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.

I know it is asking a great deal, but why bother to read anything if you refuse to develop the independence of mind that can only come from grappling with classic texts. The alternative is to consult Wikipedia or the "Great Professors."

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!


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

7 Responses

  1. Clyde Wilson says:

    Based on my observation of undergraduates during my last few years of teaching, much of the population is now quite literally post-literate. They cannot read English with understanding. I also noted that increasingly professors do not know the older and classic works in their field, have often not even heard of them. Add that college and public libraries have for some time now been massively discarding older books to make room for the trash of “media centers.”
    We are back to a small minority of the literate like the Middle Ages, except that in those days the peasants had some touch with reality and common sense.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Prof. Wilson has hit the nail on the head with perfect accuracy.

  3. Frank Brownlow says:

    Indeed, and those peasants had an extraordinarily rich culture of stories, poems, songs, and dances that–thank heaven–people like Vaughan Williams & Percy Grainger went looking for, found, and preserved just before it all finally disappeared. And when those same peasants visited their village or town church, they entered a beautiful place that they themselves had a hand in maintaining, decorating, and preserving. The mental vacuity of our times is surely utterly without precedent–and as Prof Wilson says, it affects every level of society.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Inserted: I know it is asking a great deal, but why bother to read anything if you refuse to develop the independence of mind that can only come from grappling with classic texts. The alternative is to consult Wikipedia or the “Great Professors.”

  5. Brent says:

    Since “1984” is parallel to Asimov, I assume that your opinion of the work is lower than the average person’s. I run into a lot of people who think 1984 the dystopian novel par excellence. My reaction is always, “It’s worth reading, I suppose, but Brave New World is more on the nose.” Could you elaborate on what you consider the shortcomings of 1984 or at least the ways in which Brave New World is superior.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I read 1984 in the 60’s and found it dramatically thin and ideologicaly hysterical. It completely misses what Huxley had seen in 1932–sleep indoctrination, massive drug use, contraception and in artificial procreation. It’s the perfect book for Talkshow radio listeners. Orwell was a lifetime Leftist who went sour on the revolution but never escaped his cheap and lousy Leftism. He was a decent essayist, poor fiction writer and disastrously wrong prophet.

  7. Vince Cornell says:

    The funny part about 1984 (having recently re-read it) is how thin it is. The parts Orwell got right are nice (the media’s ability and desire to reshape the past, the technological driven surveillance state), but it’s not much deeper than the High School level. It makes me think Orwell didn’t really have much to say. He looks for meaningful liberation in shallow sexual encounters – it seems laughable now that I’m reading it as a 40 year old and not a teenager.
    The real question about literature now-a-days though is, “When will they make [fill in the blank] book into a good movie?” That’s all anyone seems to care about. The idea that the cinema is somehow a more elevated art form to which books should hope to eventually be converted is prevalent in every circle I’ve traveled in. I hate the idea, and there are some things I refuse to watch regardless of how much critical praise is heaped upon it. I treasure the book too much to let someone else impose their vision of the novel upon my eyes and mind.
    My favorite recent example of modern literature is Barnes & Noble’s failed attempt to “urbanize” the “classics.” They reissued “Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland” and such, but they changed the characters on the cover to look like modern day black youths and the like. It was panned as being “racist” and “insensitive”, but I say they just made the mistake of being both ahead of their time and not going far enough. Had they waited another few years and issued these books with actual re-writes of the characters descriptions and names and dialogue – then it would be hailed as PROGRESSIVE and A LANDMARK IN LITERATURE.
    As a friend of mind keeps repeating as a sort of mantra, “Lord, how I hate the 21st century.”