Motion Sickness

Have you ever thought about how much is going on around us all the time — filling our eyes and ears? There is constant motion and noise. It’s so much a part of our world we scarcely notice it, though in our cities it never stops: the air planes taking off and landing, the police and ambulance sirens, the cars and trucks on the Interstates, and the hub-bub of constant people noise. It never stops. Even in rural areas there are the barking dogs, the trains and motorcycles, loud pickups and kids’ cars with their modified mufflers, and the occasional crop duster roaring in the distance. Noise.

And if you watch TV for a while without paying attention to what is on you will notice that it now consists of thousands of quick shots from various angles — a frantic download of pictures in constant agitation. It jars the nerves and rattles the brain. It can’t be good, though I am not aware of any studies to help us understand what this constant noise and movement does to our nervous system.

I am not talking about the actual events portrayed on the television or reported in our papers and on the radio. That is enough to chill the bones — especially these days with “false news” and lie after lie trying to scare the bejesus out of us. But I speak about the constant agitation. As I say, it can’t be good.

Lionel Trilling wrote an essay in 1976 about a class he was putting together at Columbia University on the novels of Jane Austen. He wanted the class to be small, about 20 students, but over a hundred signed up! He culled the group and managed to reduce the number to 40, but he was astonished that so many students would want to read an author who wrote novels so long ago. He thought about it and concluded it was because in Austen’s day “there were more trees than people.” This was a cute way to get across the point that those young people were tired of all the noise and agitation (even in 1976!) and wanted to retreat to a calmer and quieter world, the world of Jane Austen. Austen lived between 1775 and 1817. She wrote most of her novels in the early part of the nineteenth century.

A generation later George Eliot (who was born two years after Austen’s death and was the wisest of women) could already express her exasperation over the noise and agitation that was growing around her. Between Austen and Elliot the Industrial Revolution had burst forth in all its glory, noise, and pollution — visual, nasal, and aural! One of my favorite passages in Eliot’s novels is the following in which she expresses her own feelings about the coming of the “machine in the garden,” as it has been called. She pined for a time when

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

There is no way we can turn back the clock. And as I have noted in previous posts, I would not want to do so (for the most part). But there was a time when people took things slowly and had time to reflect and enjoy the world around them. Things took time; that was just a fact of life. As things stand at present we are always in a hurry and are surrounded by noise pollution and constant visual agitation, as noted. Ours is a hectic world and one in which we cannot find time to simply relax and enjoy the beauty of the world around us. For the most part, the world won’t let us: it obtrudes. But even when it does let us escape, when we retreat to a quiet nook away from the noise and agitation, we take our electronic toys with us in order to listen to our tunes and to make sure we don’t miss out on anything important — like the latest photo on our phones of our friend’s evening meal or the cute trick by her pet poodle. Important stuff.

Eliot was right. Things happen too fast and furiously and it is not good for the soul. We need to “take a nap” every now and again, get away from it all — and I mean ALL — and think about the many good and beautiful things that surround us. And forget the noise and agitation and especially forget the folks that seem to be running the show these days who simply add to the noise and agitation without making our world even a little bit better.

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Uncivilized??

After reading Lionel Trilling’s excellent essay insisting that Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park oughtn’t to be dismissed as her weakest novel I was inspired to visit the novel again. I must admit I had thought, along with many another critic, that of all her novels this was indeed the poorest. With Austen, of course, even her weakest  novel would be gradations above the novels of so many others, but still, it simply didn’t seem to rank up there with Pride and Prejudice. Trilling shows that Austen herself started writing Mansfield Park almost before the ink was dry on the pages of her greatest novel when she thought it could have been even better — an urge that lead her to start writing what she regarded as a more balanced novel.

Whether one agrees with Trilling or not, and the argument can get a bit hairsplitting at times, a tempest in a teapot if you will, Austen points us in a direction we seem to have too long ignored. In her novels, all of them, we are forced to admit that manners are what makes the person. Character and good manners go hand-in-hand and cannot be separated from one another. Ortega y Gasset reminded us in the 1930s that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” and Norbert Elias, in his study of The Civilizing Process insists that civilization is nothing more and nothing less that the awareness of others and the “consideration of what others might think.” In a word, the civilizing process involves “restraint and the regulation of elementary urges.” The notion that others matter, that we have obligations to others is the common thread in what we loosely call “good manners” — as it is in all of Austen’s novels.

When a man opens a door for an elderly person, or gives up his seat on a crowded bus; when a neighbor turns down the radio or television out of consideration for others who might be disturbed; when one avoids saying what one thinks because it might hurt the feelings of the listener; when a speaker refuses to interrupt another speaker; in all these cases, we see self-restraint at work along with the “regulation of elementary urges” — good manners. Edmund Burke saw them as the stuff of morality.

Franny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is the embodiment of good manners, the civilized person. She has been torn away from her poor family at the age of nine to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt one hundred miles away. She suffers separation anxiety in the extreme because of the sudden change and her one link to mental stability is the care and concert of her young cousin Edmund who, alone among all the other “upper crust” people she nows lives with, cares about her and shows compassion and concern for her suffering.  In the eyes of her new family, except for Edmund, she resides somewhere between the servants and themselves. One of her aunts relegates her to an attic room and tells the servants not to light the fire.

As Fanny grows older and her love for Edmund deepens and her sensitivity of others around her increases — including her three other cousins and her aunts and uncle — she becomes an attractive and fascinating woman. Indeed, a “gentleman” of considerable fortune by the name of Henry Crawford sets out to make Fanny fall in love with him, purely out of boredom, only to fall helplessly in love with her himself. He makes her an offer of marriage, an offer Fanny repulses — to the distress of her relatives. She sees him as the embodiment of all that is wrong with those around her, an “uncivilized” man; she sees

“. . .a want of delicacy and regard for others. . . .a gross want of feeling and humanity where his own pleasure was concerned — And, also, has always known no principle to supply as a duty what the heart was deficient in.”

In fact, the pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed Henry Crawford is the embodiment, along with his sister Mary, of what Trilling calls “the modern type, the person who cultivates the style of sensitivity, virtue, and intelligence.” In other words, in Trilling’s view Mansfield Park is about pretense, personality in the place of character, the tendency so many have to pretend they are something they are not for lack of sound moral principles to form a solid core of self. Fanny and her cousin Edmund are, among all the characters in the novel, the only two who are genuine and honest, the only truly civilized people among a host of others who either pretend to be so or who are past caring.

And this is where  a novel written in 1816 can be seen to be a commentary on our own age and culture, an age and culture in which the self and its pleasures have become the center of concern for the greater part of humanity and the Other has been lost in that preoccupation with self that sees good manners as archaic and somehow irrelevant — and who view honesty as not an obligation we have to ourselves and others but simply a matter of letting it all “hang out.” All of which places us in the category of those who in one way or another revealed themselves to Fanny Price as people who are locked within themselves, showing a lack of principles “to supply as a duty what the heart is deficient in.”

The Visible Wonder

Great writers are great because they notice things about the people around them and the world in which they live. One of the greatest of these is Joseph Conrad whom I would list among my top five favorite writers — a list that includes George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. They not only notice things: they write about them with extraordinary psychological insight and a distinctive writing style — even in the case of Dostoevsky whom most of us must read in translation.

Conrad was, in addition to being a magnificent writer, a relentless critic of man’s inhumanity to man — especially with regard to the exploitation of the Congo, which he witnessed first-hand, “the vilest scramble for loot that has ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.” This concern was most powerfully expressed in his remarkable novella Heart of Darkness where he made clear that the white Europeans were guilty of the most heinous crimes against the native people as well as the earth they exploited out of unfettered greed. Unfortunately, this message was lost on Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author and critic, who wrote an essay attacking Conrad and urging people not to read his novels, calling him a “racist” because his moderator, Marlowe, used the word “nigger” — a word freely bandied about by merchant seamen in the early part of the last century. Ironically, Achebe simply could not see beyond this to uncover Conrad’s obvious sympathies with the native people and hatred of what the Europeans were doing to them. In any event,  Conrad would have us all become astute observers of our world and the people around us. In his “Personal Record” he says that we should all become engaged in

“visionary activities. . . unwearied self-forgetful attention to every phase of the living universe . . . [make it] our appointed task on this earth. . .to bear true testimony to the visible wonder, the haunting terror, the infinite passion, and the illimitable serenity; to the supreme law and the abiding mystery of the sublime spectacle.”

The problem, of course, is that we can no longer engage in “self-forgetful attention” to the world, because we cannot for a moment forget ourselves: we have reduced the world to OUR world. With exceptions like the delightful artist Z, who is alive to the world around her, increasingly we suffer from our inverted consciousness, our attention focused solely on ourselves — a condition exacerbated by the electronic toys we are addicted to that direct our attention away from our world and other people to the ego at the center. Surely, the word “social media” is a misnomer: there is no real socializing going on here; we just write about ourselves. Beauty is no longer regarded as out there in the world, it is “in the eye of the beholder.” We no longer see the beautiful sunset or the grace of the deer as it leaps over the fallen tree. We “see” only our own reactions to those events, our own feelings. It is now all about us, not about our world. How does it make me feel? That’s the only question we ask. Some even go so far as to deny that there is any truth to be told about the world, that all truth, like all value, is subjective — just a reflection of the subject himself or herself. In the process, of course, we have flattened the world and made of it a two-dimensional sheet that merely reflects back the face and the feelings of the observer, ugly though that image might be.

In a word, if we ever were able to realize what Conrad seems to regard as our true, human calling — to “bear testimony to the visible wonder. . .” — few of us today are able to do so. I would guess that most don’t even know what Conrad is talking about — assuming that they read Conrad (or anything else for that matter!)

Huxley Revisited

My friend Emily January wrote an excellent exposition and commentary on Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World. In commenting on Emily’s blog, I made mention of the extended conversation toward the end of the novel between two of the main protagonists, John (the “savage”) and Mustapha Mond (“The Controller”). The former came lately to the Brave New World from wild and uncivilized America and brought with him the perspective of Shakespeare’s collected works to a world that had lost any desire it may ever have had to read anything. Mustapha Mond runs the show and has a most provocative discussion with the savage about the values and goals of Brave New World in which, the savage insists, “everything is too easy.”

Regarding this novel (which Aldous Huxley, Emily and I all admit is not great literature) I mentioned in two earlier blogs [and here] that a disturbing number of the students I had assigned to read the book in bygone days had no idea whatever what it had to do with them. I will now answer that question: everything.

Our part of the world is rapidly becoming the dystopia Huxley envisioned, though it may differ in certain particulars. But the central issue, as Mond explains to the savage, is that the sole meaning of human life in B.N.W. centers around experiencing pleasure, which we have also come to identify with happiness. As is the case in Mond’s world everything else today has been jettisoned that might stand in the way of our enjoying ourselves. Sex is free with no strings attached. We are not permitted to suffer. We have lost the desire to read. History is bunk (or “irrelevant” as the kids like to say), and if we are sick or sad we can just take a pill….or two. Or we party hardy.

In one of the late chapters the savage asks Mustapha, “Art, science — you seem to have paid a fairly high price for your happiness. Anything else?” Mond replies, “Well, religion, of course…” And the conversation proceeds from there. But let us pause. Have we also sacrificed science to pleasure or happiness? Of course we have. We have done it in two stages: we first reduced science to technology, ignoring the “why” question that is central to theoretical science and focusing exclusively on the “how” question which is key to the technical approach to solving problems, easing pain, and making our lives easier. It’s all about reducing stress and avoiding pain at all costs while we mindlessly pursue diversions that will fill our lives.

We have also replaced religion with “pop” psychology, the analyst’s couch, and the escapist “religion” of the televangelist and the “free” churches. The idea here is to get in touch with our inner selves and to replace the uncomfortable demands of traditional religion — which requires sacrifice and self-denial — with feel-good sessions every week in which parishioners are told that all is well with the world and they should go on doing just what they want in the name of Jesus who loves them no matter what (though we’re not sure about those damned secular humanists).

But we need to think seriously about the elimination of all pain and suffering in our Brave New World. We take it as a given that this is a good thing, but the savage may be right: it’s too easy. We might be much better off if we suffered a bit more, strange to say. Fyodor Dostoevsky, for one, thought suffering made us more human and was the only possible route to real human freedom. If we don’t suffer, we float along on the surface of human experience and never really feel the deprivations and losses that deepen our perspectives and bring us closer to one another and to our common humanity.

Furthermore, as we are now finding out, a society that revels in animal pleasures will never produce a Jane Austen, a George Eliot, a Da Vinci, a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, a Dostoevsky, a Beethoven, or a Dante. All of these people suffered during their lifetimes and many of their greatest creative inspirations often came as a direct result of some of the darkest moments in their lives. Dante, for example, wrote The Divine Comedy while exiled from Florence where his family was held captive. Mustapha Mond thinks the sacrifice of great art and literature is worth it. The savage disagrees.

In a word, the Brave New World we would create which eliminates pain and suffering is worthy of denizens of an ant-heap (as Dostoevsky would have it) but not human beings. That, it seems to me, was Huxley’s point in writing this novel and the fact that young people could read the novel and wonder what on earth it could have to do with them tells us that they are sadly deluded: the prison bars that Huxley points to and which surround them are invisible to them. These people are amused and easily diverted; that is all they ask of the world in which they live — just as Huxley feared.