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Offline: 'My Dinner with André'

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Paul Miller continues his year away from the internet.

paul offline andre
paul offline andre

A couple years ago, I borrowed all of my friend's Criterion DVDs and Blu-rays. I still haven't given them back, and watch them from time to time. (In case he's reading this: I'm "sorry".) The other night was my second crack at My Dinner With André. I loved it the first time, but I wasn't sure how it would hold up.

Well, it was incredible. Pretentious, self-defeating, quirky, and incredible.

In case you're unfamiliar with the film, it's a dialogue between two old theater friends, who haven't seen each other in a few years. The skeptic, Wally, is played by the "Sicilian" guy from Princess Bride, and the hippie, André, is played by a good-looking man with a combover.

Much of the film concerns the lavishly self-indulgent experimental theater that André has been partaking in, but my favorite exchange is about Wally's electric blanket.

Wally: You know, I was thinking, last Christmas Debbie and I were given an electric blanket. And I could tell you that it is just such a marvelous advance over our old way of life and it is just great! But it's quite different from not having an electric blanket. And I sometimes wonder, 'well, what is it doing to me?' I sort of feel like I'm not sleeping in the same way.
André: Well no, you wouldn't be!
Wally: And my dreams are sort of different. And I feel a bit different when I get up in the morning.
André: I wouldn't put an electric blanket on for anything. First, I'd worried I'd get electrocuted! You know, I don't trust technology. But I mean the main thing, Wally, is I just think that kind of comfort just separates you from reality in a very direct way.
Wally: You mean...

André means that an electric blanket makes you forget about the cold, and cold can be a good thing. Cold can make you have compassion for poor people who are cold and don't have electric blankets. Cold could cause you to snuggle closer to your partner. Most importantly, being cold reminds you that it's cold. We're animals, after all, so why shouldn't we experience the world like animals do, and let our animal instincts kick in?

Naturally, André isn't the first person to wonder this. Thoreau talks about the heat problem in Walden:

"The luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm, but unnaturally hot; as I implied before, they are cooked, of course a lá mode."

Thoreau believed a human should find ways to maintain his own body heat, through shelter or clothing, but anything beyond his natural body heat was, by definition, the cooking of oneself.

André as well talks about comfort beyond necessity being a self-destruction. He describes an old woman who loved to eat chicken, and so only ate chicken, and so starved to death through lack of diverse nourishment.

The electric blanket is "like being lobotomized by watching television," says André.

"Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket," says Wally.

The irony, of course, is that this dinner conversation is taking place at a fancy restaurant of André's, not Wally's, choosing — Wally likely can't even afford the bill. André is rich, and lives outside the city, in a comfortable house, while Wally lives in Manhattan squalor.

To build his own log cabin in the woods, of reasonable warmth, Thoreau bought and disassembled the shanty of a small, poor family.

My point is that leaving the internet, as I'm currently doing, is an André / Thoreau move. It's not just ironic or laughable for me to suggest it to others, it's mean-spirited, or at least insensitive. And after all, the problem has never been electric blankets and chicken, the problem is only one of moderation — how high should we turn up the electric blanket, and how much chicken is part of a balanced diet?

The problem has never been electric blankets and chicken, the problem is only one of moderation

As I've noted before, whenever I describe my experiment to people, they feel judged. They explain how horrible they are for checking Facebook so often, and then justify it, and then throw up their hands and exclaim: "I just don't know!"

I just don't know, either, and that's the whole point. It's cold outside, we need electric blankets. I switched mine off for a bit, just to see how cold it is outside. But it's not going to be forever. There's a new StarCraft II expansion coming out soon. I'm "missing out on so many good GIFs," my friends tell me. I would never give up my electric blanket.

Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.