Gustave Flaubert’s multitasking score: 0 — and ‘flow,’ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s secret of happiness

'Flow, don't freeze'

‘Flow, don’t freeze’

Of all the anxieties related to the effects of digital culture on our brains – the way people reason, comprehend, do cerebral work, create and invent – the only one that we at post-Gutenberg truly share is the worry about attention. Especially, sustained attention. We have long found one facet of this – closer to immersion –  the most dependable font of happiness. It has been studied and named ‘flow’ by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose book on the subject was a birthday present to us from a vanished friend (Dessa, where are you?). Over to the Wikipedia:

In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove.

Everyone accepts that our attention is being chronically, woefully, and hopelessly fractured by mobile telephones, email, tweeting, blogging, Googling, Binging (as opposed to bingeing) and so on – no matter how successful some of us are at glamorising the e-jitterbugging as ‘multitasking’.

How would a Gustave Flaubert write a novel of the depth and (depressing) intricacy of Madame Bovary? Whatever you think of the book – p-G sympathises with the critics who complain that the story lacks a single likeable or, we would say, engaging character – it probably deserves its renown, and its author his place among les immortels.

We have no answer to that question, but we do believe that no one has described the ‘flow’ state and its joys more gorgeously or entertainingly (definitively ‘over-the-top’) than Bovary’s inventor. The other day, opening our copy of The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857 – only because we happened, for the first time for a decade and a half, to both look at and see it on its shelf, we entered a flow state ourselves, completely absorbed by the novelist’s words, beautifully translated and edited by Francis Steegmuller. The proof of the addictiveness of ‘flow’ is in these extracts, as is evidence that it is not always a picnic.

Highlights might be all most of us have time for, soon, the literary equivalent of what is well on its way to becoming the most popular convenience food, worldwide — sushi:

[ … to his friend — the lawyer-turned-dabbler/dilettante — Alfred LePoittevin; 13 May, 1845, Milan …]

You are wasting away with boredom, you say? Bursting with anger, dying of depression, stifling? Have patience, oh lion of the desert! I myself suffered a long period of suffocation, the walls of my room in the rue de l’Est still echo with the frightful curses, the foot-stampings, the cries of distress I gave vent to while I was alone there. How I roared in that room! And how I yawned! … Think, work, write, roll up your sleeves and cut your marble, like the good workman who refuses to be diverted from his task and keeps at it with sweat and good humour. … The only way not to be unhappy is to shut yourself up in Art and count all the rest as nothing. … I do not regret the absence of riches, or love, or the flesh, and everyone is astonished to see me behaving so sensibly. I have said an irrevocable farewell to the practical life. … From now until a day that is far distant I ask for no more than five or six quiet hours in my room, a good fire in winter, and a pair of candles to light me at night.

[ … to Louise Colet, a writer of recognised ability, also Flaubert’s mistress and – as most, though not all, authorities agree, the model for his tedious adulteress; 24 April 1852, Croisset … ]

… I have been in a great fit of work. The day before yesterday I went to bed at five in the morning and yesterday at three. Since last Monday I have put everything else aside and done nothing all week but sweat over my Bovary, disgruntled at making such slow progress. … You speak of your discouragement, if you could see mine! Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn’t melt away. I am leading an austere life, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent frenzy, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but never abates. I love my work with a love that is frantic and perverted, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt that scratches his belly.

Sometimes, when I am empty, when the words don’t come, when I find I haven’t written a single sentence after scribbling whole pages, I collapse on my couch and lie there dazed, bogged in a swamp of despair, hating myself and blaming myself for this demented pride that makes me pant after a chimera. A quarter of an hour later, everything has changed; my heart is pounding with joy. Last Wednesday I had to get up and fetch my handkerchief; tears were streaming down my face. I had been moved by my own writing: the emotion I had conceived, the phrase that rendered it, and the satisfaction of having found the phrase – all were causing me the most exquisite pleasure. At least I think that all those elements were present in this emotion, which after all was predominantly a matter of nerves. There exist even higher emotions of this same kind: those which are devoid of the sensory element. These are superior, in moral beauty, to virtue – so independent are they of any personal factor, of any human implication. Occasionally (at great moments of illumination) I have had glimpses, in the glow of an enthusiasm that made me thrill from head to foot, of such a state of mind, superior to life itself, a state in which fame counts for nothing and even happiness is superfluous.