Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Saturday, May 5, 2012

You Can Never Really Switch the Television Off

I was brought up by television.

Immediately I write this, I feel I should qualify it, if only for the sake of my parents' honour. I was by no means a "latch-key child", or in any way neglected. In fact, it's probably truer to say I was spoiled. Nor is it at all the case that my home was culturally impoverished. Amongst the most vivid of my childhood memories were the hundreds of books on the bookshelves, their very titles and covers brimming over with promise and mystery. It was the most eclectic assortment of books you could imagine. My father would recite nursery rhymes to us, as well as chunks from Yeats and Shakespeare. We were always encouraged to read. When it comes to "cultural capital" (as the Marxists would put it), I have nothing at all to complain about.

So when I claim that I was brought up by television, I really mean that everybody my age was brought up by television. Of course, "everybody" hardly ever means "everybody". I am sure I will get an indignant comment from somebody my own age or younger who didn't have a television in the house, or who had one but never bothered with it because they were always out bee-catching or cycling or knick-knacking. (Although I am rather sceptical whenever anyone claims that they never watched television, past tense, or never watch it, present tense. It's amazing how much knowledge of shows and actors and presenters is accumulated by people who "never watch television".)

We are rapidly reaching the stage where nobody will remember a time without television. I find this very interesting. Public life is still full of writers, journalists, academics and other people who have vivid memories-- and your earliest memories are usually your most vivid-- of a time when this puppet-show of light and shadow had not taken up residence (or taken up court) in our living rooms. But not for much longer.

TV was our first window onto the wider world, and one's earliest influences always imprint themselves upon the imagination. The blank slate is gone forever. When we started to read, we were already adepts of television, and we did not come to the glowing screen with minds formed by the printed page. We came to the printed page with minds formed by the glowing screen. When we read stories, we imagined them brought to life in a studio. When we read history, we brought to it pictures of period dramas, with all the assumptions of elegance and stiltedness that entails. It took me a long time-- until very recently, in fact-- to stop assuming that the most salient fact about anything that happened before 1960 was its pre-modernity.

Part of the glamour that the printed word had for somebody my age was that it was not television. This fact conferred a kind of prestige, an assumption of high-mindedness, upon every book whatsoever. It only occurred to me after many years that the printed page was simply the only method of mass entertainment and mass communication before the invention of radio. Millions of people had opened copies of The Strand magazine or Peg's Paper or Tit Bits without feeling this aura of edification, or anything like it. They read Sherlock Holmes in The Strand in exactly the same way they would watch CSI: Miami.

In the same way, millions of people in ancient times sat around campfires and listened to stories of Osiris, Loki and Finn McCool in exactly the same way, and with exactly the same motives, as suburban housewives today watch Prison Break or Heroes. They were not thinking about allegorical meanings or breathing the heady mountain air of Mythology.

Reverence is a double-edged sword. In general, of course, reverence is a good thing. But an excessive reverence towards the printed word does have something of a dampening, an inhibiting effect. What was reverence to Charles Dickens in his childhood reading, as fictionalized in this famous passage from David Copperfield?

When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life. Every barn in the neighbourhood, every stone in the church, and every foot of the churchyard, had some association of its own, in my mind, connected with these books, and stood for some locality made famous in them. I have seen Tom Pipes go climbing up the church-steeple; I have watched Strap, with the knapsack on his back, stopping to rest himself upon the wicket-gate; and I know that Commodore Trunnion held that club with Mr. Pickle, in the parlour of our little village alehouse...

C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy describes the same kind of simple, voracious childhood reading, with no conception of self-improvement hovering over it:

I have now to tell you how Wyvern made me a prig. When I went there, nothing was further from my mind than the idea that my private taste for fairly good books, for Wagner, for mythology, gave me any sort of superiority to those who read nothing but magazines...The claim might seem unbelievable if I did not add that I had been protected from this sort of conceit by downright ignorance...Never in my life had I read a work of fiction, poetry or criticism in my own language except because, after trying the first few pages, I liked the taste of it.

And this, I think, is perhaps crucial (or at least, very conducive) to developing a genuine taste for something, including books. C.S. Lewis adopted as a motto for readers, "Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears." He meant that we should come to a book (I almost said 'a text') with no preconceptions or expectations or prejudices. An educated young person today, gingerly reading poetry on his own initiative for the first time, is expecting every poem to crawl with double-meanings, irony and ambiguity. A simple lyric, for instance by Housman, will seem disappointing and flat to him.

I remember, when I read Dante's Divine Comedy, being astounded at several discoveries about Dante and the poem. One was its sheer sophistication; I almost expected I would have to stoop to fit into Dante's primitive mental universe. Instead, I found that the universe he inhabited was broader, deeper and subtler than my own. Another astounding discovery was that Dante wrote in Italian rather than Latin, and chose a form of story that he thought would have universal appeals, precisely because he wanted to reach the common man and woman. I had girded myself to scale Mount Everest, and realized that I was instead invited onto the open plains and into the broad daylight of universality. The most stupendous discovery was that Dante had written his master work first and foremost to win souls to Christ. It was-- horror of horrors!-- a didactic poem! All of my expectations were confounded.

In a similar vein, I always remember a moment in English class in school, when I was fifteen or so. We were studying The Merchant of Venice, and the teacher was describing the anti-semitic assumptions that lay behind the portrayal of Shylock. One girl suggested that Shakespeare would have foreseen how his play would be read in the future, when anti-semitism was discarded. I realized I had been thinking the same thing. We were brought up-- by television, especially-- to regard Shakespeare as a universal genius who existed somehow beyond time and space, a god-like figure. It took me a long time to appreciate that Shakespeare was a working writer who wrote for money, who wrote plenty of forgettable stuff, who had an often-tiresome sense of humour and who was not immune to the prejudices of his time.

Coming to books and literature and poetry with such trepidiation-- on tip-toe, as it were-- it is very difficult to make yourself at home there. And even when we do, we are naturalised citizens from another country-- the country of television.

I am a typical social and cultural conservative, with all the typical conservative hostility to television-- a case that has been made so often and so powerfully, I will not bother to rehash it all here. You've encountered it; you agree with it or you don't. I do recommend everybody to read Peter Hitchens's wonderful chapter on television, The Telescreen Triumphs, in his masterpiece The Abolition of Britain. I agree pretty much with every word of that. I have given up television many times in my life, although I always find myself taking up the viewing habit again. Television is just too convenient, too omnipresent, too obliging. Shunning it seems like a futile gesture at best, a form of priggishness or self-congratulation at worst.

But today I found myself thinking of television, not harshly, but tenderly. Nostalgia is irrefutable. My dawning consciousness of life's wonder and solemnity and possibilities came through television, and I cannot prise any of those elements entirely free from my memories of the small screen. Even all my romantic notions of the simple, the pre-technological and the traditional were supplied by television. In setting myself against the cultural influence of television and popular culture, I am in a sense like some post-colonial African leader who was educated at Oxford or Cambridge. My idylls of cornfields and old farmhouses and pipe-chewing old timers were all dreamed up by a TV director. The very atmosphere of wonder, in my mind, comes with the memory of low lighting and haunting music, or dust motes playing in a beam of light in some cluttered and mysterious attic-- all drawn from long-forgotten broadcasts.

Today, strangely, I feel more gratitude than resentment of this. It is impossible to stay on your high horse all the time. But that doesn't mean you should never mount it. I believe in fair-mindendess, and, as a critic of television (and of the consumer culture of which it is the main pillar), I feel obliged to admit how much I owe to it. I believe that television, on the whole, erodes the world's stock of wonder and awe and magic, and stunts the imagination; but I would never pretend that it is itself bereft of wonder and awe and magic, or that it can never spur the imagination, either.

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