On just being

April 2013


Clarifying, I note that the title uses the word “just” in the sense of “merely,” “only”—“just another manic Monday”—and not in the sense of “justice.” At the same time I note that this essay risks descending into sophistry, and this may be exemplified by the possibility of now proposing that just being could be the most just way to be.

When I was thinking about this piece I had lunch with a French actress for whom my “just being” recalled the idea that we should live in the moment. This led me to dig up the long famous line from Horace: “dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.” While we are speaking (and eating and digging up old Odes), envious time will have fled. And so—and instead, in some way?—we should seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future. Which means? My friend and I should have gone back to her apartment, slipped off our clothes, spent the rest of the afternoon, or of our lives, in bed?

One of the glitches here is connected to this word “should,” which is intimately connected to the ur question of how to live—What should I do? What should I do—write—right now? My sense is that my friend and I were closer to just being when we were rather aimlessly eating crepes, drinking wine and talking about my essay and her interest in Judaism than we would have been if we had started trying to seize the day.

Questions about what “just being” might mean or involve are of course also connected to this question of how to live. Indeed I wonder if this question does not underlie all human conversation. I also have the sense that these days, in response to our lives of these past several hundred years and to the many pressing, but seemingly trivial demands of twenty-first century life, there is an idea that “just being” or something like it might be the answer—how to live (presuming one’s food and shelter are provided for).


David Levy, a former Palo Alto computer scientist who now teaches a course on “information and the quality of life,” has written about how in the 1920s the US business community became concerned by modern technology’s ability to produce more than consumers needed or even felt they needed. Labor leaders proposed reducing the work week, and this period saw such wonderful innovations as the weekend. But then business leaders, with help from the growing advertising industry, discovered, as one report put it, “that one want satisfied makes way for another . . . [W]e have a boundless field before us; . . . there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants”. Goodie goodie for Steve Jobs and Palo Alto, but not for just being?

In the same article (“No Time to Think”) Levy also quotes from the Nobel-Prize-winning cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock’s oft-quoted description of getting so into her studies of the insides of corn cells, she forgot herself and where she was. “[T]he more I worked with [the chromosomes] the bigger and bigger they got, and when I was really working with them, I wasn’t outside, I was down there, I was part of the system. . . . These were my friends.”

Of course we cannot call this just being, because—in our acquisitive age—McClintock was trying to get something from the chromosomes: knowledge. And there is this line about friendship which could send us back to the Old Testament and its equating of knowledge and inter-penetration (sex). All this is more, and thus also less, than just being.

Nonetheless, the McClintock example may suggest what our goal is: to be fully on the inside of our lives. With this, un-McClintockian and un-Levyian amendment: Just being would involve being on the inside without realizing that this was where we were. Making love without realizing we were making anything at all.


A long, long time ago (“I can still remember how that music used to make me smile”), or “Prepare yourself, you know it’s a must, Gotta have a friend in Jesus.” Neither waxing nostalgic nor turning to an other—e.g., to Jesus, for help getting into heaven—seem to have much to do with just being, but this morning in the restaurant where I am drafting this piece they are playing “Golden Oldies,” and this puts me in mind to shift to the nostalgic mode.

A long, long time ago my first wife and I sold our lease on a New York loft and went to Paris to enjoy a year of writing, making art, learning French, being in Paris. This was back before the Internet, etc.; the whole year we made one phone call back to the States, that one at Christmas from a booth at the central post office. Instead we wrote letters, and I suppose our letters were full of news of all the things we were doing, and this led my mother, in one of her return letters, to write something like, “Don’t forget to save some time to just be.” And thus, we might say, an essay was conceived, though the gestation took 30 years.

The idea has stuck in my mind not least because I consider myself someone who spends extremely little time just being. For example, every year my son and I take a February vacation, and I bring along a collection of books and greatly look forward to lingering over breakfast reading and reading, and then reading again over lunch and dinner. (My son is a bigger reader than I am.) It has not been lost on me that this reading is, from one perspective, a way of not being fully on vacation, of not simply being in the balmy air, next to the sea, next to Jonah, my son. Would we say then that the people who by 9 a.m. are completely creamed and horizontal in a poolside chaise longue — they know, or at least know better than Jonah and I do, how to just be?

These people’s idea of just being (or of just being on vacation) seems not all that far from my mother’s. That is, in our not only acquisitive but also productivity obsessed age, just being is defined negatively: not working, not learning, not thinking even, and perhaps not even feeling. In my mother’s case, I think that her idea was that Molly and I might spend less time producing and learning things and more time enjoying the beauty of Paris and its great food and museums. As a downwardly mobile person, I am tempted to call this the downwardly mobile version of just being—what one can do with a little money and not seeing much to be gained from duplicating the social status of one’s ancestors. Baudelaire’s flâneur (saunterer or loafer) comes to mind.

La foule est son domaine, comme l’air est celui de l’oiseau, comme l’eau celui du poisson. Sa passion et sa profession, c’est d’épouser la foule. Pour le parfait flâneur, pour l’observateur passionné, c’est une immense jouissance que d’élire domicile dans le nombre, dans l’ondoyant, dans le mouvement, dans le fugitif et l’infini. Être hors de chez soi, et pourtant se sentir partout chez soi ; voir le monde, être au centre du monde et rester caché au monde, . . .

The crowd is his element, as the air for birds and water for fish. His passion and his profession are to marry himself with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, there is an ecstasy in being part of the multitude, a part of the ebb and flow, of the fleeting and infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world . . .

The text quoted here (« Le Peintre de la vie moderne », 1863) is not, however, about how to “just be,” but instead vaunts a different response to modern life. Baudelaire goes on to say that his ideal man has a higher and wider goal than just being un flâneur. Beyond the fleeting pleasures of the moment, such a man wants to find the poetry in the modern moment and its fashions, to extract the eternal from the transitory. Here again we find the values of the Enlightenment and of the Industrial Revolution, in which in the end something must be learned or produced, and even delicious idleness must be justified by some tangible, socially useful or otherwise exaltable outcome.


And is not using electronic devices to track down vaguely remembered texts, and this to write an essay about “just being”—is this not one of the myriad ways we just are? Our poetry is, after all, just poetry; our vacations just vacations; our moments of ecstasy just moments of ecstasy. (And, sadly, how quickly they are forgotten, or how sad that what we remember is the fact, and not the feelings.) To twist a phrase of Sartre’s, humans beings would seem to be, and like all other entities, condemned to just be. If just be-ers can be said to be capable of making mistakes, our error would not be in failing so often to just be, but rather in failing to see that what we are always doing is just being? Or is failing to see the key to just being?

I have an ongoing interest in human ignorance, both in the prevalence and inescapability of it, and also in our attachment to ignorance. Thus I note that lying in the sun poolside at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning is less just being if it includes being aware that one is lying in the sun poolside at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. (And nowadays such poolside liers are often on their smartphones texting their friends: “Guess where I am? Jamaica!”)


I am tempted to rename this essay “On just quoting.” In my New York restaurant, which as I have been writing has itself been steadily filling up with just brunchers whose chatter has buried the Golden Oldies, I have searched in my computer files for two quotations from the German sociologist Georg Simmel:

[P]eople talk seriously because of some content they want to communicate or come to an understanding about, while at a social gathering they talk for the sake of talking. . . .

The essence of the blasé attitude consists in the bluntness of discrimination. This does not mean that the objects are not perceived, as is the case with the half-wit, but rather that the meaning and differing values of things, and thereby the things themselves, are experienced as insubstantial. They appear to the blasé person in an evenly flat and gray tone; no one object deserves preference over any other.

The second quotation sounds like a description of depression, while its “bluntness of discrimination” approaches my ideas of just being as all-encompassing and as involving not noticing. And my sense is that the first quotation, too, touches on just being, on one particular form of it. But I have now made an assumption that I suspect is false: that something like just being could have different forms or any form at all. But were that assumption true, then I might go on to say that this morning—that is, in an hour before I began drafting this essay—I was just lying in bed, not so much to get more rest or to prepare to write, reflect on my life or listen to the first birds of spring; I was just lying in bed. And, now—at this moment and in my life in general, now that I have gone beyond the career-enthralled years of a modern human life—when I write I may be more just writing than trying to produce anything (let alone trying to preach anything—how to live?).

I cannot say, however, that I have entirely renounced trying to extract the eternal (Baudelaire’s tirer l’éternel) from the flux, but often these days writing seems to be, above all, a drug. Perhaps the endorphins, or whatever they are, come from a McClintock-like insidedness, though with an added dose of nombrilisme—of self-absorption voire narcissism—a befriending of myself. But this is to write again of products, results, feelings. The goal of this essay was to explore just being and this, ideally would itself be a way of just being.


The Golden Oldies

  • Horace, Ode I-XI: “Carpe Diem,” in Latin with an English translation.
  • David M. Levy, “No Time to Think: Reflections on Information Technology  and Contemplative Scholarship,” in the pre-publication version of December 2007.
  • Barbara McClintock’s reflections appear in A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller (Times Books, tenth anniversary edition, 1984).
  • Charles Baudelaire, « Le Peintre de la vie moderne », 1863. The Web also offers the English translation by Jonathan Mayne (Phaidon Press, 1995).
  • Georg Simmel, The Sociology Of Georg Simmel, translated by Kurt H. Wolff (The Free Press, 1950). Extracts above are from Part I, Chapter 3: “Sociability: An Example of Pure, or Formal, Sociology” and Part V, Chapter 4: “The Metropolis and Mental Life.”
  • The pop songs quoted above are: Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” and The Bangles’s “Manic Monday,” which was written the pop artist later known as Prince, but then using the pseudonym “Christopher.” In the chorus of this latter song, the singer waxes nostalgic for the previous day, Sunday—”Cause that’s my funday / My I don’t have to runday.” The day for just being. (Is nostalgia somehow integral to the concept? Nostalgia is at once antithetical to just being and the only way we can grasp it; that is, in feeling-laden memory, and not while just being? )

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