Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The gospel of singlemindedness

with one comment

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

—Upton Sinclair

A few years ago, I started reading, but didn’t manage to finish, the New Age classic The Teachings of Don Juan. Its author, the late Carlos Castaneda, has been convincingly revealed as a talented writer of fiction who sold millions of copies of his books by presenting his work as anthropology. As Richard de Mille writes in Castaneda’s Journey: “[Castaneda’s] stories are packed with truth, though they are not true stories, which he says they are…[He is] an ambiguous spellbinder dealing simultaneously in contrary commodities—wisdom and deception.” (De Mille would have known—he was one of L. Ron Hubbard’s earliest followers before breaking away from the dianetics movement.) But I’ll take good advice wherever I can find it, and there’s one passage in The Teachings of Don Juan that I think about all the time:

A man of knowledge needed a rigid will in order to endure the obligatory quality that every act possessed when it was performed in the context of his knowledge…A man of knowledge needed frugality because the majority of the obligatory acts dealt with instances or with elements that were either outside the boundaries of ordinary everyday life, or were not customary in ordinary activity, and the man who had to act in accordance with them needed an extraordinary effort every time he took action. It was implicit that one could have been capable of such an extraordinary effort only by being frugal with every other activity that did not deal directly with such predetermined actions.

I think that Castaneda, whatever his flaws, is getting at something important here that I haven’t seen fully explored in other discussions of frugality and simplicity. A simple life is undoubtedly worth pursuing for its own sake, but it’s also a means to an end, allowing for an almost frightening degree of concentration and prolonged attention to problems that would otherwise be impossible to address. When you look closely at our most celebrated exemplars of voluntary poverty, from Spinoza to Thoreau, you realize that their underlying motivation is an ethical or intellectual ambition too vast—and maybe too dangerous—to be contained within a conventional life, and this extends to the most famous role model of all. In Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, the Cambridge professor Michael Grant writes:

The disciples had to be equally singleminded. Not only must food, drink, and clothing be totally unimportant in their eyes, but they must abandon everything they possess in order to take part in Jesus’ installation of the Kingdom…Peter declared: “We have left everything to become your followers.” By doing so they had become “pure in heart,” singleminded and free from the tyranny of a divided self…It was because of his insistence on this singlemindedness that [Jesus] took so much notice of children, allowing them to be in his company and praising their simplicity…Feelings of kindly tenderness were not in fact the reason why he paid them so much attention…It is the total receptivity of children that he is praising: and for his disciples, too, the implication was that they must be equally receptive in their wholehearted devotion to the one and only aim that is worth pursuing: admission to the Kingdom.

Not surprisingly, the examples of simplicity that stick in our heads tend to be the ones that that seem the most difficult to emulate. Jesus, as Grant notes, “emphasized the point in terms which, even allowing for Middle Eastern hyperbole, displayed formidable starkness,” as when he said to the disciple who asked for permission to bury his father first: “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their dead.” Thoreau couldn’t even live by his own principles for more than a couple of years, while Castaneda’s version is basically imaginary. Yet it’s only by measuring ourselves against such extreme cases that we can hope to make incremental changes in our own lives. If you’re a writer, you learn to pare away everything else to the extent you can, simply because of “the extraordinary effort” required each time you face a blank page. And doing good work of any kind calls for resources that we can only allocate to it if we’ve taken the time to structure our lives accordingly beforehand. Human beings are fallible and weak, and most of us can only act with moral integrity after we’ve systematically reduced the obstacles that prevent us from doing so. It’s hard enough as it is, so there’s no point in making it any more difficult than necessary. In theory, we could gain the freedom for what Castaneda calls “the exercise of volition” by becoming sufficiently rich and powerful, but in practice, it’s easier and less compromising to go about it the other way. As Thoreau famously writes: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind…None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.”

The key word here is “impartial.” Our lives are full of entanglements, and our ability to respond in a crisis requiring extraordinary effort has less to do with our inherent worth than with the pragmatic choices that we’ve already made. For another extreme case, you don’t need to look any further than the events of the past weekend. If Donald Trump resisted making the denunciation of white nationalism that even members of his own party were able to provide, it isn’t so much because he’s uniquely horrible as because of certain facts about his rise to power. Trump can seemingly pick fights with anyone except for Vladimir Putin and white supremacists. He cannot do it. And it’s in large part because he’s trapped. I don’t know what Trump actually believes, but he’s the embodiment of Upton Sinclair’s man whose salary depends on his not understanding something. True empathy requires “extraordinary effort” and singlemindedness, and the choices that we’ve made in the past affect our actions in the future. In his discussion of the Parable of the Unjust Steward, which is perhaps the strangest story in the gospels, Grant writes:

How shocking…to find Jesus actually praising this shady functionary. He praised him because, when confronted with a crisis, he had acted. You, declared Jesus to his audience, are faced with a far graver crisis, a far more urgent need for decision and action. As this relentless emergency approaches you cannot just hit with your hands folded. Keep your eyes open and be totally apart and prepared to act if you want to be among the Remnant who will endure the terrible time.

Strip away the eschatological language, and you’re left with the message that this crisis is happening all the time. The only way to act properly is to remove everything that prevents us from doing otherwise. And if we wait until the emergency is here, we’ll find that it’s already too late.

Edit: Never mind—it turns out that we do know what he actually believes

One Response

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  1. As a singleminded person, I must admit that I find it less a struggle than simple the nature of my personality. It’s not a sacrifice. It is the inevitable result of who I am. I’m obsessive in my reading and writing because it is what I’m drawn to do, as an expression of the psychological makeup I was born with. I’m not sure this is the kind of thing anyone ever chooses. I have pared down my life, but that is because other possible interests can’t compete in my mind. It’s like Hunger Artist’s explanation for his singleminded fasting, as written by Franz Kafka — here is the section:

    “Are you still fasting?” the supervisor asked. “When are you finally going to stop?” “Forgive me everything,” whispered the hunger artist. Only the supervisor, who was pressing his ear up against the cage, understood him. “Certainly,” said the supervisor, tapping his forehead with his finger in order to indicate to the staff the state the hunger artist was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I have to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food that tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was still the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast.

    Benjamin David Steele

    August 19, 2017 at 11:15 am


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