John Steinbeck, Marc Maron & Walter Benjamin on Driving, Distraction, and Reflection

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Over the years, I have driven thousands of miles across the United States. And I have always looked at these journeys – with all of those hours behind the wheel – as opportunities for me to think and reflect on all kinds of things. To be sure, some of my best thoughts have come to me while driving. I would (and have) often make it an imperative to have my tape recorder or mp3 recorder on while I drive because I don’t want to miss the thought while it happens.   I was pleasantly surprised to find – most recently – that John Steinbeck has a beautifully written passage in Travels With Charley where he writes on the topic of driving, distraction, and thought.   And between John Steinbeck and the Jewish-American comedian Marc Maron (whose autobiography, Attempting Normal, I have also been reading), I find interesting similarities and contrasts between the types of thinking one does when one is driving a car and distracted.   The differences, especially, show us how the worlds they inhabit differ in content and character. The differences between them, however, come together in the fact that the association of driving with distraction and thinking is essential.

I have written on distraction, thought, and comedy vis-à-vis Rodolph Gashe’s reflections on Immanuel Kant’s claim that “literature” is not thought but distraction and on Walter Benjamin’s words on distraction. I entitled these posts “The Distracted Schlemiel: Empirical Consciousness, Reading and Distraction.”   I’d like to briefly recount Benjamin’s philosophical account of distraction in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It gives us a means of addressing the autobiographical-fictional-accounts of Steinbeck and Maron on driving, distraction, and thought.

At the very end of his essay, Benjamin shares his greatest thought on the new way we have of relating to the world in the “age of mechanical reproduction.” His reading of distraction is largely positive; he associates it with “habit” and a new means of dealing with “perceptual shock”:

For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning point of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone. They are mastered by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation. (240, Illuminations)

And what better form of “tactile appropriation” is there, for Americans today, than driving a car? Benjamin notes that the “distracted person (who we are, for arguments sake, calling the-person-who-drives-a-car) can form habits.”   These habits – the habits of a kind of thinking on the go – provides a “solution” to the problem of modern perception. And he goes so far as to liken this kind of distraction to the modern artists distraction while painting:

More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art provides a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. (240)

Benjamin goes on to argue that this kind of distraction can “mobilize the masses” and suggests that the best medium for this isn’t driving so much as watching films:

Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise. (240)

The last lines of Benjamin’s essay point out that what the public does, when watching a film, is not a form of contemplation. Rather, it is a form of “absent minded” examination:

The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one. (241)

Taking Benjamin’s point to heart, I’d like to apply what he says to driving rather than movie going.   Steinbeck’s account of distraction and the thought it evokes, while driving, is exceptional in this regard. He goes right to the core of what Benjamin calls “habit” and “absent minded” examination. Steinbeck even coins a phrase “machine-like unconscious” to describe this state. Because it is so important, I’ll quote it at length:

If one has driven a car over many years, as I have, nearly all reactions have become automatic. One does not think about what to do. Nearly all the driving technique is deeply buried in a machine-like unconscious. This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking. (94)

Steinbeck now turns to the content of these thoughts:

What do people think about when they drive? On short trips perhaps of the arrival at a destination or memory of events at the place of departure. But there is left, particularly on very long trips, a large area for day dreaming or even, God help us, for thought. (94)

As one can see, “day dreaming,” which Freud associates with the artist, is mentioned side-by-side with thought. They are both absent-minded activities. However, Steinbeck reels it in by pointing out that most of his distracted day drams and thoughts have a practical dimension. He “plans houses” he will never build; “gardens I will never plant” and a “method for pumping the soft silt and decayed shells from the bottom of my bay up to my point of land at Sag Harbor (where he lived), of leaching out the salt, thus making a rich and productive soil”(94). He also notes how he has “created turtle traps” and “detailed letters he has never sent.”

Reflecting on these practical thoughts/day drams, he notes that he doesn’t know whether or not he will do this in reality but, at the very least, it comes to him as a possibility.   He also notes how, as the radio was going, his “memory” of “times and places, complete with characters and stage sets” was “stimulated.” In other words, the distraction moved from memory to fiction.   It also leads to him “projecting future scenes” that will “never take place.”   Steinbeck points out, many times, he would “write short stories” in his mind while he drove. He would “chuckle” at his “own humor” and be “saddened or stimulated by structure or content”(94).

In his final reflections, Steinbeck points out how he can “only suspect” that the “loveless” driver will dream of women, the “lonely” driver will dream of people, and the “childless” driver will dream of children. He then goes on to ask himself whether the driver will imagine regrets and go over what should have been done or said. In relation to this, Steinbeck says that he sees this “potential” in his “own mind” but can only “suspect it in others,” but he “will never know, for no one tells”(95). To be sure, the greatest secret is to be found in this “potential.” To be sure, even though Steinbeck, as we can see, discusses many things he thinks about while driving, he doesn’t discuss these darker things. He leaves them out of his text.   This habit (“potential”) and its content are his secret, one that his readers will have to guess at.

That said, it’s fascinating to see a contemporary comedian like Marc Maron doing what Steinbeck doesn’t do: he addresses these kinds of thoughts in his text. What Maron thinks about when he drives is an open secret. Writing about what he used to think about when he was driving between comedy gigs, Maron notes how, in his distraction, he thought about how he had failed and what he could have done differently:

I drove everywhere to do gigs anywhere: Pancho Villa’s in Leominster, Franks in Franklin, Cranston Bowl in Cranston, Rhode Island, Captain Nicks in Ogunquit, Maine…Most of the time I drove home for hours half drunk, chain-smoking in my car and reliving my set. I always felt like I had survived something, that the simple fact that I made it through the show meant I was victorious. But the war wasn’t over yet: The next battle was in the car, the war with myself. I’m not funny enough, that joke didn’t work, why can’t I stop sweating, fuck those people, I need more jokes, where the fuck am I, shit I don’t have a map. I’ll never forget the electricity of postperformance elation and self-flagellation, flying through the New England countryside at night in my VW Golf. Not romantic. (13)

Maron’s thoughts show us what a schlemiel-comedian thinks about while he drives home.   He discloses what Steinbeck would like to hide away and perhaps that makes all the difference. And it provides us with something to think about. Driving – and the distraction that goes along with us – leads us to think and reflect on ourselves, about how things are, how they were, and how they could be. This kind of thinking becomes what Benjamin would call an “absent-minded” habit. But the question Maron and Steinbeck were preoccupied with was what one should report about what happens in the car while we are driving.   Today, in a culture that does a lot of it’s thinking in cars or in distracted transit, this content has a personal urgency that is of great interest to all of us because, after all, we all do it. It’s a modern habit that is not simply superficial; it informs who we are and gives us a moment to take account of the real and possible past, present, and future. It allows us to drift into things we regret and things we would like to do to make life better (even though most of these thoughts, as Steinbeck correctly notes, will never make it to reality).   To be sure, our absent-mindedness, while driving from one place to another, makes for the best reflection.

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