A year ago, I wrote an essay about a modern crisis in experience. I defined experience as the habit of creating isolated moments within raw occurrence in order to save and recount them. Questing after an ill-defined happiness, you are led to substitute a list of special experiences and then to collect them to furnish your storeroom of memories: incidents of sex, drinking, travel, adventure. These experiences are limited in number, unreliable, and addictive. Their ultimate effect can be a life of permanent dissatisfaction and a compulsion to frenetic activity.
Since then, I’ve felt I paid too little attention to a phenomenon which is the opposite: the desperate wish for anti-experience. The connection between the quest for experience and the wish for anti-experience isn’t chronological. You don’t wake up the morning after some final orgy of experience and discover that you can’t stand any more. It seems to be, instead, arbitrary and eruptive. You reach points in life at which you can no longer live like other people, though you don’t want to die. Experience becomes piercing, grating, intrusive. It is no longer out of reach, an occasional throb in the dark. It is no longer a prize, though it is the goal everyone else seeks. It is a scourge. All you wish for is some means to reduce the feeling.
This anaesthetic reaction, I begin to think, must be associated with the stimulations of another modern novelty, the total aesthetic environment. For those people to whom a need to reduce experience occurs, part of their discomfort seems to be strongly associated with aesthetic intrusions from fictional or political drama—from the television, the newscast, the newspaper, the computer headlines, or any of the other unavoidable screens of pixels or paper. “I just had to turn the TV off. I couldn’t stand it anymore.” This is the plea we accept, more or less, as we mirror the strange look on the sufferer’s face with an odd look of our own. We will accept it this far and no further, because much more of the suffering comes from us—the “normal” others—who obnoxiously recount our daily lives, too, as a series of rare adventures. The anti-experiencers will want to turn the TV off; then they’ll want to turn us off. There comes a point at which they will want to turn the sights and sounds of life off—if life becomes a nightmare of aestheticized, dramatized events.
The hallmark of the conversion to anti-experience is a lowered threshold for eventfulness. You perceive each outside drama as your experience, which you could not withstand if it really were yours. It leads to forms of total vulnerability, as if the individual had been peeled or deprived of barriers. I don’t know what word can connect the three levels of unavoidable strong experience, broadcast and recounted and personal, except the omnipresence of drama.
I also don’t know why the nightmare comes for some people and not others, at some times and not others. After considering it, it surprises me that this breach, the fall into painful over-experience, isn’t more common. Why of a hundred seekers of experience and dwellers in the total aesthetic environment do only two, or ten, turn? Unless there are features of the aesthetic environment which are themselves also anaesthetic and that manage to regulate the experiential lives of the majority, to keep them from cracking.