One would think that an ordinary human being could pass through airport security, sit in the waiting area at the departure gate, and ride a shuttle bus to a parking lot without feeling compelled to carry on a phone conversation in the presence of strangers. Quite often, that does not seem to be the case. And, thanks to the wonders of technology (Progress!), we have an added attraction: animated mugging for the video camera during the conversation. Intimacy. (An aside: "All Aboard," a fine poem by Charles Tomlinson on this phenomenon, has appeared here previously.)
I confess: I am conservative by nature and by choice. Call me a hypocrite (given, for instance, the technology that I am using at this moment), but I never presume that change is a good thing. Here is one of my curmudgeonly standards of judgment: I am skeptical of any technological "innovation" that reduces the time and space available for serenity and reverie.
Calm is the morn without a sound,
Calm as to suit a calmer grief,
And only thro' the faded leaf
The chestnut pattering to the ground:
Calm and deep peace on this high wold,
And on these dews that drench the furze,
And all the silvery gossamers
That twinkle into green and gold:
Calm and still light on yon great plain
That sweeps with all its autumn bowers,
And crowded farms and lessening towers,
To mingle with the bounding main:
Calm and deep peace in this wide air,
These leaves that redden to the fall;
And in my heart, if calm at all,
If any calm, a calm despair:
Calm on the seas, and silver sleep,
And waves that sway themselves in rest,
And dead calm in that noble breast
Which heaves but with the heaving deep.
Alfred Tennyson, Poem XI, In Memoriam (1850).
Lines 15 and 16 are, I think, very moving: "And in my heart, if calm at all,/If any calm . . ."
Peter Graham, "Wandering Shadows" (1878)
Give technology an inch and it will take a mile. Technological "advancement" is often sold on the premise that it will be "labor-saving," thus purportedly freeing us up to devote more time and energy to higher human pursuits. I'd say that this was true of the invention of the wheel. Is it true of the invention of Twitter or Facebook?
"Men have judged that a king can make rain; we say this contradicts all experience. Today they judge that aeroplanes and the radio etc. are means for the closer contact of peoples and the spread of culture."
Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, Paragraph 132 (translated by Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe) (Blackwell 1969).
Aeroplanes. Radio. Twitter. Facebook.
On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations
You'll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves,
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drouth will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn't reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last tonight.
Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).
John Glover, "Thirlmere" (c. 1820-1830)
I am not a Luddite. And I do not intend to repair to a yurt out on the windswept steppes of Mongolia any time soon. (Besides, I suspect that cell phone service and wireless Internet have preceded me there.) I am not angry with, nor do I consider myself superior to, those who avail themselves of these dazzling technologies. I simply wonder: why? To what end? Do we realize what we are giving up?
Technology ("information technology" in particular) promotes hyperactivity and distraction. In contrast, poetry is born of reverie and concentration, and in turn promotes reverie and concentration in the reader. The choice is ours.
The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
Wallace Stevens, Transport to Summer (1947).
Benjamin Leader, "Glyder Fawr, Snowdon Range" (1881)
Three variations on the theme of calm. Alfred Tennyson would like us to know about the calm he felt as he awaited the arrival by ship of the body of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who had died young in Vienna. Robert Frost would like us to know about the calm that abides in the presence of those dark interstellar spaces that so often haunted him. "They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/Between stars . . ." Wallace Stevens would like us to know about Imagination and Reality, how they can -- no, must -- flit back and forth in a calm world, in a quiet house, if we wish to be truly human.
Cell phones and Twitter and Facebook have nothing to do with any of this.
Out in the deep wood, silence and darkness fall,
down through the wet leaves comes the October mist;
no sound, but only a blackbird scolding,
making the mist and the darkness listen.
Peter Levi, Collected Poems 1955-75 (Anvil Press 1984). A side-note: the four-line "alcaic" stanza is said to have been invented by the Greek poet Alcaeus, and is often used by Horace in his Odes.
"Our civilization is characterized by the word 'progress.' Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features. Typically it constructs. It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure. And even clarity is sought only as a means to this end, not as an end in itself. For me on the contrary clarity, perspicuity are valuable in themselves."
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (translated by Peter Winch) (Blackwell 1980), page 7e.
John Glover, "View of Patterdale, Westmorland" (1817)