of himself triumphant on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, or of some sexual conquest; or maybe he is smiling only in the guilty knowledge that he is getting away with a mid-afternoon snooze. The man, of course, is me. And this brief scenario is what I take to be an accurate prophecy of what is likely to happen if I were to attempt to think in a concentrated way on a single subject for more than a few minutes at a stretch.

Am I alone in this? I am inclined to believe I am in the majority here. This is a majority that thinks a good deal – all the time, even – but rarely in a concentrated way. There is something slightly painful about concentrated thought: it calls for blocking out everything else in the environment, shape, colour, sound. Concentrated thinking is a lonely business; and most of us do not have much appetite for it.

But even where the appetite is there, it can present difficulties. I have in mind concerts. I go to my share, yet seldom do I truly stay with a piece of music. At some point in the midst of even the most significant piece of music my mind knocks off and floats away to other than musical lands. I have no musical training, and I have wondered if this is why I cannot keep my mind wholly on music. I asked a friend of mine, a young man who is thinking of becoming a music critic, if he had any difficulty keeping his mind in the room during a concert. ‘It’s a serious problem,’ he told me. ‘To stay with a serious piece of music, not to let the music become merely background, requires diligence and discipline.’

I don’t mean to make myself out a man whose attention span is no longer, say, than a television commercial. When people put questions to me, I can marshal the thought to answer them – sometimes even questions of great complication. When I have a crisis in my personal life, I am able to brood immeasurably upon it. I do not, it is true, think, chess-like, six or seven moves ahead in planning my career, but I am usually reasonably thoughtful about what does and doesn’t make sense for me from a business standpoint. One of the most famous Samuel Johnson quotations has it that nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of being hung in a fortnight. I am able to bring a similar concentration to lesser tribulations: toothache, tax bills, the loss of friends. Thoughts about oneself – in the root sense, self-ish thoughts – present no thunderous problem.

No, what I am concerned with here is the ability to think about things outside one’s own self or self-interest. ‘I need some time to think,’ people will say, though I am, as I trust I have thus far made clear, not one of them. It is thinking as an activity in and of itself that boggles my mind. I think of the traditional thinking poses – smoking a pipe, sitting before and gazing into a fireplace, stroking a cat, taking a long walk in the country – and how whenever I have attempted any of them, none has ever rendered the least scintilla of a hint of a clue of something that might be construed to be a thought. I myself am not a pipe-smoker, but whenever I see a man smoking a pipe I know he is thinking, and thinking hard, about one thing: his pipe and how to keep the damn thing going. When I sit before a fireplace ablaze I invariably think of one thing: blazing fires. And when stroking a cat, an animal whose elegance and intelligence I much admire, I think of an old scheme of mine for renting pets, which would make good sense for someone such as myself who loves cats but does not wish to take on the responsibility of owning one – who would really like a cat for, say, rainy weekends. As for taking a long walk in the country, well the truth is that I don’t get in the country very often; in fact, I can’t remember when I was last in terrain that could be fairly described as country.

I was recently interested to learn that Jean Monnet’s father advised him, when Monnet was young, not to take any books with him to America. It raises the question of whether we are truly thinking when we are reading. Of course, there is a certain kind of reading that is the sheerest escapism – third-rate fiction, celebrity biography, pop sociology – and one can sometimes read such stuff with one’s mind pretty much on automatic pilot. But one can also escape into serious reading. Reading focuses the mind but, unlike hanging, it does not necessarily concentrate it. I not long ago read the letters of Wallace Stevens, that highly cerebral poet, who, in these letters, again and again cautions against reading too much. Stevens felt that too much reading left too little time for thinking. In part, no doubt, he had in mind the kind of thinking that a serious poet requires: contemplation of a kind that will allow him to make those necessary connections between the surfaces and depths of life, its simplicities and its complexities. That one can read too much is an interesting thought – though, I have quickly to add, it is a thought that I myself read and did not think on my own. I do know what Stevens is talking about; one can read too much – reading, food and one or two other items give the lie to Mae West’s notion that there is no such thing as too much of a good thing. Yet, while agreeing that reading and thinking are not co-terminous, some people, myself among them, need reading to set off their own thoughts. If I can be credited with thinking at all, I am, as a thinker, in the nature of a counter-puncher. I seem to think best in collision with other people’s thoughts.

In a biography of Lady Diana Cooper, once said to be the most beautiful woman in England and by many accounts one of the most wittily charming, I read a snippet from one of Lady Diana’s letters to a friend:

It’s not my nature to be quiet. I have no wealth within me. All stimulus has to come through my eyes and ears and movement. Once still, I’m listless and blank and tortured by dread thoughts.

This seems to me not merely a case of knowing one’s own limitations but also of knowing what it takes to bring out one’s strengths. As thinkers, too much quiet can drive many of us nuts. I have never been at the writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs known as Yaddo, but from what friends who have been there have told me I do not think I would flourish under the conditions it imposes. At Yaddo, after breakfast, one goes off to a small cottage on the beautiful Yaddo estate; one takes the clothes one is wearing, a box lunch, and such thoughts as one happens to have in one’s head at the moment. Many writers love it. For myself, after the first half-hour, during which time I should probably finish my box lunch, my mind would be dominated by a single thought: how do I get out of here?

Increasingly, I am impressed by the mysteriousness of thought. Where does it come from? What calls it into existence? I am told that great jumps forward are being made both in research about the brain and in the creation of artificial intelligence. Yet I still find it highly unlikely that we shall ever be able to explain genius. Genius, hell, even the most simple intellectual functions seem unknowable.

Why are some people mentally at their best during the early-morning hours, while others never get their mental gears in synch until noon, and still others only begin to think well after sundown? Why do attention spans differ so vastly, even among people of roughly equal intelligence? One wonders if a powerful span of attention is necessarily a sign of high intelligence, or is instead mere evidence of mental doggedness. Extremely bright – even profound – people can grow bored fairly quickly.

How account for different casts of mind? One thinks here of Isaiah Berlin’s distinction in his famous essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, which begins with its quotation from the Greek poet Archilochus: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ Some thinkers spend their entire lives mining one or two central ideas, building and elaborating on them – Marx and Freud are two prime examples – while others dart from one notion to another: Voltaire and William James are two such impressive darters. Along with varying types of thinkers, there are varying modes of thought. Of these, the most obvious breakdown is between that which involves long and complex chains of reasoning, complicated analysis, and subtle processes and proofs – such as mathematics at a high level – and that which is unsystematic, appears in spurts and flashes, seems to arrive out of nowhere.

For myself, I find those chains of reasoning imprisoning. Whenever I set aside time for constructing such a chain, or even for thinking in a concentrated way on a particular problem, it scarcely ever works out. I might be bogged down on a particular piece of writing, and have before me a weekend drive of a few hundred miles to the summer cottage of a friend. Good enough, I say to myself: I shall work out the problems this piece is causing me on the drive up. Not so. Solutions arrive while standing in showers, awaiting aeroplanes, just before falling off to sleep – they arrive, that is, when I least expect them and usually inconveniently.

Writers are of course famous for their complaints, and what they complain most about – after not being sufficiently appreciated – is the unpleasantness, those with a flair for the dramatic might say the terrible painfulness, of writing. It is only recently that I have come to understand what these complaints are about. They are about the effort involved in thinking. I have myself finally realised that the only time in my life when I think in a concentrated and sequential fashion is when I have a pen in my hand or I am sitting at my typewriter. Then, and then only, can I forbid my mind its usual indulgence of floating free. I need to get black on white, words on paper, those formulations known as thought on the page. I shouldn’t go so far as to say that this is painful work. When it is working well, I know none better. But when it isn’t working well it is frustrating, irritating, infuriating. What makes it so is the realisation that one just might be stupid.

E.M. Forster, when asked a question of some complication, is supposed to have replied: ‘How do I know what I think until I write about it?’ I hope he did indeed say it, because it seems to me a very savvy statement, at any rate for people who write. For a real writer, it may well be that writing and thought are indivisible, and that the only pure thinking writers do is when they are actually writing. This may be why, when not writing, I seem to be, if not in space, if not I hope spacey, at any rate a little dreamy. My guess is that, subconsciously, people who write are frequently less involved in living for its own sake than in searching for things to write about. Most writers, if they are thinking at all, are probably thinking about how they can use the events and incidents of today during a future day at their desk. Yet it may well be that writers are not in this respect so different from other people. How many people aren’t a little dreamy? Few of us, apparently, spend much of our mental life in the present. We take long mental strolls into our pasts or into our futures: the older one is the more time one spends in the past, the younger the more time in the future. But it is evidently extremely difficult for most of us to stay in the ‘now’. I have heard it reported that most of us spend roughly a third of our mental lives wandering off into the future. Why the mind seems to favour these rambles is another unanswered question about thinking.

But can they really be called thinking? Aren’t they pretty much aimless fantasies, little more than dreaming on our feet? How do we know when we are truly thinking? Is ours a bad age for thinking? To take up the last question first, it is worth noting that John Stuart Mill thought of his own age, which we now view with reverence, as not a strong age for thought. He blamed this largely on the educational methods of his day, which featured cramming and rote learning, and produced what Mill called ‘mere knowledge boxes’. Mill made a crucial distinction between knowledge and thought. In the Classical age of Greece, men such as Aristotle, whom Mill calls ‘the greatest observer of his own or any other age’, and Plato, whom he calls ‘the greatest dialectician’, studied men and nature straight on. After them, according to Mill, ‘nature was studied not in nature, but in Plato or Aristotle ...’ It is, Mill is saying, one thing to learn what other men thought; it is quite another to think for oneself.

Not that for a moment Mill believed that one had to be Aristotle or Plato to qualify as a serious thinker. All of us know people whom we think thoughtful who have not been elaborately schooled or who aren’t even especially knowledgeable. They are people who, having thought for themselves, are admirable for their independence. Few among us can expect to be truly original: coming upon our insights in our own way, earning them, is the significant thing. My sense is that we are only thinking when something occurs to us that makes us exclaim, ‘I never thought of that,’ which also means: ‘Nor has anyone else, so far as I know.’ Thinking is an act of discovery made on a voyage that everyone must take on his own. Forgive me for saying so, but before I sat down to write this diary I’d never thought of that.