Gotham Diary:
Natural Selection
28 December 2010

For someone wishing to remain a communicator of words and concepts, this poses an unusual challenge. Gone is the yellow pad, with its now useless pencil. Gone is the refreshing walk in the park or workout in the gym, where ideas and sequences fall into place as if by natural selection. Gone too are productive exchanges with close friends — even at the midpoint of decline from ALS, the victim is usually thinking far faster than he can form words, so that conversation itself becomes partial, frustrating, and ultimately self-defeating.

That’s the late, great Tony Judt, writing earlier this year about the impact of ALS on the life of the mind, in The Memory Chalet. I quote the entire paragraph, but it is only the second sentence that concerns me here. I had to put the book down when I read it; I was overcome with envy and regret. In my case, “natural selection” has ordained a disconnection between thinking and doing. Nothing shuts my mind down with grimmer efficiency than physical exercise. No, that’s not right: my mind isn’t shut down; it’s reduced to a dreary concentration camp. My imagination is bound and netted by the essential pointlessness of exercise: doing nothing (from an intellectual point of view) is a waking nightmare. “Refreshing walks in the park”: I must ask if the phrase has an actual meaning in my life. It doesn’t, not in Judt’s sense. A walk in the park, with no mindful destination or purpose, is simply a succession of dumb steps. A walk to the bookstore requires the same number of steps, but my mind is alert — in pursuit of the contents of a book, or perhaps only the pleasure of bookstore bookchat. And  the only thing that I can compare a workout in the gym to is a weird sort of self-induced rape, where you make yourself have sex with someone whom you don’t want to touch and whom you don’t want touching you. If that’s hard to imagine, then you can see why I don’t belong to a gym.

I know what Judt means by “natural selection,” because I’ve seen it represented in the movies. Ron Silver, in Reversal of Fortune, comes to mind. He’s playing Alan Dershowitz, who is playing basketball in his driveway. Suddenly Dershowitz stops, or, rather, he doesn’t stop suddenly, it’s as though suddenly the life were beginning to drain out of him. But it’s only the energy that basketball requires; that energy is being diverted to his brain, where a breakthrough in the von Bulow case has just been announced. The breakthrough has presented itself; Judt might as well have written “magically,” and, as we all know, magic can’t happen if you’re peeking. Dershowitz stops playing basketball and gets back to work, his vigor manifestly renewed. The lesson is clear: it’s important to stop thinking altogether, sometimes, and to abandon yourself to physical challenge. Otherwise, you’ll never figure anything out.

But that doesn’t work for me. As I say, I can think things over while I’m walking to the bookstore, or to the theatre, or to any destination at all, so long as I am not walking for the sake of walking. And walking is obviously the only permissible activity: there is no call for running or jumping, no point to strenuous exercise other than indulging it for its own sake, which stops thinking cold. I do a great deal of reaching and carrying in my householding life, and I spend hours standing in the kitchen, but none of this is exercise; it’s just life. I’m usually thinking about what I’m doing: dusting a bookshelf, or sorting through the papers in a folder. Interesting thoughts fly by every now and then, and I’m trying to discipline myself to stop to write them down, not as dashed-off notes that won’t make any sense an hour later, but with an intelligible imprint of context, as if to capture what the thought felt like. For the most part, though, I do my thinking when I’m reading, writing, or talking. It’s only then that I’m informed by the sharp and vital editorial voice that tells me that I’m mistaken. Without that, my mind is a foggy blob.

This isn’t to say that I never enjoy a refreshing walk in the park. I do! But it’s only when the thinking has been done, the long piece written. And the walk is refreshing because there is nothing to think about. After a good walk, my brain settles into an ox-like stolidity that is blind to abstraction. It is something like sleep. My mind takes a while to wake up. During that time, I don’t mind being stupid; I’m too stupid to care. I can’t imagine that Tony Judt was ever stupid for a moment.