On Contemplation

In Days of Reading, Proust puts forward the idea that the value of reading is not an exploration and assimilation of new ideas or experiences, but rather, the process through which one can achieve heightened spiritual awareness:

The supreme effort of the writer as of the artist only succeeds in raising partially for us the veil of ugliness and insignificance that leaves us incurious before the universe. Then does he say: […] ‘Look at the house in Zeeland, pink and shiny as the seashell. Look! Learn to see!’ At which moment he disappears. This is the value of reading, and also its inadequacy. To make it into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.1

For Proust, the value of reading begins where the story on the page ends. The written page introduces a world, an idea. When the prose ends, the vacuum left behind is filled in by the mind of the reader. In this way, reading of good books incites thought and contemplation, which in turn leads to spiritual development.

The quality of the material makes the difference between mere consumption and contemplation. It’s plain to see which category the vast majority of today’s media falls into. The difference between Proust and the modern man, however, is that one values spiritual life while the other tries to do everything to avoid it. As Pascal wrote in one of his many passages on the topic of diversion in Pensées:

Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.

In terms of their contemplative worth, the good and the bad book are not two creations placed on the same spectrum of value, but rather, they are two different species altogether. While the good book attempts to incite and inspire the reader to think, the bad book (or the article) attempts to keep their mind engaged for as long as possible without any higher activity taking place, its aim being not the nurturing of contemplation but its suppression.

To Pascal, thoughtlessness is sort of impairment, a blindness, but one could turn the tables around for consider that existential contemplation itself is a form of disease. The “spiritual” mind is raised to a higher level from which it can observe the abyss of its own death. The terrifying inevitability of falling into the abyss forces the man of though to construct innumerable schemes of reason and faith with which to harden their spirit and take away some of the dread from the prospect, perhaps to even make the prospect a happy one altogether. So in a way, the man of thought, burdened by their “higher” state of mind wishes to impart their state onto others, to spread their disease so to speak, all for the sake of having someone else suffer the same feelings as them, to have someone to share their burden with, a companion to ease their pain. Thus, the man of contemplation wishes that others contemplate, the man of distraction wishes to remain distracted.

  1. The brief quote does not do the essay justice. I recommend reading the whole piece. Penguin has published Days of Reading in their Great Ideas series.
May 2015