The Grand Canyon
Pierre Schlag also has an intriguing passage that reminds me of something similar that a political science teacher said when I was in college:
Last summer, I did a stint as a swamper with AZRA, a commercial outfit in the Grand Canyon.63 For many people, going down the river can be a lifechanging experience. It’s easy to understand how. The towering red and yellow walls, the intense play of light and shadow, the stark lines of the encroaching horizons, the extreme heat and the breathtaking dryness of it all conspire to put the real world in abeyance. All the little demands, requirements, schedules, preoccupations of that real world quickly begin to seem trivial. And then they fade entirely, until they are gone. Then too there is the rhythm of the river—of getting up early everyday, of going down the river, of making camp and breaking camp, and doing it every day so that each day is the same as every other day. With days like that, you can really think. You can imagine for yourself another existence. And many people do. The trip ends and they drop their jobs, partners, wives, husbands, material possessions. They fall in love with the river, with their guide, with the desert and, in some important ways, they never come back.
I’m a reasonable person (as well as a law professor) so all I came back with was one really tiny insight. Not only is it tiny, but it’s not even very original. And it begins like this: There is something pervasively neurotic about the structures of contemporary life. The excruciating intricacies of everyday demands, the symbolic overinvestment of meaning in the trivial, the obsessive monitoring of everything to within an inch of its life, the constant piling on of little local meta- and infra-layers of thought—all these things are, from the perspective of the river, pervasively neurotic. Contemporary life ensnares us in all sorts of little maze-games that seem to matter tremendously and yet ultimately do not—except in the negative sense that they distract our attention from what does or at least could matter.