Pascal, Marx and sitting still...
All human evil comes from a single cause, man's inability to sit still in a room.
Putting to one side the hyperbole of this quietist aphorism, there is something in Blaise Pascal’s pithy dictum that deeply resonates with me right now. Sitting still in a room is a concept with which I have an odd relationship, both now and throughout my life. As someone who has a history of being a shut-in, having just experienced lockdown (all addressed in last week’s essay), I acknowledge that there is a bad type of stillness. But I am also drawn to it as something healthy and life-affirming.
Anticipating, significantly, Marx, the continental Phenomenologists, the American Pragmatists, feminist standpoint, and others, Pascal formulated quite a radical notion of how ideas are connected to the material sensuousness of the world. He did so to ground his notion that through ritual we can shape—even radically reshape—our own beliefs and convictions. It is a crucial part of his famous and poorly understood wager. And yet unlike these other traditions that emphasised such an embodied agency, it is hard to imagine Pascal saying with Marx:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
That is all to say, there is a reactionary type of stillness, too. More than just bad, more than a suspension of necessary change, there is a stillness that ignores the suffering of the world with a haughty disdain. And yet, there is an inherent value to a type of stillness, one that is thoughtful, content with itself, and that grounds action in something more than reaction. The word ‘inability’ is important to what Pascal argues; he does not say we should just sit still in a room, but that we need to cultivate the capacity for it. That capacity is an important resource.
As an avid reader and professional editor, I struggle with a kind of story that is forever afraid of sitting still with its characters. There is a certain kind of writing that regards introspection and dreaming as authorial indulgences that do not serve plot. In this framing the plot becomes somewhat tyrannical; it is not the loose connection of events that provide a momentum to whatever else a story is concerned to explore (character, ideas, tensions), but what every other element of a narrative account should for some reason be subordinate to. Stories completely subordinated to plot rarely sit still in a room, they are too eager to get to the next page.
Conversely, one of my favourite kinds of writing, a type I sought to invest myself in more lately, is all about this type of stillness. That is, journaling. This type of writing, at its best, is about the world, reflective on the writer’s place within it, so as to ground action that is not reactive. I have always especially admired W. N. P. Barbellion’s The Journal of a Disappointed Man for that kind of vulnerable reflectiveness, who can write of being ‘in love with my own ruin.’ There is something liberating in how he openly, slowly worries his way through problems, with an honesty that was especially refreshing to me after I was diagnosed with the same chronic condition the author faced.
Marx took issue with philosophers who only interpreted the world, but as a thoroughgoing interpreter himself, it is unlikely that he would have much time for someone who only sought to change it, without the benefit of interpretation. This balance is equally needed whether we concern ourselves with the macro problems of Marx or the micro, personal ones of Barbellion. We need a capacity for stillness, and a willingness to move.
There is also the notion of human evil in Pascal’s line about stillness. Pascal was profoundly religious, his philosophy was, indeed, chiefly in service to religious ends, and so his notion of evil is perhaps a bit detached from mine—as an apostate of Anglicanism. But even this part has a certain resonance. Because whether it is a type of bad literature under the tyranny of plot, of cliffhangers and pagerturners, or someone who seeks to change the world without interpreting it, there is a destructive recklessness involved. As there always is in just reacting.
Reality on so many levels has been going through such upheavals lately, and so I seek a stillness to ground myself. As the world upends our expectations, it is important that we do not only react. It is better not to behave like a character trapped by the needs of plot, by stringing a sequence of events without those bridging moments of just being, still, quiet, reflective.
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