There are certain things that occupy the mind so clamorously that they crowd out all productive thought. If you’re worried about something all the time to the point of preoccupation it’s hard to focus on anything else. Your work suffers. Eventually the boss sends in the guy with the ax, your head rolls a few feet and is booted into a basket. If you have no boss, thoughts themselves can be your brutal master. Certain thoughts, once they have their hooks in you, will not let go until they have sucked you dry of creativity, even the impulse to try to be creative.
Being captured by one of these thought occupying conundrums is like being caught in a loop while on a treadmill with no off switch. Presented with a difficult, seemingly insoluble problem, one real possibility, once you’ve tried to solve the damned thing a few different ways and failed, is becoming caught in a recursive cycle. You will continue to turn the problem, view it again from several different angles, tend to go over the same poor solutions again and again, failing each time and never being able to “think outside the box”, the only place where any possible solution exists after all other options have exhausted themselves. In the end, incapable of the necessary leap of inspired imagination, you’ll become convinced the problem has no solution.
Every serious problem ever faced by humans, the deadliest problem of the day, was solved by an inspired leap of creative imagination. These leaps are not conceivable to caged animals, pacing their confinement off in a track that rubs the fur off one of their flanks. Once the problem is solved, often by something ingeniously simple, the solution seems obvious, is eventually taken for granted. Before we harnessed fire, what?
Take any political stalemate you like as an example of the supremely distracting, mental energy sapping thing I’m trying to bring out. The killing on the Palestinian side of the Gaza fence. You can turn that one several ways, and it doesn’t ever come out good. The answer is not there, among terror advocates, human shields, political tools, protectors of democracy, dupes, zealots willing to die and snipers with orders to shoot to kill. In the end, your mind glazes over, you pick a side and glare, or turn your eyes away in despair. Even as you’re aware the human truth is not really there on either present merciless side: a terrorist outfit running Gaza, right wing nationalist extremists running Israel, and that no solution is possible as long as these merciless motherfuckers are running the horror show.
You get something stuck between your molars. It is lodged so firmly that it actually makes your teeth hurt a little bit, pain now traveling along your jaw. You can’t get it out with your fingers, your fingernails, with a toothpick, the thinnest blade of your pocket knife, the edge of your map, your tongue endlessly goes to it, you are talking, trying to do other things but distracted. Nobody has dental floss. You’re seven miles out on a hiking trail. Up shit’s creek, no paddle. If only…
There are many things like this in life, particularly in a fast-paced competitive society that believes “time is money,” and “chop, chop, we’re on the clock.” Time is obviously not money in the most basic sense. You can have a billion dollars, but when you run out of time, the worms begin licking their lips, dirt is thrown over you (the passive voice used) and your money is no good here, sir. Time is time, the only real possession we have while we’re here breathing, dreaming and being so often distracted. It is, of course, difficult to see that in a land where everyone keeps chanting “time is money, chop, chop, we’re on the clock!” The chant of a crowd is supremely distracting. A good chant can actually produce mass mindlessness. The examples in history and current events are so numerous and well-known that we can safely skip the example.
I’ve often railed against the lying, attention demanding false show called advertising, also known as Public Relations (and in the political context; propaganda) which has, of course, come to rule electoral politics in modern democracy, as well as in modern dictatorship, now that I think of it. During a brief stay in a PhD program in History (with the capital H, to be sure) I focused on the rise of the Nazis, masters of organized public lying on a mass level, the abusive fathers of the modern political advertising almost universally practiced today.
The rise of Nazism and the functioning of their infernal state were things I’d studied long and hard as an undergraduate. I even won a prize for my research paper The Nazis vs. Degenerate Art, which, like so many things, sounds more ominous in German: entartete kunst. In the decades since that Joan Kelly Prize-winning paper several books have come out about the infamous Nazi campaign against modern art. At the time, I was among the first Americans to explore the subject, with very little research material then available in English. I was basically following somebody’s footnote about entartete kunst. I somehow procured an original catalogue of the show that travelled through the Reich, the highest attended art show until the Metropolitan Museum put on King Tut (or maybe it was MoMA’s massive Picasso show) an art show that broke the record half a century later. Devilish shit, that black and white glossy catalogue, with a particularly ugly African mask on the cover, staring out with dead, hollow eyes.
Anyway, I noticed in my reading and watching that as mass media became the monolithic force it is today (and today, of course, our selected mass media is in our pocket, with a beep to notify us there is something urgently waiting for us to look at) corporations and governments took on more and more of the same tactics for influencing and dominating public opinion. The same experts who earned the most money in commercial advertising (masters of “psychological warfare” like Edward Bernays, who coined the phrase around 1920) sold things like war (Committee for Public Information in the build up to U.S entry into WWI, much extolled by Hitler in Mein Kampf) and political candidates. I’ve written a lot about this sickening subject over the years, there are many excellent books out there on the subject, (Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent comes to mind, there’s a great movie of that title on youtube, if I’m not mistaken; I’m not, here you go ) and the power of advertising in our current world is hard to overstate.
DISTRACTION, on a mass level, by design.
When I sat down to write yesterday I was unable to begin the important, challenging thing I have in mind to write (a 3,000 word version of the book about my father, to sell to some publication so as to procure a literary agent to sell the book, though it will be hard enough to sell the short piece to any impressive publication without a literary agent– Catchuh-22!) until I had written something else, cleansing the mental palette of what has been distracting me so much lately. A long friendship dating back to when I was seven or eight years old, on the ropes, bleeding from multiple cuts, both eyes swollen shut, head carbuncled with contusions, panting piteously as the onlookers gasp, referee nowhere in sight. I’m requested not to write anything about this, no matter how obliquely, even though writing clearly is the only way I know how to really process anything. The only way I can set the thing clearly in front of myself is to write it coherently for someone else. I am sternly requested not to write about it, chided with: I would certainly never publicly write about you, or any of your troubles. I could write it in my diary, I suppose, if I still kept one, but I don’t. I consider the discipline of writing for “publication” essential to my writing life.
So there you go, let’s just close that annoying fucking loop and focus on the difficult work ahead. Here we go loop de loo. Fine. Eyes on the prize. Mind on spin cycle. There is no way out. I will not be distracted, I will not be distracted, I will not be distracted, I will… OK, I suppose I will.
A true artist, I was once convinced, learns to extirpate everything from his life that distracts from making art. Now I think this is a cynical formulation created by auto-mythologizing public relations monsters like genius and money-machine Pablo Picasso, who devoured whole women alive to obtain the raw materials for his masterworks. On the other hand, fuck. Some weeds just need to be rooted out, tossed into the sun to dry out, become airy puppets for the doomed feral kittens in the garden to bat around.