“Disconnect from the internet for at least two hours a day and treat your own thoughts like a garden through which you are strolling,” was the advice offered by the novelist Ian McEwan to younger writers after being made a Companion of Honour in December. The capacity to be curious about mental processes – while simultaneously experiencing them – is an important one for an author seeking to describe the human condition. But anyone who values self-awareness will be used to noticing how their mind works and wondering why.
“Only connect” was the maxim of another famous novelist, EM Forster. Forster used the characters in his novels to put flesh on his arguments against the emotionally repressive code of the time. But McEwan’s recommendation to disconnect should not be understood as a repudiation of Forster’s humanism. He was not warning writers off paying attention to other people’s minds and ideas – but drawing attention to the need to spend time with our own. In a world of permanent connection, in which attention has been commodified, switching off and away from the outside world is arguably harder than ever before.
Many of us are so attached to our phones and other devices that even a temporary separation provokes anxiety (though less so for those whose jobs are not screen-based, and whose communications are arguably better balanced as a result). The Guardian’s new series Reclaim Your Brain is a response to the growing frustration that many feel at the hold that smartphones have on our minds and happiness, and explores ways of resetting that relationship.
But tuning out, whether for two hours or two weeks, is not only about defying the masters of the digital universe – or turning back the clock to a time before news was 24/7 and phones were video cameras. What is turned towards also counts. The long evenings of January, with a new year stretching ahead of us, can be a good time for introspection as well as the self-improvement that traditionally takes the form of resolutions such as diets and exercise plans.
John Keats set out his theory of “negative capability” in a letter written in the middle of winter, after an evening walk with a friend. We cannot say whether the shortness of the day inspired the direction that the poet’s thoughts took that evening in 1817. But the state of not knowing that Keats believed artists should aspire to – the ability to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason” – seems more fitted to gloomy candlelight than blazing sunshine.
Doing nothing can be boring. Being alone can be miserable. Far too many people in the UK this winter are experiencing severe material or social deprivation. To those whose lives are otherwise full – of activities, appointments, responsibilities, pleasures – a few weeks’ hibernation may be welcome. For many others, it is a more stimulating life, rather than a quieter, more secluded one, that is desired.
But for others, this time of year is valuable for the sense of slowing down it brings; the chance to take stock either on one’s own or through talking with others. Looking ahead is one aspect of this. Another is looking back and inward; or not looking at all, but being in the moment with our hopes, mysteries and doubts.
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