"All together the details form a pattern with which you familiarize yourself. You were to know the pattern of things in order to notice deviations. The man standing still on the corner of the building and staring down into the street. The white pickup truck stopped at a crossroads in the distance. The flat, green, night vision rendering of a man slinking into a canal. What preserved your focus through the monotony of tower guard was the knowledge that if you missed something important, your friends would die. Stare too long into the stars and you give someone just enough time to place an IED at the crossroads. Doze off for a few moments and later that day you could be gathering pieces of your friend to send home. In this sense, boredom was really a kind of immersion in the environment. Merleau-Ponty mentions the artist Cezanne’s immersion into the landscape, beginning with detailed attention and moving toward a kind of existential crescendo of pure contemplation: “He would start by discovering the geological structure of the landscape; then, according to Mme Cezanne, he would halt and gaze, eyes dilated.‘ The landscape thinks itself in me,’ he said, ‘and I am its consciousness.’” What was true for the painter is truer in a broader sense for the soldier peering out of his guard tower, though their intentions are different. Boredom becomes an intervening subject through which we are able to commune with things—objects, memories, notions—beyond our immediate experience. The boredom was dense, but it was also the medium our hopes and fears moved through. The boredom was not empty. We filled it with meaning. We were wide awake inside of our boredom."
Fears about the implications of behaviorism gave us wonderful contributions to popular culture—a glance at the Anthony Burgess/Stanley Kubrick masterpiece A Clockwork Orange in either its written or visual form is one example of that. But fear of success is not success. While clinical psychologists can bend doctrines to make them fit whatever they happen to be doing at the time—see, for instance, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—advertisers under scrutiny by high-paying firms are more responsive to failure and hence a little more adaptive. Vicary’s subliminal advertising largely went the way of the dodo, as did crude attempts by advertisers to bombard audiences with messages over and over again. During the 1960s, especially, lifestyle identification became all the rage. This fit with the times. While many today view the 1960s as a countercultural rejection of consumer capitalism and all its wiles, it was no such thing, as Thomas Frank has chronicled in The Conquest of Cool (1997).
There is an irony here. Many in the counterculture had actually read Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, which gave them a notion of advertising that was mechanical and behaviorist in nature. When they protested against “consumerism,” they were protesting against the Packard-Skinner model of stimulus-response. But, if anything, this opened them up to more psychodynamic forms of manipulation. Advertisers were extremely quick to pick up on the counterculture as a means to sell people products under the guise of “self-actualization”—indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that advertisers were key architects of this counterculture. The counterculture was for the advertisers a frontier at which they could construct new groups of consumers and open up markets—much as Bernays had done when he sold women cigarettes. The advertising analysts at AdAge give a few examples of this new spin on the old psychodynamic form of advertising:
[The 1960s] spawned a “creative revolution” in advertising, with agencies using self-deprecating humor, irreverence and irony to appeal to young consumers. Doyle Dane Bernbach’s Volkswagen work, launched at the end of the 1950s but emblematic of the creative, ironic approach of the 1960s, focused on the car’s “liabilities” with headlines such as “Ugly,” “Lemon” and “Think Small.” Advertising Age later named the effort the top campaign of the 20th century. One key goal of advertising was to win over young consumers, who were disaffected and distrustful of corporate messages. Both Pepsi-Cola Co. and Coca-Cola Co. managed to do this well. Pepsi’s “Think young” and “Pepsi Generation” campaigns (Batten, Barton, Durstine, & Osborn) and Coca-Cola’s multi-ethnic, peace-promoting “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” effort (McCann-Erickson) drove sales of the brands, at the expense of their competitors, and inaugurated the “cola wars.” Advertisers also worked to incorporate youth-targeted pop-culture references into their spots, such as Campbell’s tweaking its slogan to read “M’m, m’m, groovy!”4
As a writer, though, this means that he’s placed himself in a somewhat precarious position. As he writes in the book: “I realized, after a while, that anything I have ever written in the past which has even approached being any good at all has been written from some place of desperation. It has been written from the edges: from the dark slope of the mountain, not the warmth of the campfire.”
Kingsnorth’s image of a writer necessarily being apart, watching those around the campfire from the dark slope of the mountain, is an apt metaphor for the distance that we fear language places between us and an authentic life. But Kingsnorth seems not to consider the possibility that to be human is to be both on the mountain and around the fire, at the same time.
The Italian writer Roberto Calasso explains in his book Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India that the Hindu Vedas say the Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life “look like a single tree.” On two different branches, two birds sit at exactly the same height. One eats a berry while the other watches. Both are aspects of self, and both are necessary, the eating and the watching. As Calasso writes, affirming Kingsnorth’s initial perception while rejecting his conclusions, “Consciousness slowly strangles life. But life exists—or is perceived to exist—only to the extent that it allows the parasite of consciousness to grow upon it.” One is reminded here of how William Burroughs called language the “word virus.” But what traditional and religious wisdom tells us is that the virus must necessarily be kept in harmony with our animal selves in order for us to spiritually flourish.
Pierre senses the meaning of things, though he cannot explain it to others. In the close of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), which was heavily influenced by Tolstoy, the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein explains why that sense cannot be communicated:
6.251. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is this not why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have been unable to say what constituted that sense?)
6.522. There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest.
It is not some fact about the world that has changed for Pierre, but his sense of the world as a whole. With that new sense, Pierre’s questions are not answered but simply disappear. He has found faith—“not faith in any sort of rule, or words, or ideas” but in a God perpetually present in the very processes of life. The real sense of the Gospel words Andrei cites—“they sow not, neither do they reap”—is that God is to be found not in remote aims but in the immediate present always before one’s eyes. Pierre has learned, “not by words or reasoning, but by direct feeling, what his nurse had told him long ago: that God is here and everywhere.” Like Pierre, Tolstoy cannot answer the questions of life in words, but instead shows us from within the experience of discovering faith.
Reading War and Peace is an experience unlike that of reading any other book, except, I suppose, Anna Karenina. We move from amazement at the smallest movements of consciousness to a grand vision of life in all its endless complexity and variety. Perhaps we become convinced of this vision because we have always tacitly and unconsciously known it. Here is Tolstoyan wisdom: real insight lies not in some abstract system, which necessarily oversimplifies, but in a faith always within our grasp. The truths we seek are so difficult to discern precisely because they are hidden in plain view.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor