Saturday, April 25, 2015

Monotony and excitement: Perceptions of time

Elizabeth Gilbert mused on the monotony of a long marriage, specifically on how the monotony builds intimacy and might be essential to the marriage. She wrote:

The poet Jack Gilbert (no relation, sadly for me) wrote that marriage is what happens "between the memorable." He said that we often look back on our marriages years later, perhaps after one spouse has died, and all we can recall are "the vacations, and emergencies" – the high points and low points. The rest of it blends into a blurry sort of daily sameness. But it is that very blurred sameness, the poet argues, that comprises marriage. Marriage is those two thousand indistinguishable conversations, chatted over two thousand indistinguishable breakfasts, where intimacy turns like a slow wheel. How do you measure the worth of becoming that familiar to somebody – so utterly well known and so thoroughly ever-present that you become an almost invisible necessity, like air?

Yet another Gilbert, on the difficulty of achieving momentum to make significant change:

The problem, [Daniel] Gilbert points out, is that we humans are constrained by ‘presentism’: ‘Most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today.’

Fernando Pessoa wrote of how a life made deliberately monotonous will find excitement in the smallest things. One might interpret this as deliberately lowering one's standards. Regardless, as a trick of the mind, it might be effective.

I look again, with real terror, at the panorama of those lives and, just as I'm about to feel horror, sorrow and revulsion for them, discover that the people who feel no horror or sorrow or revulsion are the very people who have the most right to, the people living those lives. That is the central error of the literary imagination: the idea that other people are like us and must therefore feel like us. Fortunately for humanity, each man is only himself and only the genius is given the ability to be others as well.

In the end, everything is relative. A tiny incident in the street, which draws the restaurant cook to the door, affords him more entertainment than any I might get from the contemplation of the most original idea, from reading the best book or from the most pleasant of useless dreams. And, if life is essentially monotonous, the truth is that he has escaped from that monotony better and more easily than I. He is no more the possessor of the truth than I am, because the truth doesn't belong to anyone; but what he does possess is happiness.<>BR
The wise man makes his life monotonous, for then even the tiniest incident becomes imbued with great significance. After his third lion the lionhunter loses interest in the adventure of the hunt. For my monotonous cook there is something modestly apocalyptic about every streetfight he witnesses. To someone who has never been out of Lisbon the tram ride to Benfica is like a trip to the infinite and if one day he were to visit Sintra, he would feel as if he had journeyed to Mars. On the other hand, the traveller who has covered the globe can find nothing new for 5,000 miles around, because he's always seeing new things; there's novelty and there's the boredom of the eternally new and the latter brings about the death of the former.

The truly wise man could enjoy the whole spectacle of the world from his armchair; he wouldn't need to talk to anyone or to know how to read, just how to make use of his five senses and a soul innocent of sadness.

One must monotonize existence in order to rid it of monotony.

Jean-Marie Guyau (1854-1888) had a contrary recommendation. In the passage below, he is interested not in the excitement value of any single new thing, but in how to create the impression of a long, full life overall.

If you want to lengthen the perspective of time, then fill it, if you have the chance, with a thousand new things. Go on an exciting journey, rejuvenate yourself by breathing new life into the world around you. When you look back you will notice that the incidents along the way and the distance you have travelled have heaped up in your imagination, all these fragments of the visible world will form up in a long row, and that, as people say so fittingly, presents you with a long stretch of time.

Cicero looked at old age more purely as a chronological fact, something that would have been attractive per se in the ancient world especially because it was more difficult to attain then. Logically, he says, if it is desirable to live long, then those who are old should be happier on this count than those who are young, since they have achieved the goal. In his writings, he argues against hedonism, and in this passage, he suggests that in old age one finds joy in the remembrance and the rewards of a life virtuously lived.

An old man indeed has nothing to hope for; yet he is in so much the happier state than a young one; since he has already attained what the other is only hoping for. The one is wishing to live long, the other has lived long. And yet, good gods! what is there in man’s life that can be called long? ... For when that [old age] arrives, then the time which has passed has flowed away; that only remains which you have secured by virtue and right conduct. Hours indeed depart from us and days and months and years; nor does past time ever return, nor can it be discovered what is to follow.


Elizabeth Gilbert. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. New York: Viking, 2010. p. 196.

Daniel Gilbert's idea described by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek. Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Jossey-Bass, 2008.

Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. Edited by Maria Jose de Lancastre. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. London: Serpent's Tail, 1991 (a collection of writings that were unorganized upon Pessoa's death in 1935). p. 19.

Jean-Marie Guyau, quoted in Douwe Draaisma. Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past. (2001) Translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans in 2004. Cambridge University Press, 2005. p 207.

“Cicero on Old Age.” Chapter XIX. Printed in Cicero’s Three Books of Offices, and Other Moral Works. Translated by Cyrus R. Edmonds. Bohn’s Classical Library. London: George Bell & Sons, York St, Covent Garden, 1890. p. 248.

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