Shallow Grave: Do We All Suffer This Modern Malaise?

‘I think I’m sick and I don’t know if my ailment has a name. It’s just me sitting and staring at the internet or the television for long periods of time, interspersed by long periods of trying not to do that and then lying about what I’ve been doing. And then I’ll get so excited about something that the excitement overwhelms me and I can’t sleep or do anything and I am just in love with everything, but can’t figure out how to make myself work in the world.’

Brooke, Mistress America

Over Christmas I saw last year’s magnificent movie, Mistress America. It’s a New York comedy directed by Noah Baumbach, and co-written by Baumbach with one of its stars, Greta Gerwig.

Gerwig plays Brooke, a charismatic 30 year old who juggles jobs as a spin instructor, an interior decorator and a maths coach. She’s endlessly contemplating new ideas for fame and success. Her t-shirt concept was stolen, but she now has in mind to open a Williamsburg restaurant where you can also cut hair.

Brooke is all cosmopolitan cool and shallow affections; her enthusiasms are sudden and spontaneous, her attention is deficient and unfocused. She embodies a modern malaise: a yearning to achieve without a willingness to strive; a wealth of ideas, but a poverty of application. She seems at once impressively aware and yet incredibly naïve.

‘She could see the world with painful accuracy, but she couldn’t see herself or her fate.’

Tracy, Mistress America

This condition of disparate passions and rootless enthusiasms is often characterised as something that afflicts the young. But I’m inclined to say we all suffer it to varying degrees in the internet age. I certainly do.

Some years ago I had a colleague we dubbed Future Girl. She was entirely cool and spoke in a kind of text language that avoided vowels and prepositions. Future Girl was culturally alert, but never watched films because they lasted too long. Are we all becoming Future Girls now?

‘Right now it’s only a notion, but I think I can get money to make it into a concept, and later turn it into an idea.’

Producer, Annie Hall

In particular, Mistress America prompted me to query my own reverence for ideas. We cling to the belief that ideas are rare and precious; that ideas people need to be protected, nurtured and encouraged. But sometimes ideas seem ubiquitous and cheap. Everyone nowadays has a killer app and a craft-based retail concept. And every new idea earns a nod of recognition. We’ve already seen it, heard it, tried it, done it. The web has made us blasé, cynical, jaded. We have become all-seeing and all-knowing; but we are nonetheless far from all-action.

‘Discipline is what the world needs today, baby.
Heavy, heavy discipline.’

 Prince Far I/Under Heavy Manners

Sometimes it seems that modern culture sorely lacks application and execution: the resourcefulness to carry out the research, to find the partner, to smooth out the rough edges, to do the math; the commitment to see a task through, to do the dirty work, to travel the hard yards. We celebrate ‘T’ shaped people, but most of the people I meet are ‘__’ shaped.

It’s easy to blame the internet, but I think the coffee has a lot to answer for too. We’re increasingly stressed and paranoid; we suffer attention deficit disorder on a mass scale and now there’s ‘phantom vibration syndrome’ to worry about too.  Our smart phones are making us stupid. We upgrade our devices and downgrade our time. We say we’re multi-tasking when really we’re multi-dabbling. And as we juggle our roles, we’re endlessly dropping balls. Are we all accelerating towards a shallow grave?

As we embark on another year, I’m going in search of some psychological blinkers. And I don’t mean mindfulness classes.

No. 63