Americans are almost always in a hurry, though rush is all too often rash. Even cars are often sold on speed disallowed by law, and so essentially useless. Emblematic is horse racing, , with a winner (think Secretariat) enshrined in historic memory, less speedy losers deservedly forgotten. In just about all sports speed is of the essence, and what Americans are indifferent to sports? Only in sex, for which, significantly, “sport” was once a synonym, is slowness desirable and premature orgasm a failing.
Accordingly, by proverbs and adages, speed is viewed as positive. However jokingly, we tend to get “run like a bunny” or “speedy Gonzales,” or yet “fastest gun in the West,” to say nothing of disapproval for “slow pokes” and “dawdling,” with “dragging your feet” or “Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread” especially notorious. There is, exceptionally, a song, “On top of Old Smoky/ All covered in snow,/ I lost my true lover/ For loving too slow,” in which slowness is not reprehended, though probably not referring to the duration of the sexual act itself.
But even in an affirmative sense, too much of a good thing may be undesirable. Take the charming poem “The Lost Race,” by the poet priest Canon Andrew Young, which I reproduce in its entirety.
I followed each detour
Of the slow meadow-winding Stour.
That looked on cloud, tree, hill,
And mostly flowed by standing still.
Fearing to go too quick
I stopped at times to throw a stick
Or see how in the copse
The last snow was the first snowdrops.
The river also tarried
So much of sky and earth it carried;
Or even changed its mind
To flow back with a flaw of wind.
And when we reached the weir
That combed the water’s silver hair,
I knew I lost the race—
I could not keep so slow a pace.
There are a few places where signs demand that cars go slow—in the vicinity of schools, hospitals, and perhaps churches; otherwise the car corresponds to the equine lower body of a centaur, usually in an especially speedy gallop, as in, say, stretches of Texas, where slow is not even dreamed of.
But the greatest purveyor of mostly unwelcome speed is television, whose racing images outstrip the most excited heartbeat. How many times have I hoped to linger with something worth a moment or two more before the next thing of equal or possibly lesser interest had supplanted it, but there is no stopping the TV it.
To be sure, slowness can be problematic, as when my fast-walking wife is halted by
stops to allow catching up by me, reduced by age to sauntering. On the other hand (or foot), that slow saunter is the only way to get to know a city you want to know and fully enjoy. This may not work for, say, Detroit, but does very much so for, say, Paris. There, on my all too brief visits, except once on a Fulbright, I have reveled in places and people to see. Much has been made of the beauty of the Paris sky, even though a sky depends on what it frames: buildings, monuments, parks, vantage points, persons passing by or lolling on benches.
Sitting outdoors at a café, taking in the surroundings, one may well be struck by the slowness of so many passing Parisians. That is how I spotted the American ballet dancer performing in Paris who became my girlfriend for a very pleasant while.
And what about the pleasure of learning from what one reads unhurriedly? It is said that if you read slowly, you get more out of it by remembering more. I have always been a slow reader, and occasional attempts to read faster have dependably failed, quite possibly profitably unbeknown to me. I have until fairly recently, had a pretty good memory, although I cannot tell whether more so than faster readers. But let’s face it, there is both good and bad learning from books, and not all good is slow, just as not all fast is bad. But definitely, some good stuff has to be read slowly; I can’t imagine racing through a page of Proust, or even of Henry James, and so much of modern poetry—need I name names?—has to be read slowly or, even more slowly, reread.
Which brings me to the praise of what is considered to be difficult reading that postulates slowness, and thus to the praise of slowness itself. That is, when and where “slow “ works, where it isn’t merely the writer wallowing in obscurity to make him or her seem more profound.
Finally, in music, it is more often than not in a sonata or symphony that the slow movement is by far the most beautiful. It is the adagio or lento that carries the lyricism, the melody, best. If you don’t believe me, ask Faure, ask Debussy.