Breaking Ice with Axes, putting out Fires with Gasoline
Franz Kafka said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Along similar lines, David Bowie, in Ashes to Ashes, cries out for an axe to break the ice. I personally have nothing against axes. Besides which, who am I to argue with Joseph K. or the Thin White Duke? It’s hard to say exactly what either man meant with his words, and since they’re dead it’s not like I can ask them now. Here’s what it makes me think about, though: Most of our days consist of repeated actions. For most people, this means getting up, going to work, coming home. The luckiest among us genuinely enjoy our work, but relief for most of us comes during the weekend. Some people get drunk; others go out dancing. Still others just sit around the house and relax. These activities certainly relieve pressure, help to “thaw” one from the freeze induced by doing the same thing over and over again, day in and day out. But here’s the thing: if your method of “thawing” (we’ll just stick with that term) is the same day in and day out, eventually that becomes another form of freezing. Big-brained thinkers call this the “hedonic treadmill,” an example of the concept of hedonic limit. Briefly, here’s how hedonic limit works. Say you get on the treadmill to go for a little jog. You set the machine for 3.5 miles per hour. And because you start out walking on the treadmill at a slow pace, you feel this increase in pace as a jolt to your system. Maybe you enjoy the speeding up of your heartrate, or how opening your stride and placing your feet on the treadmill matches the time signature of the music on your i-pod as you run. Maybe you’re hungover and the whole thing is agony, and the first beads of sweat that break on your forehead smell like hundred-proof liquor. Regardless, you feel the change in speed from barely moving to going 3.5 miles per hour. After a while, however, whether in the groove or still hungover, that jog at 3.5 miles per hour starts to feel like walking, or even as if you were at a standstill. Unless you’re really hungover, in which case any exercise remains a nigh-unbearable agony. In order to get the same feeling you got speeding up from zero to 3.5 mph, you now have to go faster than 3.5. The excitement came from the sensation of speeding up, not necessarily going at a speed that you can objectively perceive as faster than your starting rate. You only realize you’re going faster than you started out when you glance at the treadmill’s readout. Your body has adjusted to this speed, though, and comes to regard it as almost a form of rest. You have been introduced to the concept of hedonic limit via the example of hedonic treadmill, while jogging on the literal treadmill. This concept explains why even if you’re one of those privileged few who does not have to work, you will feel the same freeze as those whose life is mostly a long, monotonous slog. Because whatever pleasures you indulge in, you will become acclimated to them, and in order to receive the same stimulation that you once got, you will have to up the ante. The story of the dissolute rich man who squanders his wealth and soul in search of some ultimate high is familiar enough to all of us now to have withered into a hackneyed trope. Right now I’m reading a police procedural called Heat from Another Sun, about a Houston-based billionaire whose penchant for reels of graphic war footage eventually lead him to commission a snuff film. That man is running way too damn fast on his treadmill. Both numbness that comes from doing the same thing over and over again, or the numbness that comes from trying to break the ice by trying to shock the nervous system can be circumvented with the creative act. Any creative act. Take either the books that Kafka wrote or the songs Bowie composed. What you have is a way to navigate the numbness stemming from dutiful obedience to the day’s laws, or the insensibility produced when we try too hard to satisfy self-destructive, Dionysian urges we indulge in at night trying to escape. The creative act introduces spontaneity, a break from the predictable, by its very nature. Consider: The English language features more than a million words total, but this includes rarely used chestnuts like “tatterdemalion” or “melioristic.” Your average person whose only reading consists of tabloids will still have access to roughly 20,000-30,000 words, and because they also have access to the internet this automatically gets bumped up to something like 170,000 words. I was never good at math, but if you know even a little bit about exponents you can see that your chances for variation- new sentences with which to surprise yourself, turns-of-phrase to admire or that embarrass you with their clunkyness (failure breaks as much ice as success)- offer a kind of limitless field of play. Your piano only has twelve notes, and you’re even a bit more limited if you keep things confined to the pentatonic scale (the black keys). But the law of exponents still means that when you play the piano the ability to mix and match notes gives you a musical icebreaker nonpareil that can offer unlimited relief from the routine. Despite the fact that there are far more words than musical notes, music is a far superior form of expression to writing. I think Kurt Vonnegut said as much, more pithily than I can currently recall, or even paraphrase (I’m pretty tired right now). I always imagine the mind and spirit like the skin. Touch one spot on the skin and it can feel good, produce a rush of blood and stippling of goosebumps as you provoke the nerve endings in an unpredictable manner. Continually rub the same spot and the nerve endings become inured, then aggravated by the repetition. Move to another spot and the sensation of pleasure begins anew. A creative outlet introduces a fount of inexhaustible spontaneity in a well-regulated world. Conversely and just as therapeutic is that, if your life is chaotic, the creative act introduces an order, a set of rules (grammatical or musical) that’s just as salvific. Is this outlet enough? Obviously not for some people, because plenty of writers and musicians have become drug addicts or committed suicide, or both. But joy is sometimes a dangerous thing, as its intoxication can call out for a potentiator, something to enhance the already exquisite rush. But Bowie, who once had a mother of a cocaine addiction, eventually got clean, and said that after trying everything from satanism to pottery it was music that got finally got him there, rescuing him from the abyss. Good enough for Bowie (or Kafka), good enough for me.