The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
12.3 (Summer 2012)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Modern Society as a Literary Substrate
Since the inception of this journal, we have promoted an ongoing discussion of how a culture’s dominant communications media impact the ethical, political, religious, artistic, and other critical aspects of its collective life. Mr. Amit’s piece, while not referring to Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, or other pioneers in these matters, most certainly carries the discussion in a very interesting direction. That the way we talk to each other eventually influences what we have to say–and even what we consider worth saying–is proposed explicitly in his comments. The reader may decide if the threat he identifies is as grave as he suggests. The position of Praesidium has steadily been that it is indeed. ~ Editor
That literature has been in decline for at least several decades I take to be an obvious fact, and those who disagree are welcome to point to modern equivalents of Dickens, Poe, or Henry James. The questions before us are what caused that decline, and whether or not it is reversible.
There are two schools of thought in analyzing the decline’s causes. The supply-side school argues that no literature of quality is being produced because there are no authors of quality to be found. For some reason, the literary talent of yore has been lost.
The demand-side school argues that gifted authors abound, but that demand for their work is exiguous. In a society that worships athletes and voraciously consumes the works of Stephen King and Tom Clancy, there is simply no demand for literature of enduring quality. Our modern Poes and Jameses, facing starvation as writers, must find other vocations.
Both schools are right, to some degree. We live in a society that neither demands nor is capable of producing superior literature, music, television, movies, or any other form of entertainment. Yet I would like to advance the theory that there is at least one more reason for that decline, and that is that modern society is simply not a good subject matter for high-quality literature.
With the exception of science fiction and historical novels, most narrative literature takes place during an era and within a society that somewhat or fully correspond to the author’s. This has been true in the past and it is true today. The author’s society is the subject matter of his work, the substrate on which his art operates. And in literature, as in chemistry and education, the end product is heavily dependent upon the starting material.
Good literature is ultimately about human relationships and interactions, with their associated thoughts, feelings, emotions, and actions. A society that is a substrate for good literature must be a society in which thoughts are more important than mere actions, in which humans take center stage, in which verbal communication is an art. Modern western society is none of the above.
The problem begins with the death of conversation. Even intelligent persons today have neither interest in nor capacity for intelligent discussions on topics outside their fields of expertise. A modern discussion is usually either a highly technical, jargon-filled polemic among experts in a field, or else a boring exchange about politics, sports, and television.
A modern author would have a difficult time integrating interesting dialogue into his work while keeping the narrative realistic and modern. Besides, a modern discussion will only go on for a few short minutes before a cellphone invariably rings, and the odious (and always disingenuous) refrain of “I have to take this call” follows.
This brings us to the second issue: technology. Our society is so dependent on technology that from a sociological point of view, we are already a race of human-computer hybrids. Any work depicting modern society would have to integrate such a large emphasis on technology that it would be deprived of its human aspects.
When early nineteenth-century persons wanted to communicate with each other, most of them had only two ways to do so: in person or via a hand-written letter. Those who could afford it called on each other via footmen such as Dickens’s iconic Toby Veck. Thus, human relations were personal – and human. Today’s relationships are plastic, mechanical, electronic and artificial. Even a competent author would be strained to make them interesting.
Another difficulty has to do with the role of women in modern society. Earlier societies had two distinct genders, with men and women occupying different societal and familial positions marked by distinctly different characteristics. Women were to be courted, treated like ladies, and financially supported by their husbands. They stayed at home and educated their children. Despite the propaganda of modern feminists, these women were in fact very powerful and influential, although their influence was not exerted through boards of directors, senates, or professors’ pulpits. Instead, women exerted their influence as mothers who educated their children.
I don’t wish to imply that the subjugation of women in such earlier societies was justified or salutary, or to deny that many women of talent were deprived the opportunities they deserved. Nevertheless, I would like to point out that in earlier societies, women were allowed to be women and were not expected to out-man men.
In modern society, the distinction between men and women has been blurred to the point that women are expected to be essentially uterus-bearing males. Women pursue high-power professional careers, court men, are sexually aggressive, and pursue many activities previously restricted to men. As a result, the relationships between men and women are more symmetric and significantly less refined and interesting than they used to be in the past. The delicate interplay between Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy cannot be reproduced in a modern society, or in a modern novel.
Finally, our modern society has only one truly sacred principle, and that is economism. The great social critic, author, and journalist Albert Jay Nock defined economism as the philosophy “which interprets the whole sum of human life in terms of the production, acquisition and distribution of wealth,” and therefore “must necessarily fashion its gods after its own likeness”.
Note that economism is not a synonym for capitalism. The two terms are in fact unrelated. Capitalism is an economic theory that espouses freedom of commerce, exchange, and production, but it makes no judgment as to the moral or aesthetic value of that which is being produced. A capitalist supports Apple Computer’s freedom to produce and sell its merchandise and make a profit, but he does not necessarily think that the iPhone is of any value. Economism, on the other hand, argues that whatever brings profit is necessarily good. To the economite, the iPhone is sacred simply because it sells and brings a profit.
It is not capitalism that is the enemy of literature; it is economism. In an economistic society, nothing is good unless it sells. Such a society is a society of doers, not of thinkers, and it demands books that describe doers. Its novels must have heroes who triumph by achieving, succeeding, making, creating, patenting, selling, merchandising, and winning. The literary character that simply lives, learns, develops, and interacts is thus considered old-fashioned, boring, and unrealistic. How can anyone integrate a Carol Kennicott or a David Copperfield into a modern novel under these conditions?
As a case study, consider my favorite literary heroine: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre was not a successful, go-getting, tough woman who made it by out-manning men. She did not define herself by her victimhood. She was not even particularly attractive, and yet she made for one of the most fascinating characters in all of literature.
Can any author, gifted as he may be, build a modern Jane Eyre into a present-day novel? How would Jane Eyre fare in today’s society? She’d be a poor, boring prude with an unexciting job and an unadventurous life. The author would be bound to make her a computer hacker, a prostitute-turned-lawyer, or at the very least a victim who whines her way to success through society’s pity, if he wants to sell more than a few copies.
Is this literary decline reversible? I’m afraid there’s little room for optimism. Our society is becoming more economistic, technology-obsessed, and specialized, and modern women pursue a continual descent towards uterine manhood; so it seems that the substrate for literature of quality is forever lost. We must make the difficult choice: superior literature that goes back centuries and does not represent the world in which we live, shallow drivel about good guys who fight bad guys (who may or may not be aliens). The options cannot significantly overlap.
As I write these words, the New York Times is announcing ceremoniously that Sheryl K. Sandberg, Facebook’s second in command, is about to reap a $1.6 billion windfall from her company’s initial public offering. “Put simply,” remarks the Times, “she exudes that certain something that seems to leave many people, particularly young women, a bit star-struck.”
Of course she does. In a society in which the only measure of greatness is the ability to make money – a society in which Sandberg is invariably a hero – can Jane Eyre, Jane Bennett, and Jane Austen have any chance at fame?
Mr. Amit was until recently occupied with working toward a Master’s in Mathematics at Boston College. His first short story was published in Praesidium 11.2, and his essay on behalf of reading scientific classics appeared in last quarter’s issue..