Pascal and My Son's iPod Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 14 January 2010 09:45

Why do I bristle when my son sits in the back seat of the car, white wires hanging from his ears, flipping through what must be a million songs downloaded onto his iPod?  No doubt, it’s the threat of the new.  I rarely carry a cell phone, and now I hear tell of compact computers that will use holographic keyboards.

Stodgy as I certainly am, I don’t think that’s all there is to it.  It’s white, but its purity is, I suspect, only apparent.  There’s something deeper going on, some more fundamental worry about those earplugs, those wires, that uncannily, seductively thin wafer of entertainment.

For starters, I feel that the iPod is an assault on family culture.  A culture is a pattern of life and habit passed from one generation to another; a culture is inherently authoritative, imposed from without.  I want my kids to pick up the passions, the likes and dislikes, the habits and the ways of being that make the Leitharts something more than a random collection of individuals and something different from the Larsons or the Lawyers down the road.

But what we call culture is no longer authoritative, and the iPod and its friends are among the culprits.  In an age of iPods, satellite television, XM radio, Napster, and CinemaNow; in a time where you can choose to follow any of a thousand different religions, or none; in our epoch of pop culture, when we can always find something suitable to our tastes – culture loses its traditional authority.

Pop culture does shape our conduct, but more importantly, by our choices, each of us creates his own culture more or less ex nihilo.  I can construct my own highbrow culture with my Stravinsky CDs and my art house DVD collection, while in the next room my children can form their own culture listening to country music and watching Blue Collar Comedy.

As Todd Gitlin has pointed out, the portability of new technologies realizes the modern aspiration to autonomy in a way that it has never been realized before.  With all the latest technology strapped on, we’re good to go.  Of course, each of these technologies is also a connection, but it’s a connection we turn on and off at will.

I can put my cell phone on silent mode, and punch the off button on my Palm Pilot or my iPod.  Those white ear plugs are, it turns out, removable.  I am only as connected as I want to be.

Nomadicity of this sort is not conducive to culture, because nomadic popular culture lodges authority in only one place – in me.

This may still seem self-serving and stodgy: I’m peeved by the iPod because it means my son won’t turn out like me.  But it’s not just a matter of family culture and losing whatever ability I have to shape my son’s tastes and character.  I bristle and I worry, because I am worried about his soul.

Partly, of course, because of what he might be listening to.  A soul tuned to U2 and Pearl Jam and whomever will not, I dare say, be as resonant as a soul tuned to Bach and Mozart.  Stodgy that may be, but I’ll take my stand.

Bouncy or grinding rhythms, silly or smarmy lyrics – that’s only a small part of it.  It’s the sheer fact of listening, and listening in such alienation, that rankles.  Pascal, with his unparalleled attention to the human capacity for diversion, helps give expression to my worry.  To Pascal, the glory and the misery of man are both evident in our obsession with diversion.

First the glory: We all have some dim knowledge that we are made, as Augustine said, for rest in God.  So we have an instinct for repose.  At the same time, our misery is that we seek only “agitation” in order to forget our misery, which, in the long run, only multiplies our misery.  Double-minded at the core, we blindly pursue a “confused project,” striving for “repose by agitation” and live in the expectation that “the satisfactions [we] don’t have will come, if, by surmounting some difficulties that [we] envisage, [we] can open the door to peace.”

This is the self-defeating, internally contradictory motivation behind a great swath of human action.  Games, seductions, sports, even war and diplomacy are sought, but not because they provide happiness.  We don’t want them to give us settled happiness.  Rather than “looking for this soft, peaceful existence which allows us to think about our unfortunate condition,” we fill our minds and our hours with danger, busyness, bustle, whatever we can find to “distract and amuse us.”

As Matthew Maguire has written, for Pascal “diversion must agitate toward repose; yet repose must never still diversion’s agitation.  Imagination must not lose its capacity to agitate desire because it despairs of reaching its self-created goals.  The imagination must find a kind of repose in agitation, and agitation in repose.” Distraction screens us from the hard realities of our condition at bay.  Distraction induces a pleasant forgetfulness that keeps us ignorant of our misery.  Distraction above all enables us to forget our mortality: As Pascal says, “diversion deceives us, amuses us, and makes us arrive insensibly at death.”

“Insensibly” is the key word here, for Pascal wants to urge us to prepare ourselves for death, so that it doesn’t take us unawares.  To the extent that the iPod diverts, to that extent it distracts from the real business of life, which, however defined, must include a good death.  I worry the iPod will keep my son distracted to the edge of his grave.

Pascal’s analysis of diversion is part of an apology for the life of faith.  Diversion is a temptation that must be renounced in favor of a starkly ascetic pursuit of peace in God.  But here Pascal’s own legacy is mixed, for what he names diversion is quite the effective substitute for piety.

Pascal is one of the first to recognize that distraction works, and Pascal has a hard time convincing the reader, especially the reader without a predisposition to faith, that his path is the better.  Pascal is too honest an observer of human life to pretend, as many Christians do today, that diversion always ends up as a dry dusty taste in the mouth.

Pascal takes a wrong turn, I think, by over-playing the ascetic dimension of the Christian life.  When the Preacher meditates on death and the vapourousness of it all in Ecclesiastes, he turns Epicurean rather than Stoic: Eat, drink and rejoice now, because you don’t have much time to get it done.  Pascal would have been more convincing had he been slightly less Augustinian, and slightly more Solomonic.

But there’s my son, still sitting behind me, now listening to a movie sound track or Johnny Cash.  What do I tell him?  Sometimes, I tell him to unplug himself and read, play with his little sisters, have a conversation.  Sometimes, frequently, the iPod must be put to the side to engage in common activities that cultivate the family, and the church, culture.  Sometimes, though, I might be able to turn the iPod into a memento mori: Next year, your iPod is going to be outdated, all your friends will have better ones, and you’ll be hankering for something new.  Your iPod is vapor, vapor of vapors, most vaporous vapor.  Just like everything else.  Just like you.

Therefore: Eat, drink, and enjoy your music.

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