Trivializing Literature, Virtualizing Reality, Part One
"I am half sick of shadows,' said the Lady of Shalott."
Nobody reads Lord Tennyson anymore. Even back before World War II, when Patricia Wentworth's nanny-turned detective, Maud Silver, was turning to Tennyson for inspiration, it was a sign of her quaint Victorian world view. Wentworth's contemporaries were turning to Eliot and Pound, or Wallace Stevens and E.E. Cummings, but nobody has read them for 50 years. By "nobody," I mean the very few people who read anything for pleasure and instruction. Naturally this does not include the professionals who are paid to distort the literature they really cannot stand.
The illiteracy of later generations has been a staple of geriatric jeremiads for several decades. Let us listen in on a typical exchange.
"We've turned into a nation of TV watchers, video-game players, and virtual sex addicts," observed the cheerful old cynic.
"How is that so different," asked the resentful 30-something adolescent, "from earlier generations that spent all their time reading poetry and fiction or going to the theater? Even now, all you seem to do is read books, most of them not even in English. Talk about a fantasy world!"
In such an exchange, I seem to smell the sort of distinction Coleridge once made between imagination and fantasy. Though the precise words he used may not bear the weight he attached to them, his basic argument, that what he called imagination is creative, while fantasy merely cobbles together pre-existing objects, is useful. Most bad science fiction, for example, assembles a future or alternative world out of familiar pieces from everyday life. It is the difference between moulding a figure out of clay and putting together legos. If I wanted to pontificate on science fiction, I might distinguish between Brave New World and 1984, or between Karl Capek's robots and those of Isaac Asimov.
According to librarians, reading is a good thing, and it hardly matters what you read. On that principle, bad books are shoved off on unsuspecting children with goodness knows what deleterious effects. I half expect to see, before I depart, comic versions of Sade's Justine and Lawrence's Lady Chatterly. In general most of us read many too many books. I don't mean simply that we read junk--I have read thousands of mystery novels, without a single blush. I mean we read too many books about books rather than books that are themselves a kind of reality.
I have a friend who is forever recommending some conservative or reactionary expose or alternative history that will wise up the readers. Some of it is more or less conspiratorial, but some of them are straightforward works of history. The other day, when I mentioned that I was slogging through Kinglake's multi-volume classic on the Crimean War, my friend told me about some recent book he had read. "Why," I asked, would someone read a recent book before the classic that had exerted so much influence.
People do this all the time, reading this or that Kagan before studying Thucydides, or Adrian Goldsworthy without having absorbed Livy and Tacitus. Every once in a while, a great historian comes along with a new thesis to propound, and, so long as you have already read the classic accounts, you may learn something from the renegade, but if you have not read the fundamental works, then you are simply being recruited as a foot soldier in an ideological army. It would be like reading Edith Hamilton before Homer, Herodotus, and the Attic dramatists.
This is not to say there are not modern books that can help us make sense of the world we live in. There are, but the authors tend not to be professors with tenure but novelists, poets, and essayists. If America's perpetual adolescents were able to read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, they would have some insight into their world. Bradbury depicts a society devoted to a bovine contentedness they call happiness. To render such happiness universal, the government has found it necessary to incinerate all the books that stimulate the mind and irritate the imagination. When Montag, one of the book-burning firemen, begins to wonder if he has missed out on something, his superior reassures him:
If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none…If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it… Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely `brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.
Thank goodness for David Brooks and Rod What'shis name, for CNN and FOX, and all the other simulated intellectuals that reassure us that there are only perhaps one and a quarter sides to every question.
In burning books for the public good, Montag makes a decent living, enough to have turned three out of four parlour walls into television screens that play soaps and sitcoms all day long. His wife Mildred longs for a fourth parlour wall that will some day enclose her permanently in a virtual reality whose characters Montag has dubbed, "the relatives." When, sick in bed with a fever, the fireman asks his wife to "turn the parlour off," she responds: "That's my family."
Fahrenheit 451 is often called a dystopian novel, but already in 1953, when the book was published, Bradbury regarded it as a real-world critique of a generation that had jettisoned literacy and the imagination and embraced the virtual reality of television. Most people with their eyes open and wits about them will admit that screen-watching has been a problem since the first of television-watchers (the baby boomers) became more engrossed in the lives of the Andersons and the Nelsons than in the families living on their block. Since then, it has become easy to identify each generation with the virtual households that absorb their attention: the Cleavers and the McCoys, the Bunkers and the Cunninghams, the Huxtables and the Bundys, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer, and, of course, the "Friends."
When members of my generation--the first devotees of manufactured reality--entered their teens, they quite naturally turned, by the time they entered college, from their small-screen addiction to stuff they smoked, snorted or popped, and they have been escaping from reality at a faster pace ever since. "Between the idea and the reality… falls the shadow," and, in these Shadowlands where my generation has lived, names have displaced things and illusions taken the place of reality.
To most social critics, the moral and spiritual threat posed by the marriage of television and computers does not seem terribly grave in the broader context of a society that accepts drone attacks on wedding parties and children, violent outbursts on American city streets that make Chicago seem more like Johannesburg, the normalization of drug use, infanticide, and Sodomite marriage, adolescent gender selection, the demonization of all things white, male, civilized, and normal, though perhaps nothing is so terrifying as the ignorance and idiocy of public discourse. From Presidents to professors, from TV anchormen to Catholic bishops, Americans who make policy and communicate opinion are less articulate than a smoked-up Rastafarian cabdriver blasting Bob Marley from his scavenged 8-track tape player.
If there is a common thread to our mental dumbness and moral numbness it is that a pervasive cancer of the mind has closed us to the demands of normal living. One explanation, surely, is the virtualization of reality through television, computers, the Internet, social networking, and Heaven only knows what next infernal engine is being concocted by the next Mark Zuckerberg, or Steve Jobs, or whoever now has taken a lease on the laboratory of Victor Frankenstein.
Bradbury wrote his short novel in a matter of days, and perhaps for that reason it has a kind of hallucinatory effect on the reader, as if he was envisioning, not inventing some imaginary future in which ordinary human relations have been displaced by manufactured reality. The "relatives" making up Mildred Montag's "family" might have been friends of the Kardashians or inmates in Big Brother's house, but they are less like relatives than they are like neighbors on whose lives the viewers can snoop through the transparent fourth wall of their television screen.
In recent decades, everyday Americans have outstripped Mildred Montag in their addiction to unreality. Television only occupies a small part of our consciousness, which is dominated by iPhones and the internet even when they are at work or in the car. Even our ordinary more or less real activities, getting and spending, loving and hating, are transfused with commercial viruses While postmodern men and women have to work, eat, and, if they are to reproduce, engage in activities more intimate than sexting—though a significant percentage are willing to tell pollsters that they are hooked into Twitter and Facebook even during their least virtual (to say nothing of least virtuous) moments. Luckily, then, virtual humans can fill in the rest of time—those hideous gaps in delusion that used to be called "life"--with social media, internet pornography, and text messaging.
[Note: New podcasts hosted by Stephen Heiner are being recorded, the first of which is devoted primarily to Fahrenheit 451.]
I do not recall, exactly, the year when the word virtual, which used to mean something like "having the power or effect of something without having the formal title, was applied to electronically generated images that have absolutely none of the power and effect of the realities they imitate. In the old sense of the word, a "virtual ruler" was the man who held real power without possessing the title, while in today's sense a virtual ruler would be a fantasy king in a video game based on the Game of Thrones. A virtual neighbor might have been used to refer to someone who, although they lived a mile or two away, were as helpful as a neighbor, while today it means one of the thousands of people who have "friended" us on Facebook or follow our tweets to see iPhone shots of what we had for lunch (Like!) or cartoon balloon responses to the big events of our time: OMG! LOL! WTF! IMHO, brilliant #sarcasm!