Saturday, March 10, 2012

Does Technology Destroy Wonder?

I'm a fan of Adam Sandler, the comedian and film star. Not a big fan, but a fan nonetheless. His films are usually pretty lowbrow and rather too scatalogical for my taste. But they do have a big heart and a fondness for the underdog, which is something relatively rare in contemporary comedy cinema.

My favourite of his films was probably Grown-Ups, a recent release. One scene in particular stuck with me.

In the film, Adam Sandler plays a successful talent agent, and a father whose two children take for granted all the mod cons (the very term now seems hopelessly antiquated) and all the privileges of wealth. In this scene, he is watching his son through the window of a holiday home. The kid, who barely knows what to do with himself away from his computers and his mobile phone, has picked up a stone and is examining it, as though he has never seen one before.

Adam Sandler, unnoticed by his son, urges him under his breath to throw the stone-- at the lake, at his brother, even at his own head.

Instead, the boy simply drops the stone and wanders off. I thought it was a very touching moment (and happily, the sad conclusion to the scene is corrected later in the movie).

I have found my mind returning to that scene again and again, especially when I find myself remembering my own childhood.

I was no Huckleberry Finn, no Tom Sawyer. The television was always on at home, and from pretty early on I had access to casette tapes and vinyl records. Many of my toys required batteries. I was spared mobile phones, and for the most part, computer games (I remember my cousin had a Spectrum or Amstrad or one of those early consoles-- the games took longer to load than to play). But I certainly cannot claim to be of a generation that "had to make our own amusements".

And yet, and yet-- all the most magical moments, all the moments of most potent wonder in my childhood and teens, were distinctly low-tech and non-consumerist.

I remember, I remember...

I remember school jumble sales. I remember my imagination being stirred by the fact that the games and comics and books on the stalls were not brand new, or out of a packet, that they already had a history. I remember a sense of excitement that the sale was so informal and improvised, like some medieval market-place. It had all the delightful atmosphere of a teddy bear's picnic or a doll's tea party about it.

I remember Halloween nights, one Halloween night in particular. I remember the powerful sense that everything was different for that one night-- it didn't seem like a mere convention, but something essential to the time, something that even the air and the wind and stars knew about. I remember the taste of nuts and grapes and lemonade, the perfect way the different elements of the night came together to form a whole, a distinctive territory of the imagination. I remember the sense of primal awe in staring into the flames of a bonfire, in feeling a deeper sense of community with all the neighbours standing around.

I remember sitting in a darkened field with local kids, after soccer games that lasted as long as the sunlight, and telling ghost stories. Some of the ghost stories I heard in those settings have continued to haunt me, so to speak. One kid in the neigbhourhood supposedly drew a witch on one side of a garden shed door, and a pentangle on the other. The next day, they had switched places. The sheer economy and oddness of that tale has always spooked me.

I remember lying in bed one night, after such a session, and desperately trying not to say the Lord's Prayer backwards, since this would summon Old Nick himself, as I had been told. I didn't know how I would pass the rest of my life without summoning him in spite of myself.

I remember crossing a broad park that was calf-deep in snow with my grown-up sister and little brother, and throwing snowballs, and exulting in the sheer novelty of the glowing white substance. (There was very little snow in my childhood.)

I remember-- and I don't know if I was even aware of this at the time-- reading stories and literary excerpts in my primary school reader, and being transported by the evocative power of the printed word, and the whole idea that words could suggest far more than they said.

I remember electricity black-outs, when we would get out the candles, gather in one room, and make shadow puppets on the walls and ceilings.

I remember swinging from the boughs of trees with my little brother, our feet balanced on the upturned end of a cart, on long summer evenings on my aunt's farm. I remember still feeling the rocking motion as we lay in bed that night.

I remember singing Christmas carols in the frosty air, with my class-mates, in a local shopping centre, and thinking our voices were like the voices of angels.

To be fair, I am being selective here. I also vividly remember my first trips to the cinema, which were occasions of inexpressible marvel to me. Life had never seemed so impressive or so significant as it did on that huge screen, against that outer-space darkness that framed it. Similarly, I have memories of watching TV that are not only happy, but bathed in a kind of glow of security and sublimity. I remember how excited I was to buy my comics, the Transformers and Eagle, every Thursday, and to read them as I followed my mother around the shopping centre.

But, in general, the moments of intensest wonder in my younger days seem remarkably pre-modern, in one way or another-- either because of the absence of technology, or the element of folklore (the ghost stories), or the connection with tradition (Halloween). I can't help feeling that technology, consumerism and pop cuture tend to erode the sense of wonder, and that it is important to preserve some time and space free from these things for children-- and for adults, too.

What is this post doing in a blog called The Irish Papist? Well, just think of how much folk and traditional culture survives because of religion. I doubt we would have a Halloween night without an All Soul's Day. Then there are the Bible stories, the decoration of Christmas trees, the hanging of Christmas decorations, the making of cribs, the making of Bridget's crosses, the singing of Christmas carols. Children with Catholic upbringing get to taste the exhilarating solemnity of churches, the lighting of candles before holy statues, and other reverential acts.

And, since this is the Irish Papist blog, I should mention the wonder-inducing legacies of our national heritage too; stories of CĂș Chullain and Fionn Mac Cumhaill, patriotic ballads, statues of patriots, streets named after national heroes, dolmens and high crosses and ogham stones. Of course, all these things are available to cosmopolitans as well as patriots, but can the cosmopolitan ever feel the same emotional connection to them?

I am sure that there are many good parents out there who are secularist and progressive and internationalist, and who rear their children according to these philosophies. But I think it is very possible that their children, so removed from a sacred or patriotic tradition, will miss some of the wonder of childhood-- not to mention the wonder of life.

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