There are two models of rapture — one super-worldly, one this-worldly, one in which we are abducted, from here to eternity, and one in which we are inducted, to infinity and beyond. The first model is depressing if it’s the only opportunity we have to experience eternity. Even the devout — perhaps especially the devout — seek to experience the eternal, in some more or less durable way, amid the swirl of novelty amid the elementary, transactive particles of our microparceled, contingent world. And even the unbelieving — perhaps them especially — recognize that the novelties of the world seem to be approaching a singularity point, at which not even our experiences of eternity but our experiences of simple durability are under some sort of cognitive threat. At Slate , Laura Miller frets:

As long as we remain only dimly aware of the dueling attention systems within us, the reactive will continue to win out over the reflective. We’ll focus on discussion-board trolls, dancing refinancing ads, Hollywood gossip and tweets rather than on that enlightening but lengthy article about the economy or the novel or film that has the potential to ravish our souls. Tracking the shiny is so much easier than digging for gold! Over time, our brains will adapt themselves to these activities and find it more and more difficult to switch gears. Gallagher’s exhortations to scrutinize and redirect our attention could not be more timely, but actually accomplishing such a feat increasingly feels beyond our control.

Pragmatist philosophers of language and mind disparage Plato for teaching that Reason can make us remember the truth about our souls. Today we would seem to settle for remembering the truth about last Saturday night. (For a voyage of corruption down the drain pipe of digital memory in an out-of-control age, see the R-meaning-X-rated textsfromlastnight.com.) But our poor modern saps, stuck with living a real life that philosophers like Richard Rorty were infinitely more able than even Joe the Plumber to escape, maintain far deeper ambivalences about eternity than Rorty would hope. “I can’t speak personally,” Miller confesses, “to the effectiveness of meditation, Gallagher’s recommended remedy for chronic distraction, but the effectiveness of meditative practices (religious or secular) in reshaping the brain have also been abundantly demonstrated.” Among seemingly infinite pluralities of novelty, bowing to science, religion, and scientific religion alike seems most of all like prudence; even Rorty’s ‘romantic polytheism’, compatible as it is with Linker’s ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’, takes shape in our teeming vistas as the spiritualized restatement of Oakeshott’s conservative credo: bet the field. The popular case for paganism fits on the side of a bus , too: X-TREME ECUMENICISM — JUST IN CASE.

The garden of forking paths to eternal experience, however fleeting, traditionally leads us up and out; but the ultimate bet-hedging brings us to the same place as the ultimate non-compromise in religious experience — the convergence point of outwardness and inwardness. That looking deep enough within might open at last upon the eternal Without implies a rationalizing evasive maneuver from eternal authority that concedes such authority in order to drag out Augustine’s ‘not yet’ as long as the evader can manage. Jesus also prayed a ‘not yet.’ Between Augustine’s pride and Jesus’ fear we negotiate our positions under pressure of eternal authority. But those horizontal shufflings are kept honest only in the vertical of authority that divides the basis of Augustine’s “I want! I want!” from that of Jesus’ “Help! Help!” Burrowing with rationalizations to the very bottom of the soul may reveal, as Freud feared, the ‘unrepressed repressive’, the true guilt in eternal authority that our human longings shortcut us emotionally, not rationally, toward. But the bottom is very far down, and nobody is guaranteed to get there in time.

All the more reason that we seek comfort in the conflation of the eternal and the infinite in our inward attentions. Against our truancies of doing we prescribe a therapy of raptness:

Winifred Gallagher’s new book, ” Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life ” argues that it’s high time we take more deliberate control of this stuff. “The skillful management of attention,” she writes, “is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.” Because we can only attend to a tiny portion of the sensory cacophony around us, the elements we choose to focus on — the very stuff of our reality — is a creation, adeptly edited, providing us with a workable but highly selective version of the world and our own existence. Your very self, “stored in your memory,” is the product of what you pay attention to, since you can’t remember what you never noticed to begin with.

Last year in The New Atlantis I considered The Technology of Memory :
[ . . . ] lodged in a present that no longer belongs to us, we find ourselves like Jorge Luis Borges’s character Funes, who fell off a horse to discover he could remember perfectly everything he experienced thereafter. Rieff noted that Funes is supremely memorious but holds no remembrance of things truly past—he remembers only what he has learned since becoming able to remember everything. Thus, in Borges’s tale, he develops a dark and haunted taste for learning ancient languages in ten minutes’ time and filling the interminable hours reciting tomes he had only glanced at. Funes is all knowledge and no wisdom, all events and no narrative. He knows more about an eyelash than he does about himself, for now, properly speaking, he has no self.

The technology of memory can tell us everything—or the most refined selection of things—but it cannot tell us how to refine or choose. There is nothing in accordance with which to choose. The task of supplying a rationale will be left to those who manage our memories for us. “To be memorious and yet not a remembrancer,” Rieff suggests, “heralds a technological super-successor” to the human intellect: “Imagine an idiot savant as forerunner of the computer data bank.” He refers us to the vaudevillian Mr. Memory in Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Steps , a freak capable of total recall, unable to judge what not to remember or even say. Like Rieff, Davidson recognized the question that follows the surrender of our memory to systematization— Why not? Mistaken as a powerful expression of confident openness, Why not? perhaps better captures the final passivity of he who cannot remember what, or how, to remember.


Raptness therapy, like Augustine’s ‘not yet’, dangerously offers to make us adepts at our mortifications of memory, not better remembrancers: “while it’s one thing to accommodate more information,” writes Miller, “it’s another to engage with it fundamentally, in a way that allows us to perceive underlying patterns and to take concepts apart so that we can put them back together in new and constructive ways.” For every thirty-five units of mental dissolution take one thirty-five minute raptness break. Our breaks, from an otherwise uninterrupted life of billions upon billions of breaks, are intended to improve but not heal. Miller notes that Rapt , aping Malcolm Gladwell, “aims to walk the line between social science and self-help.” Alas,
disappointingly little of “Rapt” is concerned with the state Gallagher describes as “completely absorbed, engrossed, fascinated, perhaps even ‘carried away,’” that is, precisely the experience Carr thinks is becoming ever more inaccessible. Ironically, for a book about focusing, “Rapt” can be frustratingly scattered, self-contradicting and platitudinous; do we really need more hand-wringing about families who don’t have dinner together or reheated summaries of scientific studies demonstrating the power of positive thinking?

Given our insistence on not having dinner together, among other dissolutions mental and physical, yes; the alternative to these shiny booklike objects is something further from both social science and personal therapy than Economic Man or Psychological Man can reach. God is not gold, nor gold God, no matter how snappy Miller’s depth metaphors. Gold is shiny, with twice-reflected light. All that glitters is gold. Ours is, as Miller acknowledges, “a culture composed of millions of small, spinning, sparkly bits” — what I have referred to at this blog for years now as Smithereens. Attention alone can clear the way to a reckoning with eternity; the delight of contemplation can arouse in us a curiosity about what we should contemplate; but the experience of attention itself is not the experience of eternity.

MORE . . . see Peter Suderman on memorizing books, outsourcing brains, and how the Web teaches us to think like it does.

Articles by James Poulos

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