HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

September 10, 2007
From Liberty Street

The Intellectual Problem of Vacation

John Turner


I tell myself, whenever I go off on a family vacation, that I'll find a quiet time and a quiet place where I can get away every day to think, and write, and post items to my web sites. But none of that is as easy as I expect.  

For one thing, a rented condo on the beach, though very pleasant in many respects, is not set up to accommodate reading and writing. There are no tables, no chairs, no spaces that can readily be converted into an office away from home. Any surface that might be commandeered for that use, is also demanded for snacks, and drinks, and the coloring books of a three-year old. Beach life is by design a disorderly business, with wet bathing suits, and sandals, and towels, and bright colored plastic toys and partially eaten snacks littering every square foot of indoor space. It’s as though the whole environment was designed to thwart thought, which, I suppose, in a way it is.

Such a turn away from the life of the mind may be a good thing for a week or two. But what if it becomes the ideal of life generally? That, to a considerable degree is what I think I see going on around me here in northeast Florida. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but there are signs I’ve surmised correctly. I went to a gigantic shopping village called Town Center southeast of downtown Jacksonville a couple of days ago. There I found a Barnes and Noble. But I must say i was a very different Barnes and Noble from the one I frequent near home in Burlington, Vermont. The inventory was transformed, one might even say transmogrified.

There is a new commentary on Nietzsche I’ve been thinking I might get. I’m pretty sure it would be available at the store in Burlington. But at Town Center, no such book was to be found. In the section where I would normally expect to find a philosophy aisle I found, instead five rows devoted to Christian inspiration.

I realize that in noting this I’m veering dangerously close to intellectual snobbery, a place which, considering my own attainments, I have no right to go. But since I’m in danger already I might as well push ahead and say that the entire culture of Town Center seems to be proclaiming that a perpetual mindless vacation is, in truth, the principal goal of existence. It’s not fair to be overly hard on Jacksonville. You can get something of the same feeling at any big shopping center. It’s the atmosphere of modern capitalism. Yet, in Jacksonville, it seems even more pure than elsewhere.

Is it because of the weather? Because it’s fairly close to the beach? Or might it be that Jacksonville is in the forefront of the American march to the future? Might we be on the verge of a culture in which approximating the features of vacation are firmly established as the meaning of human existence?

America as vacation world has a pleasant ring to it, I guess. The beach everyday, lounging by the pool everyday, a shopping trip everyday, a daily stint in a lounge or restaurant may become the American norm, the hoped for happy new world. There would be no Nietzsche anywhere, nor no Plato or Aristotle, for that matter -- except, perhaps, in comic book movies. Remnants of desire for thought would be supplied by mild Christian inspiration, which will assure you that God took care of all suffering in the past and that now the only reason he exists any longer is to make sure you have a good time every hour of every day. What a God!

I’m on vacation so I really shouldn’t be thinking about stuff like this. The phenomenon that keeps shoving it back to my mind is the expression on the faces of the folks at Town Center. There they were in paradise and yet their faces didn’t really show it. I saw anxiety, I saw confusion, I saw considerable anger, I saw dismay and occasional outright misery. But I saw very little cheer. In fact, I began to feel I was the most cheerful person in the whole place and I wasn’t in a very good mood.

Vacation, I presume, is related to "vacate" and the condition being vacated is ordinary life. But what if there is no ordinary life to return to? What if vacation is the whole deal? I sometimes think Americans need to reconsider their entire take on what they’re living for. Is getting away from mundane existence and thought actually what life is all about? It’s a question no one should approach, when he’s on vacation.


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