Of the Curation of Bedside Reading

Pascal wrote in 1670 that all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone. [1] For me, who spent many years of high school with a copy of Montaigne’s essays by my dorm room bed, Pascal’s famous line reads more as a meditation on the essay “of idleness” than it does a fully-argued conclusion that fits in the context of Pascal’s Pensées. I can only imagine the dismay Pascal would have at hearing this – the offense at the idea that someone he saw as counter-Christian could have impacted his sacred rational thoughts.

Pascal, one of the oft-lauded mathematicians in the Western tradition, was seemingly endlessly fond of logic and rational thought - not just out of intellectual curiosity, but importantly for the discernment of how to live more godly lives. He drew from aspects of the Aristotelian tradition even as broader parts of this tradition soon saw use countering his famous philosophical wager (among others of his ideas). Aristotelian moral philosophers often argued that inauthentic belief underwrites good actions, and for Pascal’s wager, this looks as such: if you only choose to believe in God because of a mathematical formula (the wager), you aren’t truly having faith in God, but in mathematics. Your intentions were not in line with your pious actions, and so, invoking Aristotelian ethics, you were not acting morally and shouldn’t be rewarded in heaven.

Pascal believes that his thoughts (such as the one that this essay opens with) are the results of the logical reasoning of a rational man. Pascal’s Pensées touch on many more roots of suffering not tied to his aphorism on idleness (many of them biblical, yet others similarly psychological), however, discounting the claim made in the famous quotation. Reading Pascal, I am struck by the seeming similarities in the ways in which these thoughts seem to punch the reader – striking like La Rochefoucauld’s aphoristic wit might have in a Parisian Salon. The style is perhaps stereotypically French, indifferent to the user’s feelings on logic.

Whichever of these French writers, it seems as if the power of their words when arranged in an impactful sentence is more important than the internal consistency of their logic. That the curated presentation of one of their thoughts – decontextualized – might be more important than their work as integrated into the broader body of their work. To say this of Montaigne is to add a hum to a loud chorus which has been singing the same song for centuries, while to say this of Pascal is more alike to screaming in a library. No matter how philosophers hate me to do so, when I search for an idea to compliment Montaigne’s essay, Pascal comes in ready use; my curation finds use of a common thread of French pessimism.

In bedding these two thinkers together I decontextualize at least one of their ideas from the rest of their person and intellectual project in service of my interpretation of their work. For Pascal, pure and evident axioms were of paramount importance – mathematical intuition fueled his scientific thought and theological truths fueled his religious thought. He, however, may not have understood the ways in which intuition is the result of a constantly self-refining cognitive system which is affected by every experience one has had. Your intuition is affected by what thoughts may, at times, end up informing your subconscious opinions, and the potential vocabulary of ideas in your head encompasses everything you’ve ever been allowed yourself to think about.

Perhaps Pascal engaged with Montaigne and his intellectual ilk so much as to let some of his sentiments seep into his own subconscious, or, perhaps just as likely, his life of suffering and misery and anxiety led him to intuitively agree with Montaigne’s feelings even as his logical thoughts led him to formally disagree. Pascal failed to curate Montaigne out of his work. This, to me, speaks of that danger of engaging, even critically, with ideas, as being exposed to an idea engenders an irreversible change in one’s mind. You can’t unhear something, even less so unthink a thought, and the more you engage with an idea – even to denounce it, the more your neural pathways cement it as an idea worth remembering.

Though ‘bedside reading’ often conjures images of light-hearted easy reads which can prime us for a deep night of sleep, the implicit curation of thoughts that we are engaging in by allowing someone such as Montaigne to enter our most private space has, for people like Pascal, serious consequences. I cannot imagine that the anti-skeptic Pascal would have permitted Montaigne’s writings near his pillow, yet the essence of some of his ideas seem to make their way onto his page nonetheless. In such a way, Pascal might not have had to digest Montaigne’s writing so much as he would have had to walk past a cloud of it while ruminating on his own thoughts. Or, if he did internalize it in some way, he might have thought most of its contents excreted from his system when his critique had finished, while he had actually held on to fragments of its contents even after the bulk had passed.

Exposure is a particularly pressing concern in the digital era, where attention economies rival markets of physical goods. Permit me, for a moment, to explore a thought experiment on the topic of self-curation in our day. The experiment is to look into whether our new technologies might open doors to freeing people like Pascal from the traps of curation.

All the collections of others people’s thoughts have now invaded our empty bedchambers, inviting digital guests to save us from our own thoughts. It seems simple to say that those digital records unerringly preserve moments and perspectives in ways that are necessarily contrived; any picture is a curated perspective, just as even the most disorganized rant is a (poorly) curated account of one’s momentary thoughts. The digital artifacts housed on social media offer an infinity of choice in each variable of their composition: the caption, the processing effects, the time of publication, etc. This is, then, another iteration of the internal hell from which Pascal thinks all unhappiness stems and in which Montaigne sees the decay of our contentment – Our little corner of the internet is our digital room, and as we wait to post, we sit silent with our rampant thoughts overthinking every inch of our space.

Each new aspect that can be controlled serves to further ambiguate the relationship between content and embedded meaning: e.g. “does it say something about me if I put a filter on my photo, or will it just make it look nicer?” As anathema to this infinite well of suffering springing from digital emptiness, our platforms seem to have shifted to make us as free from prolonged thought as possible. Algorithms prioritize instinctive interactions on short time scales which interact more with our intuition and subconscious than our rational faculties. Pascal would be irate at this solution to the root of all humanity’s unhappiness.

Perhaps, though, the objectivity of technological lenses can provide the groundwork for ‘pure’ experiences. If one seeks to convey a genuine objective tour of their lives or personality using the most impersonal technology of our day, they might do this through strange constructs like 3D scans and faithful field recordings from their life. Scanning and recording everything possible, though, they are still faced with a number of unanswerable questions, such as: should the files be named and ordered so that their context might be understood? All human knowledge takes the form of interpretation, (Benjamin, 1923) [2] and as such, without such context, any interpretation done on such relics will be little more than speculative thinking, rather than knowledge.

Further, the scans themselves – though no longer confined to merely a single perspective – would still be curated in their presentation, most simply by the lighting conditions that they were captured under. If they are lit uniformly, so as to be presented ‘objectively’, their beauty could hardly shine through, for, as we well know, were it not for shadows, there would be not beauty (Tanizaki, 1933) [3]. This is to say nothing of the 20th century ideas of ‘auras of art’ or of the semiotics of simulacra which discount such scans as true relics. In the broader sense, it seems hard to reasonably argue that there might exist any theoretical medium which is purely objective. The consensus I have caught wind of is that curation is not a thing that can be avoided or minimized, but rather a thing to be refined.

Now, reader, I should say that the writing above, just as the thought experiment, is toothless, not at all revolutionary or challenging of the general currents of the world I have inhabited. If it read as such, that is either a fault of my writing or it is a disconnect between my and your ways of understanding the topics contained therein. Whatever novelty might be captured in these words should hopefully be found from hereafter, in the answers to the question that impassioned me to think of bedchambers and of the power of quotations to subtly twist the flow of our thoughts, namely, “do our names serve to associate ourselves and others with things beyond our comprehension, and to influence the thoughts that we have?”

I have myself clumsily and informally changed my name a couple of times in the recent year, resulting in different cohorts of people knowing me by different names and different spellings of my name(s). This is no big problem, but it has shone a light on the ways in which names are vessels for self-understanding. After a number of months with a strikingly different name, a conceptual shift occurred, seemingly overnight. As I revisited old memories from five years prior, I noticed a discrepancy – everything was as I remembered, save that my high school friends called out to me not by the name they had known me as, but by the name I had come to know myself as presently. I hadn’t talked to some of these people in half a decade, and I definitely hadn’t told them about my name change, but my subconscious had already started to go into my bank of memories and, like Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984, correct the ‘mistakes’ of my memories. Sometimes, certain people in memories defied this, and called me by a version of my old name that felt more personal – my best friend had called me a diminutive version of my name which felt, in its own way, like a nickname, and so my memory seemed to preserve this more personal way of being known while it had modified the more casual references of my teachers and classmates. It felt freeing, somewhat, as if all those people had been calling me the wrong name for years, and had finally gone back in time and rectified the error; they had learned who I actually am.

Names, importantly, are not our own. They contain aspects of the world around us, and in my case, I felt the things that my name reflected were not representative of who I was. A name can carry significations of gender and culture and race and countless other aspects that might reflect the perspectives from which our thoughts are curated. A name can hold a parent’s aspirations for their child’s assimilation into a new cultural environment or it can equally hold their assertions of defiance against cultural uniformity. It can toe the line, like how my mother and her sisters’ names were chosen to be equally as German as they could be American, (they are what professor Sev Fowles of Barnard College calls ‘double objects’ - objects that can be interpreted two ways,) but in all iterations they serve as a ‘Pascal’s bedchamber’ of infinite interpretation. There are always more associations to be made between a name and people with similar names, and as we meet more people with more names, we each seem to find it harder and harder to disambiguate a new person we have just met from the associations we have subconsciously come to associate with their name. Even more personal than a bedside collection of essays (which might be missing from the most spartan version of a bedchamber), a name is something that will always accompany someone in an empty room as well as in most of their interactions with other people.

Watching the modern masterpiece Tangled for the first time recently, I was bemused at the choice of the chameleon’s name: “Pascal”. After reading his name far too many (22) times in the last five pages, it might strike the reader as surprising that I, personally, do not care much for Blaise Pascal, (much preferring his reptilian counterpart). Yet I feel obliged to know this man and write about him, for, just down the street from the MET Cloisters lives another Blaise whom I do care for. This is Blaise Hackethal, my baby cousin whose only family in the city are his mother and myself, both of us many years his senior. I, being the family’s overly-pretentious mathematics and physics nerd, felt I ought to know my baby cousin’s namesake well, seeing as I was the closest familial facsimile he had to Mr. Pascal.

Given that he has such a singularly notable namesake, I felt I ought to have lenses to offer him so that he might make of his name what he wanted. His birthname, already short and complete (like mine), will be something that is hard to make a nickname of. To curate himself, he might have to modify his name (like I have done twice so far) or abandon it entirely for one of his middle names (as I have done, once). Notably, he might also choose to go by his initials, which spell out “B.A.C.H.” (though I suspect this might be a step in the wrong direction if “Blaise” strikes him the wrong way.) I might direct him, too, towards Toni Morrison’s Desdemona, where he would find the words “I am not the meaning of a name I did not choose.” (Morrison 2012) [4], and taking a more nebulous interpretation of the ‘meaning’ of his name, he might find a way to sever his self from the root of his name. I might, after all this, walk him through the essay you have almost finished reading, where he might see a way of decontextualizing his name from his namesake by curating it.

When I (who shares none of Heraclitus’ disdain for humanity nor any of Plato’s love for ‘ideal forms’ and rationality) invoke a translation of Plato’s quotation of Heraclitus that reads: “Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river.” (Plato 3rd c. B.C.E.) [5], I am likely doing such a disservice to both writers (and their translator), and I might as well be using the words without citation, focusing just on the power of this aphorism to suit my ends. To cap off these thoughts of how my baby cousin might surpass the associations that come baked into his rather singular name, I should like to compare his name to light of the sun, and to wholly and entirely betray the original intention of another quotation of a quotation which involves two people who I, on the whole, do not agree with: “The sun never knew how wonderful it was,” the architect Louis Kahn said, “until it fell on the wall of a building” (Tanizaki, 1933) [6]. In my errant reading, I should like to hope that the name Blaise did not know how wonderful it was until it took life in my little cousin.

1: Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) Pensées 2nd ed. (1670)

2: Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). letter, Dec. 9, 1923, quoted in Susan Sontag (1933-2004), "Under the Sign of Saturn," introductory essay to One-Way Street and Other Writings (1978), no. 126.

3: Jun’Ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965), "In Praise of Shadows" (1933)

4: Toni Morrison (1931-2019), Desdemona (2012)

5: Heraclitus (c. 535 B.C.E.-c. 475 B.C.E.) quoted in Plato (428/427 B.C.E. or 424/424 B.C.E.-348/347 B.C.E.), Cratylus: 402a

6: Louis Kahn (1901-1974) quoted in Jun’Ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965), "In Praise of Shadows" (1933)

About the Author

Icara “Ike” Enkamin (they/she) is an ADHD and Autistic college student in New York City studying physical sciences and ancient societies. They write to try to explore themselves and untangle their messy connections to the world and to the people and places that they care about. You can find them at @plumpurpleheart on instagram.