I'm empty. No, not really empty; I was trained not to be that. The battle of ideas is never over, is it? The responsible citizen, the responsible critic: they are sleepless creatures. Last week I was in Jerusalem for a few days, and I am brimming with impressions and ideas. Obama and Clinton and McCain continue to inspire thoughts, and of course witticisms. A few days ago a friend of mine published a miserable piece on a matter about which I care deeply, and I am of a mind to be withering about it. The decline of The New York Times remains worthy of comment, as does the poverty of imagination in American theater and film. But for now I am refusing to play. I am in the mood not to be smart. The gladiatorial combat of opinion, of transient things importantly stated, leaves me cold. It is not transience at its best. Recent joys and sorrows have shaken me loose, temporarily, from the frenzy of applied intelligence, from the bait of the hum and the buzz. Nothing is more enlivening than private experience, not even a primary in a major state. So I prefer, as Barthes once said in a lecture, to entrust myself to the banality within me, and thereby be restored to the sort of reflection that does not await the evening news to find its subject. Compared to the mad rush of fine minds to satisfy the appetites of the world, to rise in the world by interpreting it, there is nothing at all parochial about the confinements of interiority; turning away from what passes for history, turning inward, hitting the "off" switches, is a kind of reverse cosmopolitanism. And mawkishly I must admit also that the catastrophes in Burma and China have had the distant consequence of shutting me up: I cannot quite work myself into a consideration of those children from a policy standpoint, though I am grateful that others will do so, and punditry is no place for the agonies of philosophy. (That is a minority opinion, of course. It is remarkable how many of the ultimate questions can now be answered in 750 words.) So my problem is that I am not empty enough. The habit of discourse is hard to break. One way to elide reality is to keep talking about it.
A decade ago I used to worry that the new technologies of communication would irreparably damage writing, and therefore reading, and therefore the life of language. Email is more than typing but less than writing, and the brevity that is decreed by its speed has produced all sorts of degradations of informality and inarticulateness. That, as I say, was a decade ago. But now there is nothing more dazzling on the web, and hence in the galaxy, than video, and every newspaper, every magazine, every bedroom, is a television studio, and so it is the end of significant speech that I anxiously envision. It is being usurped by talkativeness. All those prattling heads--how can people spend so much time watching other people speak? Is conversation a sport? Is all this chin music really conversation? Are we witnessing the process of opinionformation in a wired democracy, or is this just the voyeurism of the educated, a kind of high-end eavesdropping--a silly fantasy of PartisanReview.com? Whatever it is, the American fear of silence may finally be retired, because silence, like oblivion, is no more. Everybody will now be heard from, even if it will be hard to hear anybody. As for the jabberers themselves: they do not look their best, and often they demonstrate that there are few activities less effortful than speech. The more substantial the theme, the more ludicrous is its dispatch in a few minutes of earnest chatter. Go to a dreary website called Bigthink.com and "browse big ideas"--"identity," "life and death, " "truth and justice"--and you will see what I mean. Here is the false promise of the end of obscurity; profundity for busy people, delivered by people with time on their hands; an electronic gospel of relaxation; a slick hoax upon real thinking. And back in the material world, there are journals that sometimes look like the print-versions of their loquacious festivals and conferences. The rabbis in antiquity--B.C., or before connectedness--created a voluntary institution of personal mortification called a "speech fast," in which an individual would refrain from talking for a day so as to recover his moral and mental bearings. Life was never as overwhelming as it is now, but it was always overwhelming; and verbal abstention was regarded as a reliable instrument for stopping the madness. But in a logorrheic society, in which obtrusiveness confers ontology and you are what you say, such an act of inner renovation, such a spiritual exercise, is almost unimaginable. If you are what you say, you are nothing when you say nothing.
The road from Farragut Square to Dupont Circle was once a grand and lovely boulevard. Where arid office buildings now stand noble dwellings once stood. A photograph from 1890 shows the elegant mansions of Shepherd's Row on the northeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street, in one of whose ballrooms a party once concluded with the release of thousands of butterflies, and across the street a quiet grove of trees. For the past few weeks a wrecking ball has been destroying a severe Alphaville-like structure on that same corner. Every day the violence brought more of the building down, exposing more of its steel and cement entrails. It was a splendid emblem of the lucky freakishness of this country: the ruins so familiar from photographs of terrorism here signify (but alas, no longer always) prosperity. Finally there stood only a twisting nine- story gyre of scheduled devastation, with dirtied white doors opening into nothingness, and in the middle of a moonless night it, too, was crushed. The spectacle of this wound in the city was irresistible, and not only for the historical irony that it suggested. It was a gash in the local order, a glimpse of the desolation that lives beneath the noisy organizations of existence, and therefore it pleased me: it confirmed my impatience with the patina, and ratified the collapse of my pride in my own sophistication. The eruption of chaos in the heart of one of the world capitals of instrumental rationality made me glad. Even here some darkness may be detected. The tranquility of the rubble held me. This time the call of brilliant argument would have to wait, and yield to more fundamental reveries in which brilliance has no place. And so my confused friend, the one who perpetrated that op-ed piece, got away. He knows who he is.