Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

My Internet access seems to be stable again. Besides the fact that I tend to panic when I lose access to email (something I should probably work on), as a freelancer, my entire professional life hinges on a rapid, reliable connection to the web. When my connection went down last week, I ended up having to scramble to find a way to deliver two translations to a client as well as get my most recent review up at Necessary Fiction. I can live quite happily without that kind of stress, by the way.

Luckily, it’s over…for now. This is an old farmhouse with some old school (for Switzerland anyway) phone lines. One of the lines got moved last week, and reattached in a different way to the farm’s telephone line “hub”. This was enough to knock out our Internet service for nearly a week. Now that I see how fragile the system is, I’m pretty sure a cow will sneeze in the upper pasture next week and I’ll have the same problem.

In any case, this whole incident made me consider my relationship with technology. I’m obviously very bound to my computer and the internet. Which is kind of funny since my favorite pastimes are pretty darn low-tech. Reading, hiking, reading… And yet I spend most of my day answering and sending emails, connecting with people in several countries for work or just because friends live pretty much anywhere and everywhere, or using the Internet for research. The world is small. Very small. At least it seems that way through the “window” of my laptop.

This is all just to say that not only does technology make it possible for me to work from home as a translator and a writer while living in a very small village in Switzerland, it also gives me access to indulge my biggest passion – reading. I’d be one miserable reader if my book buying were limited to the few physical bookstores in the nearest cities. So really, the Internet makes possible much of my happiness and all of my professional life. And yet, I worry sometimes whether I might actually be more productive without the distractions that come as part and parcel of spending so much time online. I’m pretty out of the loop where social media are concerned but I am on Facebook and I write this blog and I spend time reading other blogs and online journals. It is very hard to say “no” to the endless stream of information available on the web.

There is an essay in Michel Houellebecq’s collection Rester Vivant (Stay Alive/Survive) which speaks about the human relationship to technology. He begins with architecture, moves to economics and markets, explores computer science and then ends, briefly, with literature. It is mostly a lament, at least the tone is more overtly sorrowful than critical. It is hard not to agree with his notion of La poésie du mouvement arrêté, which is the title of the final subsection of the essay. The Poetry of Stopped Time or The Poetry of Suspended Movement. Houellebecq argues for a pause – turn off the TV, buy nothing, renounce your desire to buy something, refuse to participate, refuse “knowing” (I find this last idea subtly provocative), simply switch off all thought. Just for a moment, he asks you to stand still.

This obvious solution to the information overload of contemporary society is harder to accomplish than one might think. I suppose I get the closest on dog walks or while reading. Dog walks now involve a chatty, gregarious toddler, an excited dog and a nervous kitten who refuses to be left at the farm, so while my twice-a-day walks are still lovely in their own right, they are not always exactly relaxing. Especially because they are now crammed between work and getting Mlle. Petitvore to daycare on the days she goes and more work and running errands and cleaning house and all the rest. But there are moments of true pause—stopping in the forest to listen to birds, for example, and suddenly, unexpectedly, my little circus all stills at the same time. It’s wonderful what a few seconds of stillness can do for the rest of your day.

And reading isn’t really a pause either, no matter how much I enjoy it. It will always involve thinking, learning, judging. My hours with books are active and intense. I wouldn’t really want it any other way.

It is still nice to be reminded, however, that it’s good sometimes to enter a full stop. Houellebecq is arguing for something both political and social, a rebellion of sorts against the vast whirring machines. I don’t criticize him for that at all; I think he’s right. But I’m also taking his comments in a deeply personal way. I’m a part of those vast whirring machines. I contribute (so does he, so does everyone). So my full stop can never be a real rebellion against the “machine,” it is first a rebellion against myself. I think this is what he’s really getting at in his essay and I like how that turns the critique on its head.

9 Responses to “Houellebecq's poésie du mouvement arrêté”

  1. Litlove

    What a wonderful, thoughtful post. Directly after reading it, I stopped racing through blogs on my reader and took ten minutes out to watch the raindrops trickling down the windowpane. It was very restful! I think you’re quite right – we are rebelling against the part of our selves that holds the whip and the pitchfork and insists we rush, rush all the time, connecting to people, searching for what we want, keeping a hundred different plates in the air. It’s a part that means well, but it’s a bit of a bully when left unchecked. Fancy Houellebecq writing about that – I must check out his essays.

  2. Lilian Nattel

    Oh yes, I can relate completely to everything in this post. Except for the village and forest, I could have written it. I also wouldn’t chuck out technology. There needs more balance. There’s so much I want to say about this, I think I’ll reply in a post.

  3. Stefanie

    This sounds like a wonderful and thoughtful essay and I really enjoyed your contemplative post about it.

  4. Dorothy W.

    I’ve been trying to fit moments of silence and nothingness into my day, and it IS hard! Or perhaps I should say, I’ve been trying to allow them in when the time seems right. Reading isn’t really a rest at all, I agree. My favorite mornings are those when I teach late enough I don’t have to jump out of bed because then I have a little time to stare at the ceiling. It’s very nice to have a quiet, slow start to the day.

  5. Michelle

    Litlove – I think you would really like his essays. I’m glad I’ve had the chance to read them first, and will now tackle the bulk of his fiction. I get the sense that his essays provide a nice framework for understanding his fiction. But I’ll know more as I get further in.

    Lilian – Thanks for your post, it was lovely.

    Mary – You’re welcome. Thank you for the “lovely”.

    Stefanie – Thank you!

    Dorothy – It is really hard. And I suspect it always was – it seems like The Internet has created a specific frenzy to the world of communication and whatnot, but I suspect people have always struggled with the need for quiet and solitude and the need to be in communication with others. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not sure this is a new issue really.

  6. Becca

    Thank you so much for writing about this topic, which has been on my mind quite a bit of late, and which I’ve written about recently on my own blog. (And thanks to Lilian, for pointing the way to this post and your blog.) I do think technology tends to make our lifestyle and our brains more frenzied. It will take a concerted effort to move away from that and recall the “power of the pause.”

    I’m working at it at gaining a better balance, one day at a time.

  7. Houellebecq Project Completed « pieces

    […] essays, La Poésie du Mouvement Arrêté, especially the title piece and how it asks the reader to re-consider our relationship with technology. His most provocative statement in this piece is to “refuse knowing.” Backing away from the […]

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