Review of Tom Lutz, 'Aimlessness' (opinion)

Of late, I find myself playing chess almost every day — for a lot of people, it has become the pandemic-era hobby of choice — and doing so badly despite all the practice. My opponent is a laptop application, programmed to calculate two moves ahead, which is evidently one more than I usually manage. Every so often, I do win a game. But this has been only just so encouraging. A couple of the victories came to my attention just because the computer was courteous enough to point out that its side had been put in checkmate.

Besides blundering ahead diligently (half a dozen games at a stretch, sometimes more), I study books and videos in which talented players explain the rationale behind their moves. Very little of this has rubbed off, so far, although it is now sometimes possible to deduce a mistake two moves after making it.

The question arises of why anyone would persevere in an activity at which he is, so to speak, negatively gifted. A lot can be put down to boredom, of course — also, mere stubbornness. I do hope for a cognitive breakthrough, eventually: a leap in my grasp of the mobile geometry of the pieces, whereupon I could begin playing with strategy and even winning a respectable percentage of the time. That seems possible. But the potential return on invested time and brainpower hardly makes it a rational pursuit. There is no chance of ever entering a tournament, except in my nightmares. But continuing is a commitment, and if I happen to start winning, that means it will be time to set the program to see three moves ahead, so that I can lose on a higher level.

Aimlessness (Columbia University Press), by Tom Lutz, is a brief for this sort of endeavor — for pursuits without clear benefits, having no real benchmarks for determining progress. Aimlessness is, he writes, "a fundamental human proclivity and method, one that has been vilified for its near cognates: listlessness, apathy … [and] is especially maligned by many industrial societies," given their default preference for the industrious.

But aimlessness is not necessarily the lack of something (direction, purpose, the killer instinct for cost-benefit analysis) but can also apply to an open-minded and open-ended quality of attention. Lutz, a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, develops his lines of thought through a collage-like assembly of fragmentary essays that juxtapose elements of personal reflection, cultural history and quoted passages from his reading. It is all much less haphazard than it probably sounds. How attention finds its bearings and moves through a landscape is Lutz’s real focus here; the essayistic form, both messy and well wrought at the same time, is an exact fit for the content.

He became enraptured by a one-volume encyclopedia as a child, with a sense of being able to explore the whole universe by drifting through the entries at random. He quotes a remark by Gertrude Stein from her early psychological laboratory work with William James: "In these descriptions it will be readily observed that habits of attention are reflexes of the complete character of the individual." His own preferred mode of travel, he writes, involves

showing up with no itinerary, no reservations, no plans; going places just because the airfare is cheap that week. This may maximize serendipity, but the fact that I don’t arrange my travels that far in advance much of the time doesn’t mean I don’t sleep in a hotel — I do, I walk up to the counter and get a room, and even if, on occasion, a hotel is full, all that means is that I need to walk up to another hotel’s counter. Once or twice in a long life of traveling, the inns have been full, and in the middle of the night I gave up and slept in the car. There are worse fates.

And he allows that the cultivation of aimlessness may come very close to a form of self-deception:

I am writing this paragraph in a jeep crossing the Mongolian steppe on a gravel road. This is not easy — the jeep lurches from side to side, shudders across the washboard — and all this causes my fingers to be erratic on the keyboard. I type, and correct, and erase, and retype, and fix. But I keep at it. I feel like I’m stuck in a New Yorker cartoon, surrounded by uninterrupted natural beauty while my head remains trapped in a laptop. I’m a wretched failure at taking my own advice, a desperate workaholic alligator trying to pass myself off as a harmless floating log, drifting downriver with the current.

An argument is unfolding in all of this, but it may be lost on the linear-minded.

Which is, of course, the whole point. A civilization built on efficiency and instrumental reason won’t be disposed to question its own orderliness until it absolutely must. Sages and poets have warned for millennia about our penchant for self-blinkering (the medieval haikuist Basho and the 20th-century travel writer Bruce Chaitwin are among Lutz’s cultural heroes) but it’s hard to break with habits of attention that have built up so much momentum. To regard aimlessness as a potential enrichment of experience — even as a capacity that merits cultivation — is bound to seem counterintuitive, if not positively nihilistic.

Lutz takes that risk. (“Aimlessness,” he writes, “is, despite itself, motivated.”) I think he hits the mark.

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