Take time to contemplate the arts in this trivial digital age
Poetry, philosophy, literature and art are uniquely human activities. Other animals play, sing and even dance. But no other animal contemplates its own existence.
In our quick digital era, one wonders whether there is time for contemplation. Speed and multitasking can undermine focus needed to study a poem, observe a work of art or digest a philosophical insight.
Our digital tools give us unprecedented opportunity to explore the humanities. We can download the great works of literature and philosophy and carry them with us in phones and tablets. We can publish our own reflections with the click of a mouse. Art works are easily copied and forwarded.
This could be a golden age of philosophical reflection and poetic insight. There are hidden backwaters of the Internet where poetry, philosophy and art flourish. But much of the mainstream flows in another direction. The Internet deluges us with foolish factoids, meaningless memes, pornographic pictures and vicious videos. The rising tide of trivia can easily sweep us away.
Our attention is divided by the pace and flow of information. Even conversation suffers: We text instead of call. We dread the spiraling buffer sign and multitask while we wait. Our attention bounces along among scattered bits of quickly moving data.
Speedy multitasking is not all bad. In some cases, a brief text is all you need. When you only want data, a quick download is great. The trivia passing through our gadgets can be surfed and skimmed.
But careful, slow and deliberate attention is important. Life’s most meaningful moments deserve our time and undivided attention: falling in love, giving birth, growing old, dying. Unhurried, sustained reflection is a mature human ability, as is the ability to listen, read and think.
It takes time and concentration to understand Shakespeare or Plato or Picasso. Deliberate, undivided effort is needed to write a poem, construct an argument or analyze a work of literature. The same intellectual skill is needed in the sciences, in law and in other fields. But the humanities are unique in forcing us to slow down, breathe deeply and contemplate.
Shakespeare once compared his love to a summer’s day. That’s a fact (download Sonnet 18 and you’ll see). But what does it mean? Summer days are slow and luxurious. Unfortunately, beauty fades, as does summer. Is there hope? Shakespeare hints that poetry holds beauty in place against the ravages of time.
Does the Internet also preserve us against swift-footed time? You could post Shakespeare’s sonnet on your website along with your other pictures and memes. But copying and pasting is not understanding. Meaning cannot be downloaded. There is no app for insight.
Good poetry is precise. Haiku can be inspiring. Shakespeare’s sonnets are 140 syllables long. Concise communication is a useful art. But we’ve shaved this down to tweets of 140 characters. And we’ve compressed the time we need to reflect upon the meaning of things, while filling the void with data.
Data transfer is to thinking as sex is to love. Human beings could exchange DNA in a quick genetic data dump. But love is much more than this. Love is a mysterious communion of souls haunted by a whiff of eternity. It involves contemplation: You linger, savor and dream about your beloved.
The same is true of poetry, philosophy and other attempts to fathom the human spirit. Lingering, savoring, dreaming and contemplating are the modes and moods of the humanities. Through them we rise above the manic din of data exchange and hover for a moment in defiance of swift-footed, devouring time.
Our electronic exchanges are like quick splashes of water that run off dry land without sinking in. Philosophy, poetry and the arts are stickier, gentler and denser. When given time and attention, they provide deep irrigation for the human spirit.
It is not surprising that the value of the humanities is best expressed in metaphor. Metaphors force us to slow down and think. It is not enough to simply state that the humanities are valuable in themselves — that’s a fact to be posted, tweeted and repeated. We also need to see that poetry, philosophy and art provide an oasis of contemplation in a desert of data.