Friday Takeaway by Ilan Stavans: Interruptions

For Hampshire Life
Published: 12/23/2019 4:16:37 PM

An outsider suddenly intruding in a conversation. A phone ringing in the middle of a movie. An ad popping up while you’re online. A text disturbing you as you’re driving...

The operative word in the previous paragraph is “suddenly,” one denoting an unexpected happening, a change of angles. Commonly, we call these abrupt intrusions “interruptions.” They are everywhere.

In terms of attention spans, old people complain that the young can’t sustain anything in their minds that is longer than three milliseconds, that everything for them is made or brought about in a short time. But interruptions aren’t really generational. They define us in a thorough fashion. There is no narrative — and everything, no matter what, is a narrative — without them. There never has been.

The history of science — Galilei, Newton, Darwin, Bohr, Freud, Einstein and Hawking — might be defined as the series of interruptions propelled into a continuum of consent. Literature and the arts — Da Vinci, Goya, Dostoyevsky, Van Gogh, Borges and Toni Morrison — are made of breaks. At first, those restarts are felt as a shock, an infringement, an arrest to the system. But sooner rather than later, the system finds a way to reconfigure itself by absorbing the shocks into its narrative, making them part of the status quo... until new shocks come along.

Merriam-Webster defines “interruption” as a stoppage or hindering of an activity for a time, a break in the continuity of something. Numerous TV programs still air with commercial interruptions. These breaks are relentlessly annoying, perhaps more so today than in the past since we know how pleasant binge watching might be without them on Netflix or another streaming service. Yet we’ve accommodated ourselves to them, allowing the interruptions to reshape our behavior. We use those commercial breaks to go to the restroom, drink a glass of water or check our messages. And then, as seamlessly as before, the show goes on.

Personally, I love interruptions. I find them exhilarating. Almost whenever they happen (interruptions might sometimes go unnoticed, which begs the question: are they still intrusions?), my associative mind is thrown into parallel universes of thought — might this also be what economists call “the marketplace of ideas”? — that are utterly refreshing.

I confess to work best when interrupted. I don’t like writing in a café; instead, I let myself be intruded upon in my home office. Not only by the phone, email or another technology; it might just be just a fly. The point is, I don’t know what will interrupt me, for an essential quality of interruptions is that they cannot be controlled. On the contrary, they control us mercilessly, no matter how much we prepare to antagonize them. They are furiously inventive.

A further confession: If I’m only focusing on a single project at any given time, I honestly find it difficult to conclude it. If, on the other hand, a number of endeavors demand my attention simultaneously, I enjoy jumping from one to the other, back and forth as much as possible, allowing them to cross-fertilize. I’m at my best when I’m at my worst.

An accident is an interruption. An illness is an interruption, too; as such, it must to be described as an interval in a healthy existence. Daytime is the intermission between two nighttimes. Actually, life, in my opinion, is an in-between bookended by two expansions of nothingness.

An anthropologist, in a conversation the other day, told me how relaxing she finds it to do the crossword puzzle. She loops from clue to clue effortlessly, allowing her mind “to wander as it wonders,” to use a Langston Hughes expression. And then, the moment she feels stuck, she leaves the puzzle aside for a few hours, even a few days. “The moment I return to it,” she said, “it is as if I have been cleaned up, given a bath. Answers start being downloaded.”

I’m not very good at crossword puzzles myself, perhaps because I’m not a native English speaker (though in Spanish and other languages I also stink). I do the daily New York Times mini but the maxi is impossible. Anyway, I find her explanation juicy, especially the part about downloading. “To be downloaded” is to precipitously be overwhelmed by a barrage of information not previously available.

Of course, an interruption ceases to be such when it becomes permanent. In that case, we call it a disruption. Interestingly, the dictionary portrays disruption as “a break or interruption in the normal course or continuation of some activity, process, etc.” To me it doesn’t sound much different than an average interruption, which is deceiving. Merriam-Webster says that “throughout the history of medicine, health has been seen as a condition of equilibrium and illness as the disruption of a balanced state.”

For someone who believes that dictionaries aren’t always right (they aren’t the word of God!), if illness is perceived as more than a pause, an interlude and a disturbance, when it acquires the status of what newly normal, that’s when an interruption becomes a disruption. That is, interruptions and disruptions are two completely different things.

By way of conclusion, I ought to say that I’ve peppered this column with parenthetical and other interferences (as any shrewd reader has noticed) as a way to prove my point. But by doing so I’m aware that I’ve probably defeated my own purpose. For those invasions aren’t really asides, since they are part of my argument, as well. The only true asides, noticed or unnoticed, are beyond my control. And my reader’s.

How many interruptions did it take for the reader to finish reading what I wrote? What purpose did they serve? Were they gifts or hindrances?

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.


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