July 20, 2010
We are all supposed to be full of ourselves—egoists. On the other hand, the opposite is also true. We hardly have any ego at all. Alone, we are empty—nothing. So we get out of the house, into the street, into the mall where, surrounded by sight and sound, we come to life. After a while, sight and sound prove insufficient. We again feel empty. Or rather, we feel like a ghost drifting through the world that does not acknowledge our presence. So that’s the problem. To feel real, we have to be acknowledged. What to do? Technology provides an answer—the cell phone. Nowadays, everywhere I go I see people holding a cell phone in their hand, so much so that I begin to think that it is an extension of their body. People have this desperate need to say something and to have it answered. What is said hardly matters. A human voice answering is all that is required.
This development is new. Even a few years ago, I can still see people drinking coffee at Starbucks, walking down State street, eating a sandwich on the terrace, soaking up the ambience of these places. I now wonder why these places even bother to be attractive and distinctive, for who takes notice anyway? Everyone is talking or texting into an electronic instrument, totally oblivious of their surroundings. Astonishingly, people seem to prefer their cocoon of idle chatter to the rich reality of the world. “I can’t meet you for lunch.” “What are you doing this weekend?” “Isn’t Taylor Lautner fabulous in the New Moon?” “How do you keep the dirt from gathering under your toenail?” and other such profundities! Do people seriously think that keeping the chatter going is more rewarding than looking at the decor in a restaurant, the trees in the neighborhood park, or even the street’s shop signs? They do—for two reasons. One is that it takes effort and some imagination to look properly, and the other is, as I have said earlier, the pathetic need to be acknowledged by a human voice.
I bet William Blake wasn’t afraid to be alone. How could he if he could see “a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower?” Does this mean that the core of his being isn’t achingly empty, as it is with us? Or does it mean that the void at the center of his being, far from being a disadvantage, is actually that which motivates him to fill it with the beauty of the world?
Blake is unique. We don’t have his power of imagination. But we have enough imagination to launch ourselves, if we so choose, from the bare stage within to the glories and horrors of external reality. What motivates us to take this step? We are motivated—perhaps even compelled—by the fact that we don’t much like ourselves, a state of affairs that probably derives from our sense of our own vacuity. But is it true that we don’t much like ourselves? Rebecca West asks us to try this experiment. Suppose you are in a room and you see the door knob turning and the next moment you—yes, you—enter, will your heart thump with joy? Surely not. On the other hand, if a beloved human being enters, it may well do so. And not only a beloved human being, a sunset, a bird in flight, and to someone of Blake’s imagination, even a wild flower, can have the same effect. Contrary to folk wisdom, then, we are not egoists. Far from being full of self, we are pathologically dependent on another’s acknowledgment to feel real. The only way to escape the pathology—one that the cell phone so amply feeds—is to fall in love with and so partake in the solidities of the world!