The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
At All Saints School where I was a student in the years 1947-55, our heavily-habited School Sisters of Notre Dame openly fretted about children reading comic books, and in subsequent years, the effect of television on their eyes. I imagine what really concerned them was the effect of either on our souls.
These days, those comic books have become collectable antiques. The televisions of that era, with their 14-, 17-, or 21-inch screens are now Lilliputian curiosities. The ‘TV Dinner’ has become, elegantly, a frozen entre. I recently watched a man struggling to slide his high-definition ‘flat screen’, crosswise into the back seat of his four-door sedan, itself much wider than the back seat of the old Fords my Dad drove taking us four abreast to All Saints. At home, this flat screen will hang from substantial anchors on a wall, perhaps above the family hearth.
My teaching nuns can no longer comment or corroborate my memories. They rest beneath simple stones on a hillside called Good Counsel, overlooking the Minnesota River Valley, now also much changed from their time.
I visit my old teachers now and then, standing at the foot of first one grave and then another. The names Theophila, Seraphica, and Almeda, among others, seem yet familiar. They need not tell me what they might think of humongous televisions, smartphones, virtual reality, and the social media. I already know. They said it long ago before such Faustian gizmos existed.
And they would have approved my allusion to Faust, for as far as they were concerned, such things would have a been a pact with the devil. They never put it that way, but I have no doubt of this. Their convictions are frozen in eternity and somewhere on the haunting, grassy swards of Good Counsel Hill.
I can read Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus line by line from beginning to end, without ever doubting their convictions. A strange company it would have been, those insistent, steadfast nuns and rowdy Marlowe.
In all but the most spiritually conservative of quarters, the views of my teachers seem quaint, out-of-date, beside-the-point, and old-fashioned. My remembering them may be regarded as sentimental, nostalgic, and perhaps leaning toward the polemical.
I dare not mention that minds as varied, all-encompassing, and still respected as those of T.S. Eliot, Ronald Knox, G.K. Chesterton, and J.R.R. Tolkien would probably have adopted my teaching Sisters’ views. Even Chesterton’s old adversaries George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells might have gone along—even Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, and Huxley. My teachers would have been astonished by such support from men who otherwise seldom agreed about anything.
I imagine this motley gang of writers assembled around me on Good Counsel Hill. They join saying in loud chorus what we always said in those days-gone-by, “Yes, Sister!” They race ahead with us school boys vying to be the first to hold the door for her.
Less than a decade beyond my ‘sisterly’ years, I first heard the name Marshall McLuhan in a Saint Louis University classroom where Father Walter Ong, S.J. held prominent sway. Back home, in Minnesota, my brothers and sisters were watching television, still black and white, but a 23-incher.
The gist of McLuhan’s prophetic message was that television and the emerging electronic media would transform us. Media will not only affect us, he reasoned, but will recreate us in such a way that it will pass beyond our critique. We will not be able to get outside the cocoon it spins around us. To put it perhaps melodramatically, we will be remade to the image and likeness of our own electronic creations.
As a writer, albeit one of antiquarian bent, I believe this has happened.
Is McLuhan’s world the nightmare the nuns of my youth foresaw? Did he, a Catholic convert, learn from them, or they from him? Mephistopheles employed the digital age ages ago, using what amounted to multi-media presentations to entrap Faustus: appearances by the Seven Deadly Sins and Helen of Troy were in fact devils in disguise, holographic images of the Star Wars sort, and mere devils bent on captivating Faustus who asks:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
In fact, it is not. It is all a circus of illusion, all chimera and pre-digital-age razzmatazz, the special effects stuff of ‘coming soon to a theatre near you’. When Faustus and Helen kiss, he says, “Her lips suck forth my soul.” We are now somewhere in the world of my All Saints teachers and Marshall McLuhan. This is precisely what is to be feared beyond the TV trays of the 1950’s, in front of the magic screen hanging above the family hearth.
T.S. Eliot saw it in The Cooking Egg, in The Hollow Men, in The Four Quartets, and elsewhere. He saw it every day he walked between his Kensington flat and St. Stephen’s Church on Gloucester Road.
Probably the poets and teachers of my youth were running scared, for they too were products of their time, a time now all but forgotten. Decades have passed over the Good Counsel hillside, along with the raging titans of old. Distance can make peace, even between the vanquished and the victor, between Hilaire Belloc and H.G. Wells, but never between St. George and the dragon in defense of truth.
A thundering priest in a novel I am completing dropped this question in passing: Did the people of Sodom and Gomorrah know they were living in Sodom and Gomorrah? His name is Father Vincent Vesuvio. “No,” he says, “They had to get outside it to see it for what it was. Then and only then would the vision turn them to a pillar of salt if they dared look back.”
Vesuvio’s a bit of a hothead and a polemicist. That’s for sure, but I keep thinking about this. As Graham Greene once observed, “The moment comes when a character does or says something you hadn’t thought about. At that moment, he’s alive and you leave it to him.”
Much the same is true of those silent nuns on Good Counsel Hill. They keep coming up with things I never thought of. I guess that is why I go back. It’s like rereading an old poem and reviewing for a test.
For a writer, a rich imagination can be both a blessing and a devilish curse. For older writers mulling a world few people alive remember, the attempt to control this unruly demigod becomes yet more challenging. We all need help. The boundary between memory and imagination has few signposts; these days, none whatsoever in the world of virtual reality.
Writing on controversial matters—politics, religion, morality, etc.—central to our understanding of the past adds further peril. Imaginative and entertaining fiction at its most pernicious can be no more than a lie passed off as historically true.
I have sometimes thought that the Garden of Eden story is about imagination gone awry. The apple proved to be a gateway to an imagined world and broken promises. The serpent in this instance did not have to lie: he told the truth, and imagination brought the fig leaf. From there over eons, we got to writing stories ever more distant from our lost innocence.
Maybe this is what the nuns at All Saints sensed from the outside looking in when we folded our comics into lunch pails and brought them to school along with our stories of what was on TV last night.
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