Mark Edmundson:

But, some might counter, there is absorption in our culture. And plenty of it. Look at the face of the young man watching TV (during this, the purported golden age of television), the young woman at the movies, the kid in his basement playing his first-person shooter video game. Is this not absorption?

I think not. It pays, I believe, to distinguish between being absorbed and being mesmerized. Modern life avails one of plentiful opportunities to be mesmerized, enchanted, visually inebriated now: The condition is not hard to bring on. In a culture that asks us too often to “pay attention,” we need rest and release, and we can find both through the mesmerizing powers of current electronic culture. Ideally, paying attention should be rewarded by absorption, but when absorption isn’t found, or no one teaches us how to achieve it, then being mesmerized will have to do. Being mesmerized is all about wish fulfillment. It’s about becoming the soldier, becoming the knight, becoming the sports star, becoming the princess. It is a turning away from reality. To be absorbed is to intensify one’s connection with what is real with the hope of reshaping it for the better, if ever so slightly. The engaged and absorbed doctor wants health for his patient; the scientist wants to add to the stock of available knowledge; the true poet hopes to bring beauty and truth, pleasure and instruction, to her readers. These people are not cheering themselves on or inflating their sense of self. They are acting out of love for the world, and, in return, they receive one of life’s best gifts: simple absorption.

Assuming I’ve understood this taxonomy correctly, “paying attention” is like working a typical job, being “absorbed” is like having a beloved hobby, and being “mesmerized” is like being an unemployed pothead. Eh, whatever. Another pointless exercise in rhetorical bubble-blowing. The only interesting thing about it to me is, once again, seeing how an author’s paean to this or that virtue or activity always seems to involve a judgmental condemnation of those who aren’t doing it correctly, no matter how petty the distinction. You can’t even sing the praises of walking or loafing without simultaneously creating dubious status hierarchies to make sure your readers know you’re one of the elect.

I mean, really, I love the simpleton faith here that “reality” doesn’t involve significant amounts of illusion, imagination and daydreaming. Hell, his naïve vision of a world of selfless heroes creating endless incremental improvement is quite a mythical fantasy itself.