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


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.

Before I Speak, I Have Something Important to Say


Last night at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama did some stand-up comedy.  To be sure, he has done this before.  But last night’s comedy routine was thought-provoking and it illustrated that now the President not only aestheticizes politics but also politicizes aesthetics.  In doing so, we have a blurring of the line between politics and aesthetics which makes it complicated for us to know which is which.  But, more importantly for this blog on the schlemiel, is the fact that he does this by playing the schlemiel whose dreams don’t match up with reality.  The genius of the schlemiel routine is that the subject of this blurring of lines is the President’s politicized and aestheticized identity. To top it off, the President’s scriptwriter (or writers) included a joke that comes from one of the most notable schlemiels in American-Schlemiel history: Groucho Marx.  The place of the schlemiel in this routine should not go by unnoticed.  So, I’ll briefly sketch out some of its outlines so you can see the figure of the schlemiel emerge in the President’s routine.

What made many of President Obama’s jokes so interesting was that they were not simply jabs at the Right’s views of him.  Rather, they were all based on the comic structure of self-reflection and self-deprecation.  By putting himself down, a trick used by many stand-up comics, he was able to efface many negative images of him and gain sympathy from the audience.  It’s the kind of charm that we see in schlemiel-comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, or Sasha Baron Cohen.

One good example of this is when President Obama theatricalizes the claim that he was (and ‘still is’) a Muslim and a Socialist.  He does this by way of the structure of reflection:  “I have to admit, I look in the mirror and I have to admit that I’m not the strapping young socialist I used to be.”

President Obama also played on the theme of improving his image by imitating Michelle’s new hair style.   But, as he comically notes, this image was not enough.  He’s still a schlemiel.  His dream of success is not meeting reality.  He needs help.


And who but Steven Speilberg comes to the Schlemiel’s rescue.   In Speilberg’s “Obama” mock-up the image of the President is, in some ways, restored.  He is the dream and the reality.  Daniel Day Lewis is trying to imitate him:

Noting that President Obama is already a “lame duck,” Spielberg introduces the schlemiel theme: President Obama is aging and unpopular. There seems to be no hope for him.   The comic concert of this video works on the doppelganger.  Here, Daniel Day Lewis is said to have become President Obama when we can all see that this is a sham.  What makes Obama funny in this piece is that he acts “as if” he is imitating President Obama.  And this works to efface the line between image and reality.  The whole distinction itself, Spielberg seems to be saying, is a joke.  In other words, the media has gone to far and has made him into a schlemiel.

But this message is driven home by the last joke the President makes; drawn straight from Groucho (“and not Karl”) Marx:

“Before I speak, I have something important to say.”

However, and this is the unspoken implication, when the President opens his mouth the press effaces that “something important” that he wanted to say.  The media caricatures everything the President says and this conflicts with his intentions.  His ‘real’ words will always be mediated for the better or for the worse.

In other words, the President will always be made into a schlemiel by the media.  He will always be misunderstood.  Like a schlemiel, he is largely innocent while the media is guilty.

But of what?

The final note, which follows the joke, spells it out.  The media is guilty of cynicism and a lack of trust:

And so, these men and women should inspire all of us in this room to live up to those same standards; to be worthy of their trust; to do our jobs with the same fidelity, and the same integrity, and the same sense of purpose, and the same love of country.  Because if we’re only focused on profits or ratings or polls, then we’re contributing to the cynicism that so many people feel right now.

After saying this, only a few people in the room clap.  After all, the President was implying that the majority of “us” (which could either mean people in the media or Americans in general) have become cynical.  This isn’t funny.

To be sure, the choice of words and the response is very telling.  Given the President’s jokes last night, one can say that he played the schlemiel routine in an effort to regain trust.  In other words, he used the schlemiel to charm the audience.

The interesting thing about all of this, is that the schlemiel has been used by Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Sasha Baron Cohen (and many other American comedians and writers) to create an awkward but charming character.  It works to make these artists popular but can it work within the realm of politics?

What happens in routines like this is that the schlemiel is used to blur the line between politics and aesthetics or, at the very least, to put their relationship into question.   At the end of his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the Jewish-German thinker Walter Benjamin spoke explicitly of his worries about the aestheticization of politics in the modern age.  He linked it directly to the media, film, photography, and speed.  However, he saw the fear as relating to the glorification of destruction in fascism.  And this may not concern us as fascism is not on the table with such jokes.  However, what we can walk away from this performance with is the fact that Benjamin warned us that the blurring of the lines between aesthetics and politics happens when we are radically alienated from ourselves.  And this happens, for him, by way of mass media.  He didn’t have twitter, facebook, live feeds, real time news, etc.  But he could see the enlargement of mass alienation and mass cynicism coming.

The cynicism that President Obama mentioned, the cynicism that he tried to relieve by way of his schlemiel routine, is still with us.  Benjamin understood (like Kafka, as he says to Gershom Scholem) that in a time of crisis, only a fool can help.  The question is whether the fool, that is, the schlemiel’s help can do humanity any good. This question remains alive today and it was alive last night as President Obama did his comic routine. What this crisis is all about is clearer to us, however, than it was for Benjamin.  Its clear to the President as well: it’s a crisis of trust and the stakes are high.  Cynicism may be too much for the Schlemiel.  If that is the case, we may be in big trouble.