Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Two Tugs on the Heart

All my life, from the time I was a little child, I have been aware of two responses in my heart and soul towards the modern world-- that consumerist, technological, suburban, rationalistic society than we live in.

First, and foremost-- in the sense that it has always been the one to which I pledged allegiance-- there has been a ferocious contempt towards it; almost a howl of anguish issuing quite sincerely from the depths of my soul, right from the time I was a little boy.

I hated cars, the suburbs, factories, advertisement, and television-- most of all television! That glowing screen, with all the trumpery delights that it sold, and with all of its empty promises, seemed like the death-knell to all community, all folklore, all authentic human life. I thought life and history had ended before I was born, because of television.

Even though I sat through innumerable hours of TV-- TJ Hooker, Knight Rider, Transformers, Three's Company, Chips, Miami Vice, Battle of the Planets, Skippy, and on and on and on, a tidal wave of mostly junk-- I can remember feeling intensely ashamed of this, even at the time, even before I had reached my teens, and even before that.

How did it come to pass that I was a juvenile William Morris, a tiny John Ruskin? I have no idea.

Only a few months ago, I came across this quotation from the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones: "The more materialistic science becomes, the more will I paint angels." If I had heard that quotation as a boy, I would have totally understood the spirit in which it was said.

It seemed to me as inevitable as Sunday evening giving way to Monday morning, or the Back to School signs going up in September, that the world was becoming more and more ruled by technology, bureaucracy, commerce and homogenization-- but that anyone with any spirit or feeling would fight the best rearguard action they possibly could, defying the brave new world nobly but hopelessly, and lamenting the decline.

And yet, and yet, underneath all that--

Underneath all that, like grass underneath flagstones, so deeply buried I only rarely became aware of it, I have always felt completely the opposite reaction-- a love of everything that was shiny, sleek, clean, straight, smooth, gleaming. I have no earlier memories of the sublime than walking through the aisles of a supermarket with my mother, probably no older than a toddler. The piped music that filled the air was as primal and as reassuring as sunlight-- even more primal and reassuring, since it seemed so unchanging and eternal. The women on the boxes of washing powder and the packaging of tights were my first ideal of female beauty.

I liked shop windows and electric kettles and escalators and advertisements. It all seemed so bright and alive and grown-up and cheerful and solid.

And television! Most of all, I loved television. Life seemed such a big deal on television. It didn't just hype programmes and products and lifestyles. It hyped everything. It filled my head with images of wonder and awe and enchantment. And I don't only mean crass dreams of private swimming pools and big cars and all that-- I mean images of dusty attics, and of bare-foot children walking to school, and tin soldiers, and rocking horses, and single-room schoolhouses, and anything you please. It was all there.

I sometimes think that I am literally unable to "think outside the box", in the sense that all my responses and reactions and idylls are ultimately to be traced back to television. My ABC of how to interact with reality was gleaned from the glowing screen in the corner.

This indebtedtness to television strikes me all the time. Today, as on most days, I was praying in UCD's Church, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. Nobody else was there (which is usual enough). And, as usual, the setting triggered an obscure memory from TV-- a memory of the English drama series Bread, in which a character played by the Irish actor Bryan Murray sits in an almost-empty cathedral and finds himself wondering if there is more to life after all. That is the sort of situation I was in, too; there was a correct facial expression and bodily stance for that particular scenario, and also correct lighting and music (though this could only be imagined in a real-life situation).

A few days ago I sat reading a book in a café on the ground floor of St. Stephen's Green shopping centre. At one moment I looked up from my book and felt a flood of affection for everything around me-- for the shoppers, for the workers, the electricity, the electronic music, the factory-made clothes, the mobile phones, the whole sense of a safe, comfortable, reliable, timetabled, hedonistic world. If something went wrong, there would be gardai and paramedics and managers and electricians; grown-ups, people who knew what should be done. Everything was provided for. Everything was as it was meant to be. There was no mystery or uncertainty or shadows-- thank goodness!

My guess is that I am not at all unique in having these two responses. I think they are probably present in the hearts of everybody who shares this technological, bureaucratic, consumerist, hedonistic society of ours.


  1. One of your best, which is saying someting

  2. Thank you so much! That's very good to hear, since when I venture on a post like this, I can just imagine people rolling their eyes and wondering what I'm smoking. I'm glad at least one person doesn't have that response!