Every summer for some years now we’ve been taking our family vacation on Caspian Lake in northern Vermont. Most of our rentals have been along the same little peninsula, and have had the same basic amenities—lake access, kayak or canoe, grill, internet. This year we were late in reserving and ended up taking a new place on the far shore and I’ll confess I did a little double-take when my wife inspected the rental sheet and announced that this year’s house had no internet. What quicker way to get a read-out of my convoluted psyche. I was at once relieved and anxious, idealistic and craven. Wonderful, I thought, _I’ll read, I’ll walk and think, I’ll shed the news-cycle toxins…_And then: Shit!
I had brought enough reading to see me through the week-long blackout. I had two books for eventual reviewing, John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 and a novel by Laurent Binet called The Seventh Function of Language, and then the book I’d been saving as my special reward, Adam Zagajewski’s new memoir, Slight Exaggeration.
But about that internet issue…Critical as I have been—and in my deepest convictions remain—I am as enmeshed as anyone, checking e-mail and Instagram, tweeting, tracking the daily outrage. I do this mainly in syncopation with the ongoing work of writing, and editing, both of which have me at the screen. So this week away was going to be a deprivation, never mind those ‘deepest convictions.’
One summer, early on, we had also been “without,” and back then we had dealt with what internet needs we had by parking outside the Greensboro library and borrowing its signal. We were not alone. Whatever the hour, you could always find a row of cars idling in the small library lot, see the silhouettes of summer people getting their fix. I supposed I would be doing the same thing this time when I needed connection.
The day we arrived it was drenching rain and nobody stirred. The next morning, though, the sun was out, and I set out to check out our new, unfamiliar place. Taking a left at the drive, I walked down the road toward the lake. After a few hundred yards the road ran out and became someone’s yard. Stopping, I looked over to my right and saw a beautiful stretch of pastoral. I took my iPhone from my pocket and framed a few shots. Then I headed in the other direction, back up the hill toward the bigger road.
I had gone only a few yards past our driveway when I felt it—a distinct burst of vibration in my front right pocket. I stopped and once again took out my phone. Where all along there had been no reception, the little abacus now showed one bar of reception. Showed it, and then, as I took a small backward step, disappeared it. Up again, back again— anyone watching me at this point would have thought I was practicing a dance move. I could not figure it out. Sometimes a single bar appeared, then it disappeared. Yes, no, yes, no, no, no…When it was on, I checked my internet. I saw I had a few new messages. One opened for me. But when I wrote a few words in reply nothing happened. No little whooshing sound to signify ‘sent,’ no small arrow icon indicating success…
Next I checked Instagram. There I had slightly better luck. I selected the picture of the field I’d just taken and tapped. The image posted.
I could make my way further into this realm of psychological minutiae, but life is short. The point I want to make—the upshot—is that into my long-anticipated break from the agitations of daily modern life had arrived the whimsical and irrational goblin of signal. Standing on the side of a rutted dirt road, with woods on one side and a open field on the other, I was, by turns, connected to he world at large, the universe of all potentiality, and then abruptly barred (or “unbarred”) from it. And, fool that I was, and remain, I persisted, stepping outside again and again to try my luck, each time hoping that the exact right location, or angle, or some mysterious shift in atmospheric ions, would plant me inside the signal. I did this intermittently for a full week, and I was in every attempt both tantalized and frustrated.
I certainly don’t want to make it seem that I did nothing but dance from side to side in my flip-flops looking for deliverance. No, I did also make peace with the contemplative man. I sat for hours in an overstuffed armchair, reading. Lessened screen activity made for heightened concentration. I finished the Binet, and then, rather than turning right away to the McPhee, I decided I could treat myself and picked up the Zagajewski instead.
And what a delight that was, to be inveigled by degrees into the mentality of a truly poetic sensibility—observant, psychologically shrewd, alert to idiosyncrasy, brooding in the best ways. The pages were filled with Zagajewski’s reflections on the artistic vocation itself—on beauty, on what might be the proper expressive balance between the material and the ethereal.
And then this. Zagajewski is writing about inspiration, its unreliability—the great good days when it comes, and the bleak days when the “tremendous plans, the expansive hopes from those moments when everything starts afresh, all quickly deflate, leaving you to protect your abruptly diminished empire in despair.” I closed the book around my finger. I could not help but make the link. Between the all-too-familiar sense of the writer at his desk, waiting to see if the word-fall would happen, if the spark of cadence might arrive, and—
No two things could be more different than internet connectivity and artistic inspiration, yet I confess that after reading Zagajewski I found myself making analogies. Which is both ridiculous and untenable. The internet signal is a thing outside, a projected energy that reaches its user through specifically engineered channels. Artistic inspiration, meanwhile, manifests mysteriously in the psyche, opaque to psychoanalysis and neurobiology. Freud famously wrote that “before the mystery of the creative artist, psychoanalysis must lay down its arms.”
I don’t intend to settle the matter here, far from it. But I want to bring into momentary focus the particular feelings, the anticipation and doubt—the anxiety—that we register in the face of our larger unknowns. Not just creative inspiration and connectivity, though these have been prominent in my thoughts, but, via the most basic extrapolation, our anticipation day by day—moment by moment—of the unknown future. We often forget our existential situation, and it is our hubris as well as our salvation that we do, but inevitably there come moments, sometimes little dances danced on country roads, that remind us once again.
Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).
He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)