Back to the Future

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My sister-in-arms Susan Tomaselli is bringing out a brand new and very exciting Irish literary journal in January called Gorse. It will focus on “the potential of literature, in literature where lines between fiction, memoir and history blur (Sebald, Cendrars, Bolaño, Joyce), in experimental writing, in fiction in translation, in the unconventional and the under recognised, in the personal essay (Sontag, Dyer).” It is going to be, needless to say, fucking awesome.

I’ve recently written a lengthy essay for Gorse called The Magnet has a Soul & Everything is Water How Modernism is Ancient. I’m not sure if they’ll use it as it’s pretty long but the jist of it is that “Modernism, Meta-Modernism, Postmodernism and Deconstructionism have always been with us, long before we gave them such ludicrous names.” It looks at how Homer, Lucian, Archilochus, Ovid, Socrates, Aristophanes and a load of other old dead folks were doing things millennia ago in literature, which we’ve taken for modern inventions.

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During the research, I came across an amusingly disparaging jeremiad by T.S. Eliot, which shows that, though he was a Modernist in form, he pretty much despised (and feared) modernity and was delusionally committed to a halcyon past that had never taken place (his views on the English class system are something to behold, especially coming from an aristocratic Missourian poseur). Each to their own and certainly no reason to dismiss the genius of his poetry, at least up to and including The Hollow Men (his later finding of faith was the Church of England’s gain and literature’s loss). You can read the piece in question in full here. It’s ostensibly a letter for The Dial magazine, eulogising the music hall performer Marie Lloyd, but this ‘Won’t someone think of the Melanesians?’ excerpt, as a hysterical, orientalist, patronising and defeatist example of High Miserabilism, is brilliant all on its own,

“With the dwindling of the music-hall, by the encouragement of the cheap and rapid-breeding cinema, the lower classes will tend to drop into the same state of amorphous protoplasm as the bourgeoisie. The working-man who went to the music-hall and saw Marie Lloyd and joined in the chorus was himself performing part of the work of acting; he was engaged in that collaboration of the audience with the artist which is necessary in all art and most obviously in dramatic art. He will now go to the cinema, where his mind is lulled by continuous senseless music and continuous action too rapid for the brain to act upon, and he will receive, without giving, in that same listless apathy with which the middle and upper classes regard any entertainment of the nature of art. He will also have lost some of his interest in life. Perhaps this will be the only solution. In a most interesting essay in the recent volume of Essays on the Depopulation of Melanesia the great psychologist W.H.R. Rivers adduces evidence which has led him to believe that the natives of that unfortunate archipelago are dying out principally for the reason that the “Civilization” forced upon them has deprived them of all interest in life. They are dying from pure boredom. When every theatre has been replaced by 100 cinemas, When every musical instrument has been replaced by 100 gramophones, when every horse has been replaced by 100 cheap motor cars, when electrical ingenuity has made it possible for every child to hear its bed-time stories through a wireless receiver attached to both ears, when applied science has done everything possible with the materials on this earth to make life as interesting as possible, it will not be surprising if the population of the entire civilized world rapidly follows the fate of the Melanesians.”

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5 Responses to Back to the Future

  1. Still and all…’when electrical ingenuity has made it possible for every child to hear its bed-time stories through a wireless receiver attached to both ears’ is one of my guilty ‘miserabilisms’ Despite being pro-digi publishing I’m haunted by a study that came out (http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/2-ways-digital-books-benefit-kids-research-shows/) showing that kids were shown to have stronger text focussing ability when they were read to by recorded narrative with highlighted words rather than the more hurried and personalised caregivers’/parents’ narrations. Have I limited my kids from recorded narrations of their favourite stories such as ‘The Lorax’ or ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ because I want this time to be precious and memorable or because the iPad can do a better job? Also, and this is completely miserabilist I think — not that I knew of the term till now — what if they grow up and the generation native digital grows up with code-tinged BBC ‘received pronunciation’ or the trans-atlantic version of? It’s not the worst you could have, but still, homogenous. No, no, no. Then again, the iPad could probably do a better job than a lot of parents when it comes to giving the kids attention…

    • I do agree Jennifer, something can be lost and will be, I’m sure. my godson is so young he can’t speak beyond little sounds but he mimics adults and one worrying development has been his obsession with phones. given the choice between a toy and a phone, he’ll pick the phone every time. he can’t even say hello and he’s already habituated. part of me thinks that’s a real shame, what chance does the art of conversation, storytelling and simple human interaction have competing with satan’s handheld gizmos? i try to engage with him in completely different ways, as i’m certain you do Jennifer, to lure him away from it. but I’m not of the belief that the young are on the wrong path or are doomed, if they appear that way, it’s our fault not theirs. to think like a lot of grumpy old men in particularly do, that the world’s going to hell in a handbasket is a fallacy and a betrayal of our own youth as well as theirs.

      another part of me thinks, well it all depends how the young adapt and use the technology, to be the master of it rather than the servant. how they’ll strike a balance between the real and the ephemeral if they’re smart enough and have a bit of encouragement. perhaps they’ll rebel against it or change it beyond all recognition. we have to have faith in them I think, after all the imagination is infinite, whereas computer games and social networking are not and they’ll realise that. what we’re watching is an accelerated process of evolution in the last thirty years but it’s what humanity has always done. every major development in technology throws up these worries but we adapt and survive. what Eliot got wrong is that it isn’t the end of the world. we’re only as screwed as we’ve always been. their language will certainly change but language is a continually evolving entity and young people will naturally, without even realising it, resist attempts to homogenise by belonging to groups and subcultures with their own languages of inclusion and exclusion. the death of book and the violin and the paintbrush and conversation have been proclaimed for centuries and they’ve outlived every doom-sayer and will continue to. we just have to make sure these things are there when the young are ready to discover them for themselves and when the allure of technology wears thin.

      • Thanks for the reply. I must look into that Gorse magazine so I can hopefully see the essay you mau have there, I’ve loads to catch up on with your blog, all the Serge G. stuff and more, I go through patches of work to sleep to work and a month or two goes by sometimes without checking in then catch up in blocks. The technology splurge is down to discipline too, moderation is the aim I suppose, it’s the excess that ruins a good thing perhaps? I let the kids have the digi stuff in small doses and make the violin and reading and eating times full on quality time so they get the message that it’s as rewarding to have a proper chat and keep in touch with the tactile part of life. I hope you don’t mind but I took inspiration from your post and wrote one about miserabilism and jeremiads, I was delighted by the new words though I knew the sense of them, I referred to your post as source, just hope it doesn’t cramp your style.

  2. Pingback: Some Miserabilisms I Made Earlier | Jennifer Brady's Blog

  3. oh I don’t mind at all Jennifer, my pleasure in fact. thank you.

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