When it was suggested, on an uncommonly busy day, that I could be absolved of my regular visit to the market, because a friend was on her way there and could pick up what I needed, I would have been mad to decline the help. But I did decline it, and I was not mad. The outcome would have been the same: the food would have made it to my table. But I am interested in more than outcomes. I am wary of finding myself in the middle of an existence too busy, too arrogantly busy, for elementary things. I inhabit a universe in which busyness is a measurement of importance, but really what is taking place is an exchange of one variety of importance for another. It is often a bad bargain. The liberation from certain tasks seems like a deprivation to me. I cannot do without the equilibrating effect of the fruits and the fish and the flowers, of lingering among them and making my choices. The optical and tactile blandishments are considerable. It isn’t the Amalfi coast, but it’s something. It rectifies the derailment of sentience that is a regular feature of my desk life. It is a petty redemption, when the imperative of time-management gives way before the imperative of time-enhancement. And occasionally, in my sweet hours of secession, I even make discoveries, as when I came upon some eucalyptus branches on a late afternoon in the flower shop, and was rewarded with a week of watching the lipstick-red caps of the flowers overthrown by rebellious bundles of yellow-tipped stamens rising up against their captivity. All this, when I could have been forming opinions about the Greek debt crisis. There are contexts in which going to the grocery is a small act of cultural resistance. Not everything banal is trivial. Against the principle of outcome, one must defend the principle of experience.
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN outcome and experience is a little like the distinction between the destination and the journey, and it may indeed be illustrated by the history of modern travel. In one of his “world we have lost” moods, in The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell laments the consequences of mechanization upon various spheres of human activity, and worries about the consequences for the spirit of developments in transportation technology. “Everyone who has travelled by primitive methods in an undeveloped country, knows that the difference between that kind of travel and modern travel in trains, cars, etc., is the difference between life and death,” he declares. “The nomad who walks or rides, with his baggage stowed on a camel or an ox-cart, may suffer every kind of discomfort, but at least he is living while he is travelling; whereas for the passenger in an express train or a luxury liner his journey is an interregnum, a kind of temporary death.” He never endured the suspension of meaningful sensation, the sacrifice of experience to outcome, that is present-day air travel. And here is another example of the dichotomy of outcome and experience. Many years ago I asked John Updike to write about a Warhol show at the Museum of Modern Art. “The Andy Warhol retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art,” his review began, “is the perfect show for time-pressed Manhattanites. They can breeze through it at the clip of a fast walk, take it in through the corners of their eyes without ever breaking stride, and be able to talk about it afterward entirely in terms of what they got out of it. Indeed, you can honorably discuss the show without attending it at all.” I liked it. He went on: “Busy power people should love this show; it repels lingering, and can be cruised for its high spots, which are all but indistinguishable from its low spots.” I liked it more. I called Updike to express my pleasure: this was precisely the critical impatience, the mordant carving-up, for which I had hoped. But he was perturbed by my praise. With his invincible graciousness—he employed it not least to keep people at a profitable remove, the more keenly to observe them—he explained that he had not intended his description as a denigration. I rose above my disappointment and invited him to make his baffling benevolence clearer in his piece. He added a sentence: “This is not denigration, but an attempt at description.” And there it remains in our archive: a writer enraptured by the experience of language celebrating the aesthetics of outcome. The fast art that tickled Updike in 1989 is now the regular custom of the partying art world. It is most consummately realized in the moronic poodles of Jeff Koons, those chuckling idols to the death of the art experience—works that provide nothing that will impede or reject a casual glance, that give no reason for the viewer to come near, whose surfaces are defiantly devoid of incident—no story, no texture, no patterning, no variation at all—and whose elements are so meager and so crude that they present no internal relations to detain the viewer’s attention. These are works that demand no work. All that they ask for is a look and a look is all that they are. Slow observation and close interpretation would be an embarrassing mistake. But if you move on, which is what Americans like to do, you have understood the poodle perfectly. You have not been halted, or retarded, by any promptings of your head or your heart. You have kept pace with the general acceleration. Nothing has wiped that lazy smile off your face. You have escaped the inconvenience, and the integrity, of a genuine experience.
THE DEFERRAL OF experience is of course a requirement of serious work, but there is a level of sensual abnegation that is inconsistent with a full human life. Obsession, also a condition of accomplishment, is the lovely antithesis of such a deferral: it transforms every detail of an imagined outcome into an intense experience, so that labor comes truly to be lived. But not everybody has a calling, and the sensually desiccated nature of contemporary work—the endless refinement of our screens is just the search for more satisfying simulacra—cannot be denied. Many people live most of their lives in the interregnum. They cannot bite the day, as the poet says, to the core. This is not least because the core is no longer a culturally certified object of aspiration. Now we are to be wide instead of deep; nimble as clickers and cursors; never idle and never still. But I will not soon forget the old woman in Tenleytown who, when they brought out the heirloom pumpkins and set them up among the pomegranates and the Asian pears, gasped.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.