Sunday, July 28, 2019

In Praise of Slow

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.


  1. Einstein taught us that fast and slow are relative. When you watch a John Ford movie, time goes by slowly. I watched Ford's "Indian Trilogy," or should I say, tried to watch them. No way. Too boring, and John Wayne is an awful actor when working with Ford. I've seen Wayne do credible work with other directors, but not these films.

    So, tonight, I watched that Ford film about the Joads. No can remember the title. I thought I would like this one because what's his name was in it. No, I hated it like all the other Ford movies. John Ford is awful.

    On the other hand, I also watched "The Roaring Twenties" tonight. This film is an example of time going by quickly. Cagney is the bomb. I couldn't take my eyes off of him — what a beautiful movie.

    But, if Cagney was in the Joad movie, would it have been better? No, because John Ford sucks.

    1. I forgot to elaborate. When Ma Joad gives her little speech to Pa Joad at the end of the movie I threw my remote against the wall. I couldn't take the bullshit any longer.

    2. Correction:

      The film I was thinking of was "The Public Enemy," not "The Roaring Twenties." I watched both last night. "Twenties" is mediocre, while "The Public Enemy" is fantastic. Jesus, the ending is devastating. No spoilers here. Go watch it.

    3. Here's the end, at YouTube --- yah, it's pretty devastating:

  2. Mr. Simon, I've never seen you answer a comment. Do you read them? Indeed, will you ever read THIS?

  3. Good question, Unknown. I just stumbled in here, find Mr. Simon's comments worthwhile; and I largely agree with him, allowing that there is a place for speed, in art and in life.

    As to John Ford, I enjoy his movies very much. His style,--or aesthetic, if you must--isn't always to my liking, yet there are sublime moments and beautiful images in many of his films.

    She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is a stunning picture to watch; and for me it would work well even as a silent movie, but that's me.

    1. John, most film buffs feel like you do about Ford, so I think that I might be wrong. "Ribbon," the film you reference, is the first of his "cavalry trilogy" that I tried to watch that fateful (and stormy) night. (I attempted two others after that one.) I despised "Ribbon." I can't stand the acting in Ford's films. The worst example in "Ribbon" is when Wayne settles in at his wife's grave for a long (boring) talk. The acting is at once stilted and fake, and the junk he's saying is moronic. At first, I began to laugh as I thought this scene was supposed to viewed as tongue-in-cheek, but then I realized, no this is a thoughtful moment for John Wayne. My hand began to quiver around the remote. I was shaking with rage.

      My main problem with Ford is his total lack of humor, and when you see him getting interviewed, you see why his movies are the way they are. The guy has no sense of humor. Even the soberest of films has to have at least a touch of whimsy, and Ford's have none. John Ford films hammer you over the head, demanding to be revered because, damn it, I'm a John Ford picture.

      If you're looking for a great Western film made during that same era, I suggest Hawks' Red River, or Rio Bravo. Also, Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident. Some great Westerns were made in the 60s. See Leone, Butch Cassidy, True Grit, Little Big Man, or McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

  4. Dealing with the relatives

    For the young life moves too slow;
    For the old life moves too fast.
    The old want youth with all they know;
    Youth sees two oh as from youth passed.

    1. "Two oh"? Is this the correct definition?

    2. If it means twenty of something!

  5. Ah Mr. Simon, you have not been to Paris in quite a spell. The sky is indeed lovely, largely because of ordinances forbidding buildings taller than six floors. But the pace is not slow. Parisians will literally shove you out of the way if you slow them down by even a few steps. God help the poor soul who lingers on a crowded sidewalk to examine the contents of a patisserie window. You may indeed linger over an espresso in a cafe--though be prepared to swallow lungfuls of cigarette smoke. And crossing the street is even more dangerous than in New York, given the speeds those little cars go. Godspeed. I mean, God low speed.

  6. Johnny, you are retired. You have no assignments. You can do what you like, write what you like. Write about something that MATTERS!
    Write about El Paso and Dayton and Trump and the rise of Nazism in the United States.
    Write about Brexit.
    Write about the possible end of life and its effect on art, climate change, murder and mayhem in Brazil.
    You grew up in Europe, you know three or four cultures intimately. You can help us, you can teach us.
    Say something and let go of this effete drear! You are still a great writer and still important.
    We need your voice, man!

  7. Mr. Simon, I didn't find this column to be effete drear. Please keep up the great work, which we receive gratis... Here's a funny clip in which Buster Poindexter calls Carson "John":

  8. I always wonder of this apparent need for haste in everything, as if it were some kind of inherent virtue: "efficiency & effectiveness" is assumed. However, speed causes errors that wipeout most benefits. Watching a car speed past me on the highway raises the troubling thought that our current generation is only absurdly rushing to its grave -- no virtue in that.

  9. Superb essay! Thank you, Mr. Simon. Good to know I’m not alone in the slow reading department of life.

  10. Rest in Peace, buddy. We miss you and your work!