Anaesthetic Ideology

The Meaning of Life II

A year ago, I wrote an essay about a modern crisis in experience. I defined experience as the habit of creating isolated moments within raw occurrence in order to save and recount them. Questing after an ill-defined happiness, you are led to substitute a list of special experiences and then to collect them to furnish your storeroom of memories: incidents of sex, drinking, travel, adventure. These experiences are limited in number, unreliable, and addictive. Their ultimate effect can be a life of permanent dissatisfaction and a compulsion to frenetic activity.1

Since then, I’ve felt I paid too little attention to a phenomenon which is the opposite: the desperate wish for anti-experience. The connection between the quest for experience and the wish for anti-experience isn’t chronological. You don’t wake up the morning after some final orgy of experience and discover that you can’t stand any more. It seems to be, instead, arbitrary and eruptive. You reach points in life at which you can no longer live like other people, though you don’t want to die. Experience becomes piercing, grating, intrusive. It is no longer out of reach, an occasional throb in the dark. It is no longer a prize, though it is the goal everyone else seeks. It is a scourge. All you wish for is some means to reduce the feeling.

This anaesthetic reaction, I begin to think, must be associated with the stimulations of another modern novelty, the total aesthetic environment. For those people to whom a need to reduce experience occurs, part of their discomfort seems to be strongly associated with aesthetic intrusions from fictional or political drama—from the television, the newscast, the newspaper, the computer headlines, or any of the other unavoidable screens of pixels or paper. “I just had to turn the TV off. I couldn’t stand it anymore.” This is the plea we accept, more or less, as we mirror the strange look on the sufferer’s face with an odd look of our own. We will accept it this far and no further, because much more of the suffering comes from us—the “normal” others—who obnoxiously recount our daily lives, too, as a series of rare adventures. The anti-experiencers will want to turn the TV off; then they’ll want to turn us off. There comes a point at which they will want to turn the sights and sounds of life off—if life becomes a nightmare of aestheticized, dramatized events.

The hallmark of the conversion to anti-experience is a lowered threshold for eventfulness. You perceive each outside drama as your experience, which you could not withstand if it really were yours. It leads to forms of total vulnerability, as if the individual had been peeled or deprived of barriers. I don’t know what word can connect the three levels of unavoidable strong experience, broadcast and recounted and personal, except the omnipresence of drama.

I also don’t know why the nightmare comes for some people and not others, at some times and not others. After considering it, it surprises me that this breach, the fall into painful over-experience, isn’t more common. Why of a hundred seekers of experience and dwellers in the total aesthetic environment do only two, or ten, turn? Unless there are features of the aesthetic environment which are themselves also anaesthetic and that manage to regulate the experiential lives of the majority, to keep them from cracking.

Suppose you have reached that point. You no longer feel you are among those whom William James called the “healthy-minded.” You can tell because you watch the healthy ones gaping laughter at violent movies or sitting calmly across from you at the table, over dinner, recounting from that day’s news a sex scandal, an airplane crash, an accidental shooting. You hear from the healthy-minded the battles they have fought that day and the experiences they have won. You detect them questing after the things they desire, talking about them with natural spirit, nourished by hope and aggression like their natural milk. They are nature’s creatures, in the full grace of modernity. The sad truth is that you still want to live in their world. It just somehow seems this world has changed to exile you.

In the last essay, I spoke of solutions to a first crisis, the endless quest for experience, in practices that redeem experience by expanding it: aestheticism and perfectionism.2 The solutions to this second crisis in experience, the wish for anti-experience—both from tradition and in the present—are the anaesthetic ideologies. They diminish experience’s reach. They “redeem” experience by weakening or abolishing it. They are, in a sense, aestheticism’s and perfectionism’s inverse.

Anaesthetic ideologies are methods of philosophy and practice that try to stop you from feeling. Or they help you to reduce what you feel. Or they let you keep living, when you can no longer live, by learning partially how to “die.” I preserve the word ideologies because of the methods’ potential duplicity—and also because of our perhaps justified suspicion that such undertakings are, at some level, inhuman.

The gallery of heads in the West, marble smooth, marble eyed, begins near the entrance with Plato and Aristotle. Plato put a megaphone to the mouth of Socrates. Thus we learned of the Forms, the permanence of Justice, and the objectivity of the Good. Aristotle held the dissecting tool to nature and the yardstick to man, systematizing all the forms of matter and the forms of life. We learned man is a political being whose good lies in the fulfillment of his potential. Plato led to Aristotle as the only alternative to himself, and the two of them together gave us Western philosophy as a line of action and actualization.

In the ancient world, though, rival traditions competed with theirs. These philosophies did not lead toward our modernity, defined by the quest for experience. They created traditions of nonstimulation, nonsusceptibility, nonexcitement, nonbecoming, nonambition; also antifeeling, anaesthesia. Thus at the origins of philosophy, thoughts were devoted to the restriction of experience. These traditions were at least as central to the concerns of the West, once upon a time, as were the lines we have received as active common sense and normalcy. They can help us at least as much today as the “Eastern philosophies” that have been for many moderns the only, marginal way to attain some distance from one-sided Western ambition.

The students who followed the example of Socrates did not all join Plato’s Academy. (My account of Socratic successors draws on the writings of A. A. Long, the great scholar of Hellenistic philosophy.) One of the earliest, Diogenes of Sinope, called Diogenes the Cynic, led a beggar’s life, upheld the example of Socrates’ insulting speech, and taught Socratic freedom from “property, fine appearance, social status,” while preaching, unlike Socrates, nonallegiance to any city. Philosophy for him was the use of reason for each individual to talk himself out of the material needs that everyone else claimed, and thus to be free of the fears to which everyone else was subject. This freedom from conventional need and this freedom from fear—even when they meant a refusal of the world—came to be combined with the philosophical hedonism of Aristippus of Cyrene, one of Socrates’ direct pupils. Cyrenaic hedonism said that pleasure and pain are prior to all other motivations, and should be, too. These views made a different founding to philosophy than the one mediated by Plato.

In moods of peaceful hopefulness, I think that Epicurus, a genius of the next Greek generation, should be our perfect philosopher now, for America. He was a hedonist, as we are today. But he would have freed us from the pain of our search for experience, our mistaking of the most valuable pleasures for the rarest and hardest to attain. He came to maturity while Aristotle was still alive, and began teaching a very different doctrine: that pleasure is the goal of life, but pleasure defined as the end and absence of pain. “For we are in need of pleasure only when we are in pain because of the absence of pleasure, and when we are not in pain, then we no longer need pleasure.” The Epicurean ideal was ataraxia, imperturbability and mental detachment. This imperturbability couldn’t be accomplished through avoidance—pain would come whether you wanted it or not—but only through the right way of thinking about all unavoidable experience.

Unsought pleasures, whatever they were—a lavish banquet, a night of erotic love—were never bad in themselves. The difficulty with most positive pleasures, however, was that “the things which produce certain pleasures bring troubles many times greater than the pleasures.” Luxuries of experience involved you in uncertainties and pains—whether you would ever have them again, or whether you could sustain them. If pain is more to be avoided than positive pleasures are to be sought, it is “the freedom of the soul from disturbance” that is “the goal of a blessed life.”

Everything natural is easy to obtain and whatever is groundless is hard to obtain. . . . Simple flavours provide a pleasure equal to that of an extravagant life-style when all pain from want is removed. . . . So when we say that pleasure is the goal we do not mean the pleasures of the profligate or the pleasures of consumption, as some believe, either from ignorance and disagreement or from deliberate misinterpretation, but rather the lack of pain in the body and disturbance in the soul.

“For we [Epicureans],” the founder wrote, “do everything for the sake of being neither in pain nor in terror.” Epicurus, on the outskirts of Athens, began the Garden, where his friends and followers “included household servants and women on equal terms with the men,” as the scholar D. S. Hutchinson has noted—arrangements inconceivable to the rest of Athenian society. There they lived in peace and tranquility. They took their pleasure from a little wine mixed with water, and if you ever wanted Epicurus to enjoy an extravagance, he said, you could send him a little pot of cheese. Friendship mattered. Friends reminded one another that true happiness was freedom from fear, that death was meaningless and pain tolerable. They sought to help one another to resist being touched by any disturbance, to win a gentle victory over strong experience.

In more tempestuous or harsher moods, my thoughts for the hidden sufferers in America go over to the tougher anaesthetic of the late Roman Stoics. The Stoa existed in Epicurus’ time as a place of conversation and teaching in Athens, like the Academy, the Garden, and Aristotle’s Lyceum; but Stoicism seems to have come into its most emphatic and lasting form many generations afterward. If you want a simple program and definitive dogma, you look to Epictetus. He is a much later figure than his Greek predecessors, and much better documented. The violence of Epictetus’ rhetoric can be tonic. Really, we will eradicate experience, not just learn to be happy with barley cakes and watered wine. Then we can withstand anything, the richest luxuries or the heaviest blows.

The Stoic system is not so different from Epicureanism in its methods of controlling needs. It disposes of the feeling for pleasure, however, as a root for the mind’s disciplining of experience. Epictetian Stoicism tells you to divide the world into what is up to you and what is not up to you. All that is left for a person to do, then, is to master his desire and aversion—so that he will never have either desire for or aversion to anything not up to him. He must never desire what he cannot control—not honors, not events, not other people’s thoughts, behavior, or reactions, not all the good experiences of his body. And he must have no mental aversion to anything that comes to him without his choice, like illness, death, or the bad experiences of his body. He can groan in illness, but he must not care about it. The fates of things are up to nature, not to you.

In the case of everything that delights the mind, or is useful, or is loved with fond affection, remember to tell yourself what sort of thing it is, beginning with the least of things. If you are fond of a jug, say, “It is a jug that I am fond of”; then, if it is broken, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you are kissing; and then you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.

Life, Epictetus intimates at one point, is like a tourist visit to Olympia; you go because, well, who doesn’t go? But it’s bound to be incredibly annoying. “Do you not suffer from the heat? Are you not short of space? Do you not have trouble washing? . . . Do you not get your share of shouting and uproar and other irritations?” You will shrug it all off. “What concern to me is anything that happens, when I have greatness of soul?”

The only thing the Stoic should invest any emotion in is his own choice, which determines that “greatness of soul.” He will feel pride when he remains absolute master of his choice and of his desire and aversion. He feels displeasure when he fails temporarily to be master of himself. Stoic reason makes a man absolute master of his judgments and eradicates everything that is bad while clarifying the only thing that is truly good: the right use of choice.

It is the denial of any meaning to immediate experience, apart from the judgment one places upon it, that is truly anaesthetic—a will to control one’s judgments and minimize their effects, to make experiences not matter except for the inner experience of mastering experiences. The Stoic ideal was apatheia, release from passion and feeling, but it freed itself from everyone else’s cares precisely in order to be able carelessly to do what everyone else did. It became supermilitant, because it continued to live in the world while denying it. “Practice, then,” Epictetus teaches, “from the start, to say to every harsh impression, ‘You are an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be.’”

This meant not only not giving credence to impressions, but, in a sense, never aestheticizing them, never enjoying them as more than accidental facts or conjunctures, never investing them with any aura beyond their material constitution and fate, never giving them a place in a drama to be remembered or dwelt upon emotionally. Hence the hostility of Epictetus to the tragic drama and the epic of strong feelings. What sort of person complains and lets passion and experience get the better of him, saying, “Woe is me”?

Do you suppose I will mention to you some mean and despicable person? Does not Priam say such things [in the Iliad]? Does not Oedipus? . . . For what else is tragedy but a portrayal in tragic verse of the sufferings of men who have devoted their admiration to external things? . . . If one had to be taught by fictions, I, for my part, should wish for such a fiction as would enable me to live henceforth in peace of mind and free from perturbation.

Then, typically, Epictetus washes his hands of the question of drama, to return his followers to their choice: “What you on your part wish for is for you yourselves to consider.”

Epicureanism and Stoicism survived, even predominated, for centuries—centuries in which Platonism and Aristotelianism had gone into relative eclipse. (These latter were revived in the first century BC.) The anaesthetic doctrines’ memories now sit under a layer of dust. They are neglected by us, and their masters sit among the unrecognizables in the hundred forgotten generations between classical and modern.

In the last essay, I spoke of some specific means of collecting the most important experiences: drugs and alcohol, sex, and travel. I suggested they are unreliable by themselves and contribute to dissatisfaction with existence by creating the need always to be searching for more.

Outside the disciplines of full anaesthetic ideologies—what we can find among Epicureans and Stoics, as life philosophies—I begin to wonder if our banal searches for experience today don’t often contain a shot of anaesthetic; something that allows these activities to serve the moderation of experience as well as its collection. What’s more, modern solutions to the intolerability of experience have a way of flipping back and forth between reactions to the too-painful experience of late modern economy and adjustments to it as extensions of its reach.

With drugs and alcohol, the anaesthetic effect may seem just too obvious. Drowning your sorrows in drink is recognized to be the first and cheapest means of escaping experience. Whiskey continues to be a fine painkiller even if it is no longer used medicinally. You start drinking to look for fun, for experience. You end in another place. Alcohol is a means to collect experiences, and then, too, alcohol is abusive as well as abused, the cause of troubles with experience as well as a reaction to trouble with experience. If drinking fails us, which ideal is it failing—the life of fun, on a high, or the life of anaesthetization, shut off and protected?

Sometimes I find myself thinking about those high school and collegiate and postcollegiate figures, the “stoners.” What were their futures? They might have had their only natural social existence, without penalties, while still in school. But it seemed a plausible existence, like that of a creature who had found the right ecological niche. This penaltyless stoner was someone who would rise in the morning and take a hit from the bong, smoke through the day, take all experience (classes, social interactions) with a hazy anaesthesia that made it not quite experience, yet not quite anything so positive as “fun”—then finish off a bowl before going to sleep, to start the next day in the same way. It seemed a life of anti-experience, different from physical addiction. No doubt there is something myopic in a nostalgia for what the stoner proved was possible, if only for a few short years. No one thinks it ends well. But there was something about his manner, wreathed in smoke, that made him seem not like an adventurer but a symbol of a bizarre but real reaction to something we can’t name.

For the small group of people who insist on the legalization of marijuana, who can even become marijuana “activists,” the logic of their movement has become ever more oriented to the wedge issue of medically recognizable anaesthetization, the anaesthesia of cancer patients and the terminally ill. That is because it is the only way to make marijuana legible to our world, a world of experience and not anti-experience: by the recognized evil of interior bodily pain rather than the wish for a life less acute, or the acknowledgement of a healthy physiology that could prefer, somehow, haze in experience to our supposed clarity.

Sex and the search for sex hold out the acquisition of experience, much praised and discussed in our culture, against the unspoken moderation of experience by sex as a reassuring and intimate repetition. We speak of an alternative only in marriage: conjugality, the repetition of sexual experience as an act of love, but also as a kind of interpersonal comforting. Conjugality repeats, it does not much change, and it never needs to change unless its participants decide on change, since it is not ever done with anyone else. It is not precisely anaesthetic, but anti-experience. The larger culture of experience, of course, suggests that sex, in some sense, should always be done with someone else, in a new way. Your spouse or helpmate must become continually somebody new, somebody unknown, to share new experiences with. Our culture has become pornographic at all levels of its narrative structure: it always seeks a further experience beyond the last one, with more reach and extremity, even where the human mind seems limited to repetition, and human habit seems to prefer it. It is probably the case even in the carnival of dating, switching of partners, anonymous intimacy, that in the act of seeking and acquiring the sheer bodily presence of another person, whoever he or she may be, there is self-reassurance and even near self-anaesthesis: what matters in the moment will be not only the recountable events but silent, forgettable, forgotten-in-the-moment acts of mutual oblivion.

There are, of course, better-organized ways of seeking some relief from experience—non-naive ways, modern ideologies. The “voluntary simplicity” movement of the last decade was a self-conscious plan for the reduction of possessions in order to unclot experience, to find out which experiences, of so many options, were really needful. Simplicity would limit the acquisitive instinct in favor of the retention of a small number of indispensable items. You would learn first to get rid of a closet of clothes, for the most useful; get rid of many friends, for fewer; stop attending to much foreign news, for news closer to home; eventually, in the “advanced” techniques, have one car instead of two, then no cars at all, a smaller house, an easier job, and a diminished but possibly more manageable or more vivid experience. The ideology was not always precisely anaesthetic; sometimes it was purifying of experience.

But wherever it did not acknowledge its own real opposition to experience of the dramatic kind, and could be co-opted by aesthetics of more vivid, purified and improved experience, simplicity had the capacity to flip. It could become a matter not just of fewer clothes but of more perfect, ideal clothes, even new clothes. It furnished the basis for its own lifestyle magazine, Real Simple, a glossy for those who wanted to organize and vary, to switch between simplicities, or to stylize their environments in “simpler” hues of eggshell and porcelain and light pastel—rather than to reduce objects or even learn to accept the old, ugly, and easy, which exist already and therefore might be less spiritually intrusive.

I think the organized spiritual system of the greatest anaesthetic use to the largest number of people in America today must be Buddhism. And yet this still recruits only a tiny minority of seekers. Buddhism is the genuine article, an ancient system, however complicatedly it makes its way to us for modern purposes. Contemporary “nonattachment,” as it is sometimes described to me, sounds a good deal like Epicurean imperturbability and, in some formulations, Stoic apathy. The more I hear of “mindfulness,” the more I hear traces of aestheticism and perfectionism, though in mindfulness they are removed at last from the limiting requirements of artistry or moral self-scrutiny and are made instead a function of permanent biological habits (breathing, attention, basic sensation) in a kind of hybrid aestheticism-imperturbability. The Buddhist would protest, justifiably, that his practices came first and should be judged on their own. (I am not a Buddhist myself and therefore a bad judge.) What is striking in the Americanization of Buddhism, however, as it appears in books and pamphlets and tapes and talks, is the mixture of different methods and aims. We may just be seeing a diversity of sects and practices, or we may be seeing the perennial Janus-faced quality of American auto-therapeutics. Something like mindfulness will be a way to moderate experience for some and to collect and intensify it for others; a way to drop out for some and to get ahead for others; a system at odds with convention for some, and an adjustment to conventional life, reducing friction, for others. We knew already that yoga could be imported to this country and, for some, retained as an interlocking series of total systems of practice, knowledge, and devotion—while it was made a form of gym exercise to slim down and improve muscle tone for others.

Then there is the promise of the New Age. It is surprising how often New Age solutions come to us from aliens: interplanetary beings, men of the fifth dimension, and oceanic tribes preserving ancient wisdom lit by the glassy filtered blues of their bubbled Atlantis. I suppose these fantasy archaisms and interstellar revelations are no different finally from our worship elsewhere of the Orient against the Occident—our idea that truth must come from our morning rather than our eve. No different, probably, from my own desire to rediscover anaesthesis in the heart of the West, among sandal-wearing Epicureans or Stoics, while I willfully reinterpret their complex doctrine. We cannot take advice from ourselves, and so we take it from men and women with very strange ways. The stranger the better, so estranged are we from our fellow citizens, who can see no problem.

Certainly, all these systems, however practiced, are better than depression—perhaps the major arena for involuntary anaesthesis in our time (with its attendant losses of pleasure, will, and caring). What is often enough said by the mildly depressed—though we suspect them of magnifying their own problems into social problems—is that their depression is a logical and reasonable response to an environment of experiences and demands that are too intrusive. From the opposite perspective, and with much more authority, the severely depressed are inclined to say that their death in life cannot be a logical or reasonable response to anything, for their sense of the negation of experience goes beyond what any human being could want or will as self-protection. Depression does not save the self, it tells it to die. This seems so extreme as to be outside the reach of cultural analysis, even though anaesthesis, in its many other organized forms, is often a way of learning to “die” without dying. One wants to say something about depression, still stopping short of the point at which generalization encroaches on the individual malady. If there is a cultural world shared between the rise of “experience,” searched for as the only means to furnish happiness, and the steady creep of depression as a frequent, dominant affect for people who expected that their lives might be deserving of full happiness, then maybe there is also some causal connection. Maybe it is a sign that when experience has become intolerable, for whatever specific reasons, the mind and the body will unideologically attempt to solve what could only be solved with a practice, a system, and an ideology.

We do not live in an age of the arts. The novel, theatrical play, and piece of symphonic music don’t matter very much. Art forms that seemed like the fruit of long lines of development, including opera, ballet, painting, and poetry, are now of interest to very few people.

We do, however, live in an aesthetic age, in an unprecedented era of total “design.” The look and feel of things, designed once, is redesigned and redesigned again for our aesthetic satisfaction and interest. Design, which can reach the whole world, has superseded art, whose individual objects were supposed to differ from one another and hold a sphere apart from the everyday.

But the particular aesthetic manifestations that interest me here are dramatic. It interests me that there is no end of fictions, and facts made over in the forms of fictions. Because we class them under so many different rubrics, and media, and means of delivery, we don’t recognize the sheer proliferation and seamlessness of them. I think at some level of scale or perspective, the police drama in which a criminal is shot, the hospital drama in which the doctors massage a heart back to life, the news video in which jihadists behead a hostage, and the human-interest story of a child who gets his fondest wish (a tourist trip somewhere) become the same sorts of drama. They are representations of strong experience, which, as they multiply, begin to dedifferentiate in our uptake of them, despite our names and categories and distinctions.

We often say we watch the filmed dramas of strong experience for the sake of excitement or interest. This is true for any representation in the singular case. The large dramas of TV and movies, presumably, reflect back on our own small dramas. I, like the ER surgeons, have urgent tasks; I, like the detectives, try to solve things. If one watched, say, a single one-hour show once a month, the depicted experience might come across as genuinely strong experience. If one watched (or carefully read) the news once a month, it might be a remarkably strong and probably an anguishing experience.

But since the spread of television, people have not, by and large, watched dramatic events singly, one a month or week. They’ve read more than one newspaper and magazine for longer than that. The newspaper itself was always a frame for diverse, incommensurable disasters. We watch and read in multiples. The media of the dissemination of dramas have not been substitutive, either; they have been additive. Not newspaper, then film, then radio, then TV, then internet, but all of the above exist today, all the time, in more places, with more common personalities and more crossover of tone, character, content, than before. The claims that fictional dramas exist to “excite,” “thrill,” or “entertain,” like the claims that news exists to “teach,” or to “let us know” or “be responsible,” have become increasingly incoherent or irrelevant, modeled as they are on viewings of single, focused events. In the era of the total aesthetic environment, the individual case is not as significant as is the effect of scale. While a single drama on television may be thrilling—as it renders the strongest experiences, of life, death, blood, conflict—the aggregate of all dramas on television can hardly be said to be thrilling, since the total effect of television upon a regular viewer is above all calming, as any viewer-in-bulk can testify.

This is the paradox. Watching enough represented strong experience is associated with states of relaxation and leisure, the extreme loosening and mellowness in which we find a person deliberately “vegetating” in front of the TV—while the walls are painted with criminals’ spattered blood, the muscle is pulsating between the doctors’ hands, and the hostage is beheaded, and beheaded again, and again, on several competing twenty-four-hour news channels, which no longer promise “up-to-the-minute” but “up-to-the-second” coverage, and show precisely the same events. Over a lifetime, you will also see the same events and scenarios acted out with different faces, sometimes in different genres, some real and some fictional—but “excitement” will very rarely be the reason you turn on the TV.

It used to seem that the news existed as a special case. I think people would agree, at first, if I said that prime time exists for relaxation but the news exists for rigor and truth. Yet what has the news ever been if not also, in some way, calming—or why would one watch the eleven o’clock news before going to bed, as other people take sleeping pills or sip warm milk; why would one watch the six o’clock news, which is even more brutal, more “serious,” while eating dinner—when we know in human life that the desire to eat and the ability to sleep are two activities that vanish with genuine disquiet?

With the rise of twenty-four-hour channels, news has become the core and most general case of the total aesthetic environment, because twenty-four-hour news does not play the old game of pretending you can choose to turn it off. Rather, it uses the conceit that there is always something “happening,” an experience—though somebody else’s—that you must also know about, and the TV is only connecting you transparently to phenomena that should be linked to you anyway. This lie is predicated on notions of virtue, citizenship, responsibility.

I say I watch the news to “know.” But I don’t really know anything. Certainly I can’t do anything. I know that there is a war in Iraq, but I knew that already. I know that there are fires and car accidents in my state and in my country, but that, too, I knew already. With each particular piece of footage, I know nothing more than I did before. I feel something, or I don’t feel something. One way I am likely to feel is virtuous and “responsible” for knowing more of these things that I can do nothing about. Surely this feeling is wrong, even contemptible. I am not sure anymore what I feel.

What is it like, to watch a human being’s beheading? The first showing of the video is bad. The second, fifth, tenth, hundredth are—like one’s own experiences—retained, recountable, real, and yet dreamlike. Some describe the repetition as “numbing.” “Numbing” is very imprecise. I think the feeling, finally, is of something like envelopment and even satisfaction at having endured the worst without quite caring or being tormented. It is the paradoxically calm satisfaction of having been enveloped in a weak or placid “real” that another person endured as the worst experience imaginable, in his personal frenzy, fear, and desperation, which we view from outside as the simple occurrence of a death.

The old philosophies of aesthetics were based on the experience of a single drama, going back to Aristotle’s pity and fear in the witnessing of just one tragedy. Tragedies were presented in small clusters on a special festival day at a rare time of the year. We do not now encounter dramas on designated days of the year. The old aesthetics increasingly slip away when it is not one, or a few, doctors’ dramas we watch once a year, but 5,000 episodes of 100 dramas over the course of a lifetime, amid 10,000 other renderings of dramas of equally strong experience; not one representation of a beheading but the same one run 100 times, followed by 1,000 other atrocities themselves rerun. The scale of drama can become a training in how not to relate the strong emotions of representations back to your own experience, not so that they unnerve or paralyze you, while you still learn to fashion your own experiences in the narrative manner and style of dramatic representations.

Then, too, with the change of scale, more of our strictly personal experiences are likely to be experienced simultaneously with outer dramas, whether “fiction” or “news.” The screens continue to proliferate. Televisions play silently with closed captions in the restaurants where I go to dinner. (I remember they used to be only in bars.) They play with sound in the waiting rooms for visitors to the hospital; they play in the waiting rooms for emergency patients. One played in the garage where I had a flat tire repaired, where I saw the drama of a Florida man shot by air marshals. A wide-screen played by the men’s changing rooms at Macy’s. Flat-screens are on the machines at the gym and on the elevators in office buildings. Airport terminals are full of televised news, and it follows you to the screens on the backs of the seats on planes. Screens are promised on the subway, where the public rationale will be that they will only show news (to justify the remaining minutes of paid advertising)—the drama of the necessary news, which so mendaciously justifies all other drama. A few offices may have TVs on the work floor, where they are redundant, since the drama comes through on the work space itself, the screen of the computer. When I read my email on Yahoo, it is accompanied by headlines of distant events, fifty-six killed, a hundred killed; video clips from movies; ads for the dating sites that will find me a new mate and reconstruct my own life as drama.

Happiness has wound up in an ideology of the need for experiences. Very well. This is our “health” and our quest. But is this happiness-by-experience itself then regulated and moderated by the constant chatter of strong represented experiences, whose effect is not, finally, to stimulate strong experience in their viewers, but to make up some hybrid of temporary relaxation and persistent desire? Does the total aesthetic environment, that is, become anaesthetic as well as aesthetic? We know its advertisements channel desire toward particular products—and don’t much mind. That’s just advertising. Its dramas also create and channel desire. Suppose those dramas were capable of a paradoxical, anaesthetic attenuation or deferral of all this desire, to the point where desire could be mobilized ceaselessly without pain to the viewer and without personality destruction. This would forestall the conversion to anti-experience—never causing the full and radical crisis that might occur to an unhabituated and unanaesthetized individual, facing all of these dramas and horrors and strong renderings and commercial demands and new needs, as single instances, for the first and only time.

I want to think this is partly right; then the system, and its perilousness, make sense. The trouble then would be that for some people the drama-induced anaesthetic might wear off. Their form of experiential illness would represent a breakthrough, in other words, of aesthetic events to their original, singular effects—so that they disturb the person who is supposed to be protected, soothed, and regulated, as if he were now encountering each instance singly, at full strength.

If individuals in our society are afflicted suddenly with the inability to take represented experiences in a ceaseless flow, but instead undergo each and every event as if it were happening to them—as if fiction were real, and the real (the news networks’ medical horrors, beheadings, thousands of deaths) doubly real, because publicly attested to and simultaneously experienced as somehow one’s own—then no wonder they withdraw. If they feel every outside representation, from however far away it comes, as if it belonged to the context of their private lives and individual drama, then no wonder they tremble. And they may in part have been asked to feel things that way—by a system of representations that doesn’t truly believe, or wish, that anyone will.

(“If one had to be taught by fictions,” said Epictetus, “I, for my part, should wish for such a fiction as would enable me to live henceforth in peace of mind and free from perturbation. What you on your part wish for is for you yourselves to consider.”)

I see: Severed heads. The Extra Value Meal. Kohl-gray eyelids. A holiday sale at Kohl’s. Red seeping between the fingers of the gloved hand that presses the wound. “Doctor, can you save him?” “We’ll do our best.” The dining room of the newly renovated house, done in red. Often a bold color is the best. The kids are grateful for their playroom. The bad guy falls down, shot. The detectives get shot. The new Lexus is now available for lease. On CNN, with a downed helicopter in the background, a peaceful field of reeds waves in the foreground. One after another the reeds are bent, broken, by boot treads advancing with the camera. The cameraman, as savior, locates the surviving American airman. He shoots him dead. It was a terrorist video. They run it again. Scenes from ads: sales, roads, ordinary calm shopping, daily life. Tarpaulined bodies in the street. The blue of the sky advertises the new car’s color. Whatever you could suffer will have been recorded in the suffering of someone else. Red Lobster holds a shrimp festival. Clorox gets out blood. Advil stops pain fast. Some of us are going to need something stronger.

I don’t know why anyone cracks, and the reasons, each time, will be different, deep, and personal. The aesthetic presentations, which seem to be everywhere, as dramas, playing out the strongest experiences—which others can receive in a manner relaxed or blasé—become intolerable. If there was indeed something formerly anaesthetic about this ceaseless flow of strong sensations, then it has just worn off, worn off for oneself alone as it often seems, and it is terrifying. The baffled sufferer can’t understand what has happened to him.

So he tries to recover the anaesthetic. He may try first the double-dealing strategies, those that add experience in some modalities and preserve you from it in others: alcohol, sex, or another kind of plunge. There are the horrible depressions, ambiguous and painful. There is medicine. There are organized practices and systems, from Buddhism through the many traditions of the East, from Epicureanism and Stoicism back to the origins of the West. Each stands ready to be retrofitted for today. There is organized religion, I forgot to mention. There is staying in your house and never coming out.

There is also the dream of an alternate aesthetic, of a world in which aestheticized experience worked only on things that were ordinary, local, small, repetitive, and recalcitrant, on things that really did happen to most of us in the everyday. This would imply a challenge to drama as we know it. Would it be too much to ask for books in which there is no conflict and no disaster but mere daily occurrences, strung together by the calm being who notices them; television shows on which people sit around silently noticing one another, watch sunsets, type, chat, cook meals without teaching the viewer how, and go about their business in the dull but reassuring knowledge that nothing is going to be very different than the day before? Could there be repetition in a state of grace? Could there be “aesthetic” representation, for those for whom the worldly anaesthetic had worn off, while the systematic ideologies seemed too inhuman and restrictive? Could people live a life in the garden, in our world with its many technologies?

What would remain would not be drama, or “experience,” but life. Perhaps there is a way back to life, in people’s tentative steps in the interstices of this world, if they cannot live on its grid. Circling life from the cluttered outside, one asks its meaning again and again. How to get back to it: by aestheticizing everything, as before, to explode the questing aesthetic? By anaesthetic efforts, as imagined in this essay, to cut down experiences to neutral occurrences incapable of being made over as drama? Meaning starts to seem a perverse thing to ask for, when what we are really asking is what life is when it is not already made over in forms of quest or deferral. Could this life be reached—unmediated? Would there be anything there when we found it?

  1. “The Meaning of Life I: The Concept of Experience,” n+1 Number Two, Spring 2005. 

  2. Aestheticism and perfectionism work by putting experience under the control of the active individual, teaching him to make rare experience always and from anything. Aestheticism teaches its practitioners to find rarity or beauty in any object or event; perfectionism finds moral reflections upon the observer in the same sources. They turn even banal or ugly things into objects of singular aesthetic interest or into moral examples that would encourage the constant transformation and appreciation of the self, thus exploding the quest for experience by putting it always at hand. 

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