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.’

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