Mental Vacation


Our Daily Correspondent


Photo: Olivia Alcock

Early in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea, the narrator, Charles Arrowby, explains why he never learned to drive and prefers to be a passenger. “Why keep bitches and bark yourself?” he asks, with impeachable logic. 

In the course of the novel, his veneer of self-assurance crumbles. Arrowby discovers the limits of control, even in isolation. But he also begins to see the lengths we go to in seeking that most elusive pleasure: an escape from ourselves.

For the overthinkers of the world, there’s maybe no greater luxury than shutting off your mind. It happens so rarely that you tend to notice it, if you notice it at all, more as a state of absence than anything else. It can happen during a movie, or listening to music, or, perhaps, in the presence of a great cook. And most especially when reading.

Until you stop doing it, you don’t notice how often you’re on the alert for clumsy dialogue, for lines that sounds brittle or translated. In a film it might be an improbable character detail or the slip of an accent that destroys the illusion. For a musician, it may be a false note or a sloppy turnaround.

But this kind of vigilance goes beyond our consumption of art: maybe you’re braced for an incendiary remark at a family dinner, always on the alert for hurt feelings and fights and ruptures. We’re seldom aware of this constant subconscious caution, but it’s always exhausting. I don’t think most control freaks are so type A because they enjoy being in charge; they just sense that most people can’t really be trusted. 

But it’s a wonderful moment when you realize—or accepting without realizing—that you’re in the hands of a master. That’s not to say you can’t relax when you’re in the presence of obvious craft, but the quality I’m talking about isn’t the same as genius, or even brilliance; it’s simply a matter of trust. You need to feel like the artist knows what she’s doing. 

Escapism has become something of a pejorative. But escape isn’t easy, and it doesn’t always entail the pursuit of dumbed-down entertainments; it can come as soon from a weighty Iris Murdoch novel as from a paperback procedural. In fact, for an overthinker, it’s usually easier to escape into something consciously ambitious—if we know we’re trafficking in formulas or prescribed patterns, we’re quick to try to notice the holes.

Of course, second best is ignorance: it may not be bliss, but it’s an effective form of opting out. It affords a kind of mental vacation, too. Not knowing how to drive, for instance, is inconvenient, yes, but the helplessness is awfully seductive, and it gives you one less thing to be vigilant about. Barking, as Arrowby might point out, takes an awful lot of energy.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.