Distraction from Distraction: More on Horror Vacui

Thursday, January 23, 2020
Pasadena, California

Distraction from Distraction:

More on Horror Vacui

In response to an earlier posting on our terror of aloneness, one of my two Darling Davids sent me a T.S. Eliot poem.

The poem, and additional commentary about our vulnerability to distraction, flows right into the prior posting:


Can you believe T.S. Eliot the wrote the line:

Distracted from distraction by distraction

way back in 1936?

The poem, initially entitled Burnt Norton but later published in the Four Quartets, reads:

Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker

Over the strained time-ridden faces

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

Tumid apathy with no concentration

Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind

That blows before and after time.

What piece of writing could better-capture the feeling Facebook (FB) fans might have after spending hours looking at happy-if-vacuous pictures of friends seated before fancy restaurant-meals, driving in hydrocarbon-leaking cars, or traveling through tourist-infused European cities.

As dramatic as TS Eliot’s poem is Saul Bellow’s commentary on it.

In an afterward to his Collected Stories, published in 2001, Bellow writes:

Our consciousness is a staging area, a field of operations for all kinds of enterprises, which make free use of it. True, we are at liberty to think our own thoughts, but our independent ideas, such as they may be, must live with thousands of ideas and notions inculcated by influential teachers or floated by ‘idea men,’ advertisers, communications people, columnists, anchormen, et cetera. Better-regulated (educated) minds are less easily overcome by these gas clouds of opinion. But no one can have an easy time of it… Public life in the United States is a mass of distractions.

Bellow had barely had a whiff of the internet when commenting upon Eliot’s poem.

He reacted well before FB, Instagram, Twitter, or similar mechanisms for spreading gas clouds of opinion ubiquitously swirled around us all.

Can you see how these media institutionalize narcissism?

We must struggle to hear our own voices, to live our own lives, to seek freedom.

FB, for example, speaks to nearly 1/4 of the 7 billion human beings on planet earth.

Years earlier, in Humboldt’s Gift published in 1975, Bellow also wrote:

Society claims more and more and more of your inner self and infects you with its restlessness. It trains you in distraction, colonizes consciousness as fast as consciousness advances. 

What prophetic words.

Restlessness, who cannot relate to that?

And, the colonizing of consciousness.

Our consciousness advances, expands, unfolds.

It’s always in process.

But, listening to our own unique flow—our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and more—proves increasingly difficult. We are forced to sift through distracting blather.

Pressfield’s description of the battles in which creative individuals engage echoes Bellow’s and Eliot’s words:

As artists and professionals, it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV, and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work. 

Whether artist, professional, forklift operator or bank teller, your work in life requires discovery, proclamation, and enactment of your heart’s desires.

It requires finding what’s meaningful to you, what’s fulfilling, and living it.

That meaning may find expression in actual work, in love or in play, or in all three.

But it must be found.

Otherwise, life becomes nothing but vapid, empty production and consumption.

In other words, you end up working for an income which allows you to buy items or services which you think satisfy.

They never do.

Or, if you think they do, the satisfaction passes oh so quickly—particularly when the credit card bill arrives.

Beware the fearsome power of Bullshit, Inc.

Become who you are.


Bellow, S. (1975). Humboldt’s Gift. New York: Penguin.

Bellow, S. (2001). Collected Stories. New York: Penguin.

Eliot, T.S. (1943). Four Quartets. New York: Houghton-Mifflin.

Pressfield, S. (2002). The War of Art. New York: Black Irish Entertainment.

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