Embracing The Ability To Just Sit There

Louis C.K.’s existential rant against smartphones went crazy viral this week:

Derek Beres applauds:

Louis C.K.’s observations caused laughter, but a specific kind: the acknowledgement that yes, he’s right, that is how it begins and ends for all of us. Avoiding the fact harms us more than it does us good. … Today there is no more potent contrivance than the mass distraction of cell phones. This is no anti-technological rant—all of our tools have purpose and can be used for good reason. The reasons we justify, however, need to be questioned. As an avoidance of silence, we’re never going to be able to reckon with loneliness. That’s a shame. So much is learned in the quiet space.

Daniel Engber pushes back:

Are these old-fashioned modes of entertainment and distraction any less pernicious than the ones we have today? C.K.’s own example mixes the old technology with new. He had the urge to text his friends, he says, while listening to music in his car; his smartphone distracted him from the radio. But what if C.K. had been sitting there in blessed silence, staring out across the open road and contemplating his own mortality? Why did he have to clog the gaping quiet with classic rock? What made his phone distracting, and his radio a source of sadness and joy?

We like to think that antique distractions—Isaac Asimov, Carl Kasell, Bruce Springsteen—are superior to the modern sort. Books and songs enrich us; smartphones make us dumber. “Jungleland” is art; Facebook is a waste of time. But is that really true? I’ll grant the excellence of “Jungleland”—I’m not a monster—but most pop tunes won’t make you cry “like a bitch.” Most are ways to pass the time and nothing more.

Peter Lawler sees C.K. as channeling Aristotle when he describes crying over the Springsteen song:

The song reminded him of his homelessness, of a kind of nostalgia that can’t be reduced to some kind of social or economic or neuroscientific explanation. Louis was “grateful to feel sad,” because it was a “beautiful” and “poetic” prelude to “profound happiness.” The philosophers say that anxiety is the prelude to wonder about the mystery of being and human being, and so it’s who we are to experience that interdependence of misery and joy. Crying even leads to laughing; tragedy and comedy are interdependent. They both help put us in our place as somewhat displaced beings.

For more of C.K.’s musings on mortality, check out the third season of Louie, which just went up on Netflix.