Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Thrill of Living

Every now and then, on my drives down to and up from the Gold Coast, I end up listening to the radio, if only to keep me awake and alert. Highway driving in the heat of a muggy afternoon, after a day's work, tends to have a soporific effect, and becoming less-than-fully-alert at 100+km/h isn't a good idea.

The selection of radio stations and what they play, here as anywhere, is dismal. The 'classical music' station is out, by and large, because now there's music that will send you off to doze, either because it's nice and familiar, or else because it's some of that neo-classical crap that's so awful that you actually want to go to sleep, just to tune out from it.

So, until a few days ago, when I finally got my shit together and burned some CDs to play instead, I often ended up with 'commercial' stations, whose music is...well, the less said the better. I noticed that, switching from one to the other, among the three or four basic categories of music being played at any given instant--with 'lyrics' (ha!) rendered by 'singers' (double-'ha!') that should be talked about even less. I also noticed that it usually took me at least 20 seconds or more to figure out what the 'tune' (anybody game for another 'ha!'?) was, since a lot of them are all basically the same.

In despair I found me a 'country music' station, whose awfulness is not quite up there with the rest, though everything's relative, and if you compare something to shit, well, you may just end up appreciating something that's just less smelly than whatever you compared it to.

So, the other day, I came across the John Mellenkamp song Thrill of Living, the music of which I don't like and I thought the lyrics pretty much sucked rotten eggs, too, and burped them up again. And that the refrain about "life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone", that was too terminally dumb and depressing, so I turned it off, and the odd time when it comes on again--and they evidently play it often enough, so even a sporadic listener like I has a good chance of hearing it again and again--I immediately turn it off.

What a pitiful creature is the human being who doesn't realize that being alive is not just thrilling, but a cause for existential ecstasy. Admittedly, for many, the thrill has been drowned out by their life-experiences. I am rapt in admiration for and humbled by those who, despite the terror, poverty, starvation, oppression, enslavement, sickness, pain, tragedy inflicted on them by an indifferent cosmos manage to retain a sense of the value of 'life', and quite possibly retain a sense of 'thrill'. Indeed, it is probably also true that, in many cases, it is because of all these things that they are more 'alive' than they would have been without them.

But the rest--you and I, and the vast majority of those living in basic affluence and existential security--have no reason whatsoever not to understand that life is the ultimate thrill, and that there's nothing like it.

I said 'no reason whatsoever', but you may have noticed that the world is full of folks who, despite the lack of reason, seem to find life boring; something that needs spicing up with just about anything that comes along and is socially acceptable--or not. And if it doesn't 'come along', then there's an extensive industry dedicated to contriving it. Living in a large city and observing what's 'around', from fatuous stores for those with far too much money to an endless array of 'entertainment', I have gained new appreciation of the lengths to which people will go to make their existence appear not-boring; in other words being 'entertained'.

Right now, you, dear Reader, should be rolling about on the floor laughing at these kinds of statements coming from someone who loves to read what a lot of folk would consider low-brow fiction--and write it, too! I also love my cinematographic entertainment, and right now I'm finally dedicating some serious time to watching the final part of Season 7 of Gilmore Girls.* Hardly indicative of someone who eschews 'entertainment'. So, keep chuckling at the very least.

But... There's always a 'but', folks. Live with it. Nothing, to coin a phrase, is but-free.

'Entertainment', in all its myriad expressions, has a wide spectrum of functions. At one end is 'life enhancement', while at the other is 'life substitution'. And, yes, I agree that one person's 'enhancement' is another's 'substitution'. Meaning that we're not really talking about 'entertainment' per se, but about what motivates an entertainment-consumer into consumption. And there clearly is, at one end of the spectrum, consumption predominantly for the purpose of covering up one's boredom with existence; and/or making oneself that one isn't bored; and/or dulling one's sense of the presence of the Existential Void. However, at the other end is consumption for 'life-enhancement'. That means that it serves to make what may already be a pretty good life--as lives go--even better. It may do so just by adding directly to one's feeling 'good', or else by stimulating internal processes that ultimately lead to increased feelings of things being good, or possibly going even further and increasing such basic parameters as the likelihood of propagation of the species. The two are often very closely connected. Of course, there's also 'entertainment' that serves to decrease that likelihood.

It occurs to me that quite possibly the 'value' of entertainment might be depicted in a two-dimensional graph, where one axis maps out 'make-feel-good-about-life' and the other the probability that it helps propagation of the species. Cool subject for a Ph.D. thesis--especially if one included all sorts of 'entertainments' that aren't usually classified as such: 'News', 'Reality Shows', 'Documentaries'--as well as, in the realm of the 'written', the wealth of fiction masquerading as non-fiction: self-help books and cooky alternative medicine and psychology; philosophy (yes, fiction it is; just about all of it); and, again, and it goes without saying, anything that relates to 'News'. And let's not forget anything 'religious'!

Still, take it all away, or make you be too busy to be able to watch TV or go to movies or read books or shit magazines, and what do you end up with? Would you consider life enough of a 'thrill' without these human-fabricated devices? Or are you one of those who couldn't do without them?

When you pause in a moment of silence--rare in an urban environment, though in truth even 'nature' in many instances does not actually provide silence'; just different kinds of sounds than those around a typical city--do you feel a need to spice it up with 'thrill enhancing' factors? There are strong suggestions from extensive long-term studies that indeed some folks' brains have been so messed with by extensive exposure to 'media' at early ages, that they are actually incapable of functioning in an environment free of the kind of stimulation provided by 'media'. Meaning that quite possibly they cannot possibly find what they might call 'thrills' in their lives without being stimulated in certain ways; while others, not to conditioned and re-wired, may be able to.

Brains are incredibly adaptive organs. The problem is that not all adaptations are necessarily ultimately beneficial to the organism as a whole. And I wonder if the pervasive loss of 'The Thrill of Living', in the sense of it referring to the thrill one gets from being aware of one's aliveness per se, isn't one consequence of some of those adaptations. And if you take it away, what are you left with but an thin shell of narratives that can be destroyed by the slightest of disturbances, and which are dominated and constantly replaced and manipulated by influences exerted by agencies whose benevolence is at the very least questionable?

A loss of 'The Thrill of Living' makes for easily manipulated people; many of whom are convinced they aren't, but who in truth are in the position of an addict who refuses to admit his addiction.

* More on this in the next blog.

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