Of Slowness, in the Fast World

When someone says about a book or movie that it was too slow, I’m tempted to ask: compared to what? Is there a gold standard of pace for a book, or a movie?

“It is too slow” could well be a judgement on the one passing that judgement. It could just hint at our inability to concentrate, of our lack of patience, our fast shrinking attention spans. Stories have their own pace. Not all can be rushed. Fast paced isn’t necessarily good. Not all subjects can be handled at fast paced. Not many, even. Quickies may have their use, but to recall a controversial ad, asli maza instant nahin hota (the real pleasure is never instant).

No I don’t endorse slowness for the sake of it (although, neither do I criticize it). I’m not saying everything slow is wonderful. But what I am doing is questioning our collective clamoring for everything fast paced. We are, it seems, too bored of nuances. We have no interest in stories that one can’t “tell (it) and get over with, already”.

Long back, the Pune Times supplement of Times of India used to carry a small column by someone (okay hint, he was a bong), I’ve entirely forgotten about, but who I used to enjoy reading, once in a while. Incidentally, it wasn’t slow (who has time and space for slow column in, essentially, an ad supplement). And there is one particular piece of his that I still remember, or in any case the gist of it. He talked about how he noticed a road one fine day, in a way he hadn’t noticed before.

Our lives, rushed and busy as they are, don’t leave us with enough time, it seems, to notice the scenery. So much so that, you could be driving on the most beautiful road, with your spouse, out to celebrate your first anniversary, and all that, and a slow driver in front, slowing you down would make you angry.

Move on, already.

We can’t live in a moment. When a beautiful moment is being extended by traffic, we see traffic, not the moment.

Milan Kundera in his comparatively less well known book, Slowness, serenades with this theme: slowness and memory. He deliberates on the issues of slowness, and speed, coincidentally, using the metaphor of driving.

[T]he man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is ousted time; in other words, he is in a state of ecstasy[…]

Speed is a form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man.  As opposed to a motorcyclist, the runner is always present in his body, forever required to think about his blisters, his exhaustion; when he runs he feels his weight, his age, more conscious than ever of himself and of his time of life.  This all changes when man delegates the faculty of speed to a machine: from then on, his own body is outside the process, and he gives over to a speed that is noncorporeal, non-material, pure speed, speed itself, ecstasy speed.

Have we, then, delegated the faculty of speed to a machine: the big bad machine that we’re part of, the modern living — career, and the monotony of fast-paced living? Kundera laments the loss of slowness:

Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those  vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars?  Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor:  “They are gazing at God’s windows.” A person gazing at God’s windows is not  bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do,  which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated,  bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.

When we read a slow book, do we have nothing (better) to do? Do we perceive the slowness because we have lost the art of gazing at God’s window?

And more in the context of the current post:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down.

Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.

In existential mathematics that experience takes the form of two basic equations: The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.

This whole chain of thought started because of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. As I deliberated whether to pick it up, I chanced upon a review on goodreads. The reviewer said she was contemplating dropping the book just thirty odd pages into it because the narration was “unbearably slow” (her words, not mine). She ended up giving the book five stars and a stellar review. 

While reading it, myself, I kept on recalling Kundera’s words about speed and memory. Remains of the Day is a recollection of a bygone era. And how do you make someone remember a lost era, really remember, and cherish, and let it live as a ghost that much longer, unless one slows it down to a whisper, or its equivalent in speed. When a child throws a tantrum, we tell him/her that when you shout, you get attention of everyone for a moment, but no one remembers what you said, because it will be lost before you could even speak. When you whisper, by contrast, you may not get the attention of everyone, but those who will listen to you will listen to you with rapt attention till you’ve said what you wanted to.

When you tell a story slowly, unfold it gently, let it seep in into the very being of the listener, let it hang in the air, for the air is heavier than the pace of the narration, when you let it germinate in the mind of the reader … well, it seems you could lose a lot of readers. But whoever hangs around past those thirty odd pages, you’ve got them hooked. Invested in your painstakingly painted world. Spellbound. Enthralled. Mesmerized.

Ishiguro has managed that with The Remains of the Day. Maybe, like the bygone era that it depicts, where life wasn’t so fast, after all, was destined to be relegated to such memories, and that too, meant only for “those few amblers of yesteryear, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars”, as Kundera puts it.

Those who don’t mind “gazing at God’s windows”. Those with nothing better to do.


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