How would introverts like Beckett — and Wittgenstein, Kafka and P.G. Wodehouse — have survived social media?
[ part I; part II is here ]
We like talking so much because we hope by our conversations to gain some mutual comfort, and because we seek to refresh our wearied spirits by variety of thoughts. And we very willingly talk and think of those things which we like or desire, or else those which we most dislike … But alas! it is often to no purpose and in vain.
Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471), ‘Of the Danger of the Superfluity of Words’
The most riveting collection of words I have come upon this winter is in a 1935 letter from a twenty nine year-old Samuel Beckett, whose work would later be translated into at least twenty languages and stimulate conversations all over the world. He was writing to his closest friend, Thomas McGreevy, about his sceptical reading of the medieval German theologian, Thomas Haemmerein, known as Thomas à Kempis – who, in the passage I have quoted, plainly anticipated Facebook’s ‘like’ button. Beckett confesses:
For years I was unhappy, consciously & deliberately ever since I left school & went into [Trinity College Dublin], so that I isolated myself more & more, undertook less & less & lent myself to a crescendo of disparagement of others & myself. But in all that there was nothing that struck me as morbid … It was not until that way of living, or rather negation of living, developed such terrifying physical symptoms that it could no longer be pursued, that I became aware of anything morbid in myself.
The year before, a plague of boils, cysts and heart palpitations that Beckett perceived as psychosomatic had led him into treatment with a psychoanalyst, W. R. Bion. After that, he says, he forced himself to be less reclusive. He is not especially convincing on this score, as he reports in the same letter that ‘I spend most of my time, when not with Bion or walking, reading on top of the fire.’ At the end of his life, it was plain that his true sentiments were closely aligned with those of à Kempis, only bleaker. He wrote, not long before he died, that each word spoken seemed ‘an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.’
Yet he was an avid reader. I have found myself wondering whether the internet could ever be the true friend of introverts that books have been for centuries – not just making it possible to get lost in stimulating new information, ideas and vicarious feeling, but because opening one can serve as a polite ‘keep out’ sign when, as Beckett expressed the condition of being emotionally drained, ‘the bath is nearly empty’.
What are introverts supposed to do in the age of social media? Specifically, how are they supposed to respond to the pressure to join the unending exchange of news and views and intimate disclosures – or pretence thereof – in tweets and postings? An alarming index of the growing coerciveness of these media is a report that the more enthusiastically a blogger joins the great conga line in the ether, the higher the rank assigned to the blog in Google’s search results – supposedly because of a change in Google’s algorithm. Someone posted a link to this news I don’t remember exactly where, last week. When I looked up the reference it turned out to be six months old, an eternity for a company that appears to tweak its policies every quarter, but perhaps Steve Olenski of Social Media Marketing was not merely grinding an axe when he quoted someone in his business pronouncing,
‘If you don’t have a presence in social, you’ll lose your presence in search.’
It certainly fits the repetitious, mind-numbing reminders that have begun to recall the lovely old Private Eye series, ‘Great Bores of Today’, to the effect that
[t]he internet is […] a code for the collective conscious or “distributed networked intelligence”. The internet is our collective externalised mind.
Or, as William Gibson, the science fiction writer and inventor of the word ‘cyberspace’ has been quoted,
… humans, as a species, are ‘in the process of growing itself an extended communal nervous system.’
But even if there is a great mind-meld into a single system in the offing, surely that giant organism will need long respites from chatter – whether that is something like sleep, if not interludes of Beckettian ‘silence and nothingness’? Parts of our individual brains do crucial work in the background, and unobtrusively: surely we can acknowledge and accept that there are vital contributors to society ill-suited to social media, who deserve protection from their coercive promotion?
Or, should we simply let evolution favour extroverts, so that social media’s influence on natural selection will, as someone witty has said in another context, render introverts ‘genetically speaking … a cul de sac’ in the future?
Worry about that possibility does not seem to be getting much attention. Critics of the internet like Nicholas Carr tend to focus on its effect on concentration and mental acuity – as in, ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’. There are introverts pointing out that social media are more congenial because they spare them the trauma of going out and meeting actual, embodied, human beings. I must respectfully disagree. That might have been true before social media took off in earnest. Following the Twitter streams of the champions in these channels shows them at it — I mean, extraverting madly — from early in the morning. They do not stop for weekends or public holidays – and they appear to have fostered the expectation that we should all be equally tireless witterers, which can hardly be attractive to lovers of solitude and introspection.
What might we lose by discouraging introversion?
The psychiatrist Anthony Storr, a lucid and honest thinker, confessed to reversing himself on the subject of introversion in Solitude (1988):
In an earlier book, I stressed the need for interpersonal relationships in the maturing of personality:
[C]reative artists may believe that it is in the ivory tower of the solitary expression of their art that their innermost being finds its completion. They forget that art is communication, and that, implicitly or explicity, the work which they produce in solitude is aimed at somebody.
I still believe this; but I want to add a rider to the effect that … [t]he great introverted creators are able to define identity and achieve self-realization by self-reference; that is, by interacting with their own past rather than by interacting with other people.
He made his point with deft sketches of a long list of writers and philosophers, including
… the biggest surprise, for me … P.G. Wodehouse, who ‘[dreaded] individual social contacts, hated being interviewed, loathed clubs (though he belonged to a number of them), and lavished on animals the affection which he could not give to his fellow-creatures.’
… the dazzling satirist Saki (H. H. Munro) and Franz Kafka: ‘Both were story-tellers, but their stories were hardly ever concerned with intimate human relationships, and neither man established any prolonged intimate relationship in reality.’
… Immanuel Kant, who believed ‘that every rational being existed as an end in himself, and that is how we ought to treat each other … [H]e did not form any close relationship with either sex … Although generous to his relatives, he took care to keep well away from them.’
… Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘who must have been one of the most profoundly introverted men of genius who has ever existed. What was taking place in his own mind was, to him, far more important than anything taking place in the external world. … [He] was indifferent to social conventions, disliked the small talk of academic life, and hated social pretensions.’
… Isaac Newton, who was ‘predominantly a recluse, preoccupied with his work to the exclusion of almost everything else, with little social contact with other human beings, and no close relations with either sex.Newton’s distrust of others is attested by his reluctance to publish his work.’
If any of these people swooped down in a time machine, would anyone sensible recommend labouring at a Facebook wall to them, or Twittering in the dawn tweetastic?
I see that I am getting silly, but that might be because prolonged head-scratching about the attractions of social networking has left me perfectly witless.