Trivializing Literature, Virtualizing Reality, Part Two

It is a good thing we have so many virtual friends and neighbors, because the genuine articles are in short supply.   It is difficult for people who move every five years (the American average) to put down roots into a community, and even if they stay in one house for 35 years, as my wife and have done, they will learn not to go out of their way to get to know neighbors who come and go.  These days, we know only a little bit about three families living within a block from us.  The neighboring family we have know best is a young couple with three small children, whom we got to know quite by accident:  The wife's mother once mistook me for a high school friend and has been apologizing ever since for the mistake.  They moved away a few years ago but still return to visit friends in the neighborhood.  There was a very kind old man who lived down the street, and we watched in admiration as he mows the lawns of people he regards as elderly and helps them clean up their yards.  He is either in a home or dead—no one knows.

The decay of neighborliness is no petty loss to be regretted with the nostalgia we reserve for the things of our childhood or the memories handed down by parents.  We can do quite nicely without poodle skirts, big band music, horse-drawn streetcars, and the tonsils some over-zealous doctor yanked decades ago.  Neighbors, even in these postmodern times, have their uses.  Who but the nosey neighbors will call the police if they observe strangers trying to enter your home when you are away?  Who but a neighbor is at hand to lend you the ax or cup of sugar you need?

We lived only ten years in a close-knit village in South Carolina where we had few connections, but even some people who may not have particularly liked us outsiders were good neighbors, ready to help in an emergency.  Our closest neighbor, a shrimper turned house-carpenter, was always ready to help tape off a burst pipe (few houses were insulated or even sealed up underneath) or lend us a tool.  Of course, he was as good a borrower as a lender and once asked  to use my electric drill, as I thought, for some domestic project.  Two years and several houses built later, he gave back the battered and burned out piece of junk, remarking that I really ought to get a reversible model with higher power.

In simpler times, the role of neighbors takes on far greater importance.  When a debt-ridden widow, afraid that her sons would be enslaved, appealed to Elisha for help, the prophet instructed her to "borrow…vessels abroad of all thy neighbors," and he had them filled miraculously with enough oil to pay off her debts. Neighbors, says the Greek Hesiod, writing in a pastoral community, may be more valuable than kinfolks, because they are close at hand.  In Our Lord's parables of the lost sheep and the woman who lost the penny, both friends and neighbors are called upon.

To have good neighbors, one must be a good neighbor.  The practical advantages are obvious, but there is a moral basis to the relationship even in a very "backward" society.  Neighborliness—like kinship—implies some degree of friendliness (if not exactly friendship), but it is not simply a feeling but a set of reciprocal obligations.  In a community in the South of Spain that Julian Pitt-Rivers studied not long after WW II, 

Neighbors are thought to have particular rights and obligations towards one another. Borrowing and lending, passing embers, help in situations of emergency, discretion regarding what they may have chanced to discover, compose the obligations in which neighbors are forced by their proximity…

Neighbors everywhere are expected to do favors for each other.  The English "favor," like Latin "gratia" (and derivatives in Italian, French, and Spanish), implies both a feeling of gratitude and the actions that inspire such a feeling.  Though reciprocity is taken for granted as the basis of such relationships, one of Pitt-Rivers' Spanish villagers is not supposed to do a favor to a friend or neighbor in the expectation of receiving a future reward.  Similarly Jesus tells us not to invite rich people to dinner in the hope of a return-invitation.  

The moral understanding of neighborliness is not limited to Greeks, Jews, and Christians.  Confucius ranked the moral duties of neighborliness and filial piety just after self-possession and a sense of shame and before sincerity of speech.  I do not know if this is the best order of moral duties, but no one who is not a good son or good neighbor is likely to be a man of good moral character. 

We do not learn morality by reading ethics textbooks or listening to sermons.  Our moral life begins with the love we have for our mother and the respect we have for our father, and it begins to radiate genetically outward to brothers and sisters and cousins, while at the same time escaping the household and kinship by reaching out to neighbors and eventually to comrades, teammates, and co-workers. 

We are also schooled to our obligations by reading the stories of friends, kinsmen, and neighbors that have been handed down to us in our Scriptures, both sacred and profane.  For Christians, the Bible is the primary text in which we learn how to be human, but we also have--or once used to have--hundreds and thousands of episodes in Homer and Shakespeare, Walter Scott and Charles Dickens--to say nothing of the folktales, fables, proverbs, and ballads that had been preserved by non-literate country people.  David and Jonathan were exemplary friends, as were Orestes and Pylades; Penelope was the very model of a wife, as Cordelia is the perfect daughter.  We also had the negative examples of  Clytaemestra and Delilah, Eteocles and Polynices,  Blifil and Uriah Heep.  The history we studied gave us the honest Washington, the gallant Nelson, and the noble Lee, who were as much a part of our imaginative world as grandparents and cousins.  

It was in these various relationships, real and fictional, that we learned to be fully human.  English is often a fuzzy and imprecise language, but in the case of kinfolks, neighbors, comrades, and friends, our set of verbal distinctions makes it more difficult to see that underlying all these words is a common notion, that of moral obligation.  Naturally our obligations to parents and siblings is different from our obligations to neighbors or members of the football team or sales force, but all these relations are different from the rather weak and negative sense of duty that most people feel toward strangers and aliens, whom we are not to rob, kill, or cheat (unless we are sure we can get away with it!).

This quality of moral obligation, beginning at our mother's breast, is sometimes termed "attachment" by psychologists, and it is by no means an exclusively Western phenomenon.  Quite the contrary, since many non-Western societies have failed to slough off attachments of blood and breast.  Takeo Doi, an important Japanese psychiatrist, says that all Japanese moral and social life is rooted in amae, the sense of helpless dependency a child feels at his mother's breast.  In the West (as opposed to Japan) growing up may require an eventual sharp break with parents, but the development and extension of attachment is at the heart of our development into morally responsible human beings.  John Bowlby and his disciples spent their careers studying the unfortunate cases of people who never properly experienced that attachment.

Everyone, probably, remembers Harry Harlow's studies of baby monkeys (macaques) raised on surrogate mothers made of cloth-mother or wire. Babies who were fed on wire-mother monkeys, nonetheless, preferred the comfort of the cloth surrogate, but even they pined for true maternal contact.  There is, however,  more to motherhood than tactile pleasures. Harlow's later studies on juvenile monkeys subjected to the torture of social isolation anticipate the isolation of American juveniles and young adults who spend their lives surfing and texting.  One cannot become attached even to the softest of surrogates or breed children from internet pornography or learn how to be a morally and socially responsible person (much less find a suitable mate) by watching How I Met Your Mother or searching for dates on Zoosk.  We need real neighbors to become real humans.

Neighborliness is an almost universal human necessity:  Even monks retired from the world have fellow-monks as neighbors. Hermits are, obviously, another story: It is in the nature of the  hermit to transcend the obligations of everyday life.  In this these spiritual athletes are a bit like epic heroes, who, even if they happen to live next door to ordinary people, would not make good neighbors. Imagine asking Achilles to relight your lamp or help pull the cow out of the well!  If you comb Greek literature (as I have been doing), you will not find many uses in epic or tragedy of the word geiton (neighbor), except as a geographical term, whereas in the comedies of Aristophanes and in the speeches of Lysias we meet with helpful neighbors, nosy neighbors, and even malevolent neighbors.  When they are in dire straits, comic characters call on kinsmen, neighbors, and demesmen (an Athenian deme is a defined part of town or countryside) to assist them.

Tragic heroes are too important to worry about neighbors.  Our only equivalent today would be celebrities like Justin Bieber, James Franco, and Madonna (and others too numerous to mention), who appear to have no regard for the lives of non-celebrities and the comfort of their neighbors.  There is a poll purporting to say which celebrities would be the best and worst neighbors, but the opinions expressed are based only on virtual reality.  Beyoncé  Knowles makes the top ten list of desirable celebrity neighbors, while one of her real neighbors complained the "singer," in filming a video, had "shattered his privacy."  What if the poor fellow were a music-lover and had to endure that sex-crazed caterwauling all night long!  

Contempt for people around them is one thing (and only one) that celebrities share with the egomaniacal heroes like Achilles and Hercules.  The rest of us poor fools have to put up with the thoughtless jerks who want to act as if they were celebrities, and, when things get really bad, we may even have to call in the forces of public order.

That is where virtual reality is so accommodating.  As we watch Game of Thrones, we forget our stultifying job and social failures and enter a life filled with risks and adventures, and no matter how dangerous the situation becomes, we might just take control and become, at least in fantasy, the self-important jerks we have always dreamed of being.  Or, if we have a communitarian bent, we can play one of the versions of Sims and populate an entire town with our fantasy projections.  Why take the trouble to make friends or help neighbors, when we can create an entire universe in our own image?  These manufactured artifacts of mass culture are most often the opposite of authentic literature in their effect.  Instead of schooling us to our obligations, they entice us into arrogance, insolence, and a contempt for all the things in life that do not arouse our libido.  

Be seeing you.

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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

3 Responses

  1. Brent says:

    “Be seeing you”? As you spoke those words into your dictaphone, were you by chance holding thumb and index finger in a circle to your eye?

  2. James D. says:

    This piece made me think about this song:

  3. Vince Cornell says:

    We’ve tried being neighborly, but most folks make a concerted effort to keep to themselves in our little subdivision. Whether it’s because they’re too busy with various activities (I hate organized sports for children, especially travel soccer) or their own personal pursuits, it’s very hard to get to know anybody. However, on the other hand, that may not be that bad considering the day and age and culture we live in. I work very hard in raising my children, doing what I can to cultivate in them a sense of what is right, proper, good, important, true, and beautiful. While I know I fall short of the standards of a civilized age, I know I am leaps and bounds ahead of the absolute rot piled high in our public schools, to which all of the neighboring children attend. I can’t say I really want my children to be friends or even close acquaintances with boys and girls in public school where sex is a topic in the 2nd grade, transgendered issues are discussed, all things traditionally American are scorned, all things ugly and hideous are praised, the style of dress is scandalous, the music is foul, and the language coarse enough to make an old fashioned sailor blush. So, in a way, while not being a direct good, the atomization of neighborhoods has at least one advantage in that I have less competition in trying to raise my children. Fortunately, there is another family in the neighborhood that home schools and who attends our parish, and our children get together as often as possible. We also do what we can to attend other events associated with our parish. We’re not trying to be hermits! However, while I can acknowledge that the way it should be is that we associate with those with whom we live, I can at the same time, perhaps with some contradiction, be thankful that the folks around me keep to themselves and let me do the same.