The Quest for Novelty

by Sam Buntz

The mind thinks that information is the way out. The more details it can gather, it supposes, the closer it will be to amassing an ultimate agglomeration of Truth. The various practical applications arising from this rage for information, seem to justify it—after all, we have iPads, microwaves, and medical care exponentially superior to that of any previous century. It must be adding up to something. But, worthy as these innovations are, the craving for information—for image, for detail, for forbidden knowledge (for videos of beheadings and of naked women crushing hamsters with high heels, to cite two real examples)—only increases, until it results in a final consolidation of Error, as opposed to a consolidation of Truth. It is nothing but sound and fury. Fortunately, this Body of Error can’t help but expose itself—when real attention is turned towards it, it shrivels in the sun. Yet it is exceedingly crafty and strategic in fending off its demise: it simply seeks to keep human attention bouncing around, from one object to the next, without ever settling in concentration and seeing the matter plain. In such a state, human beings can’t even really be said to have any attention—the objects of their awareness are not determined by themselves, but by external powers, by that bundle of Error.

So, the mind marches on, concocting new marinades and seasonings with which to disguise that tasteless and mysterious tofu—the underlying substance of life. As T.S. Eliot puts it, these external distractions seek to “Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled, / With pungent sauces, multiply variety / In a wilderness of mirrors.” The goal is novelty—mechanically and automatically sought in order to fend off knowledge of the underlying silence, the fundamental emptiness or darkness of experience, which we consider (with almost no justification) to be a threat. We do not suspect that an invisible sun might be buried within that eternal night… Obviously, the pursuit of novelty for its own sake—to keep attention moving to fresh objects, in a state of incessant flux—can only result in madness. (The utter loss of attention might really be the definition of “madness,” as it is commonly understood). As the attention becomes fatigued with familiar objects, it seeks to incite passion through bizarre channels, tripping down obscure alleys. (This weekend, we were just informed that a convention of “Furries”—people who dress up like giant stuffed animals in order to have sex—was disrupted by a chlorine gas leak, likely due to sabotage). It seems to be true that, while, as a whole, the rate of violence has gone down in the world—compared to earlier eras—humanity, thanks to this unhinged quest for novelty, has never looked quite so ridiculous and undignified.

In a way, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The further the quest proceeds and the mind’s affections continue to go haywire, the more this great Body of Error seems obvious. Here, the risk is that, in attempting to expose the Body of Error, the critic fails to see or notice anything that is not the Body of Error, and hence becomes just another unconstructive complainer, howling in the cheap seats. Anyone can see that there’s something ridiculous about Miley Cyrus humping giant teddy bears on stage—but not everyone who notices that this is ridiculous can articulate what the alternatives are. If you bask in ridicule—in giving it or receiving it—you haven’t really separated yourself from the mass of accumulated falsity. Your attention is still subject to that shifting and treacherous sea.

But what is the alternative? In venturing an amateur guess, I would say that the alternative is, as already implied, a practice involving concentrated attention, concentrated will. Kierkegaard wrote, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” But what one thing? Where should attention be concentrated? And how? It would be somewhat presumptuous to fill in the blanks, on my part, demonstrating a certain pretension to sagedom.  Yet it is impossible to end this essay without offering something more. Simone Weil’s voice might serve to bridge the gap, establishing a living connection with the Body of Truth, existing across the gulf from the Body of Error: “The combination of these two facts — the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it — constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality.”

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