Sunday, December 6, 2015

Wasting Life and Taking Notes

Chuck Palahniuk has one of his characters in the novel Lullaby reflect that the "best way to waste your life is by taking notes." I would tend to agree, on the face of it. If life is to be wasted, and I have a feeling that most of it is going to be wasted anyway, then taking notes (and reflecting on this activity) is one of the better ways to accomplish the task.

Now, that is obviously not how the character considers it. This is clear from how he goes on identifying this approach with "the easiest way to avoid living": It "is to just watch. Look for the details. Report. Don't participate. Let Big Brother do the singing and dancing for you. Be a reporter. Be a good witness. A grateful member of the audience".[1]

A similar point is made by Bernard Williams, who disagreed with Socrates's claim that the unreflected life is not worth living and claimed that "the only serious enterprise is living, and we have to live after reflection ... we have to live during it as well." Williams's point has the the same problem. From the claim that living is the only serious enterprise, it does not follow that reflection should not be a serious part of that enterprise as well.

In any case, the rejection of the latter claim would need more argument than he provides.[2] I think he is just as wrong as his Socrates. So, the unreflected life may well be worth living. Someone with Alzheimer's who lacks the ability to reflect still has a life worth living.[3] But reflection (aided by note-taking) certainly adds another dimension. In the same way, I do not think that "taking notes" and "living" are exclusive of each other. Rather, taking notes and life might serve to enhance one another.

One does not have to go as far as Hannah Arendt who claims that "nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator" in order to believe that "just watching" and "taking note" is an important part of life. This is not to say that it is always pleasant.



1. The character is Carl (see p. 216). The quote usually gets attributed to Palahniuk himself. But he does not offer it in his own voice, and it would be reasonable not to attribute it to him as his own view (even if this is customary).
2. He does not offer any argument, as far as I can see.
3. Quite apart from the unsavory connotations a life "unworthy of living."

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