By Eugène E.
I found myself lamenting the passing of two literary institutions during the same week in late May. The first was Philip Roth, arguably the last representative of that great cohort of American writers steeped in the European literary tradition and untainted by the culture of political correctness, a man whose literary accomplishments made him an institution all unto himself. The writer was eighty-five.
The other was the closure of Eliot’s Bookshop, one of Toronto’s most iconic and old-fashioned bookstores, complete with dusty shelves, creaking floors, and a smorgasbord of books you would have been hard-pressed to find anywhere else. The bookstore was twenty-two, and its owner had been in business for some forty years. The store had actually closed in December of 2017 but, having been a rather sporadic visitor to that particular bookshop, I did not find that out until a few days after Roth’s passing, when I happened to be in the area and decided to drop by to stock up, only to be greeted by the view in the photo used for this article.
For me, then, the disappearance of Eliot’s Bookshop is closely bound up with the death of Philip Roth. Though these are disparate events, there’s some symbolism here. There’s no doubt that the literary world is in crisis, and that people read a lot less of the kinds of things they ought to be reading in order to be able to ask the right questions and in order to question those opinions that are being imposed on them right, left, and centre.
A few months ago, I had an enriching conversation with an East European writer concerning the general drop in academic standards and the loss of interest in reading as juxtaposed against the rise of ultraliberalism and its incessant propaganda. There was some disagreement about whether this dumbing down is a sinister project carried out by a cabal, or whether, as Tolstoy thought, there are overriding laws at work that govern history and human affairs, and that have remained beyond the realm of human discovery. The question was not settled, but we were at one with each other on the main conclusion: enlightenment is in retreat, and we’re witnessing the closing of the Western mind.
It has always been trendy in some circles to glorify the past at the expense of the present. Did our conclusion amount to much the same thing? Were we two revenants stumbling about the shores of modernity, bemoaning a lost paradise that has probably never even existed? Perhaps. But there’s no question that the leitmotif of our times – whether in the domain of politics, culture, fashion, and even our daily habits – is that of vulgar oversimplification. We use language that is crudely simple; we dress according to the mantra “less is more”; we use the latest technology to cater to our most primitive desires. We expect our leaders to be our spitting images; and increasingly, looking at the present crop of those in power, it appears that the stewards of statehood are more than happy to oblige.
How is this happening? And why?
Let’s start with the “how”. Conscious of the risk of engaging in oversimplification in an article that criticizes oversimplification, I’ll say it anyway: technology is the great enabler. It’s amusing to hear otherwise intelligent people contemplate the possible risk of the domination of artificial intelligence, as if prospects of such a domination were just that – prospects. To an extent, it is already happening. As a tool to help us maximize our potential, technology is supposed to work for humanity; instead, humanity appears to be working for technology. Get together with a group of friends for lunch, and it won’t be long before someone, with a well-rehearsed motion, whips out his smartphone to settle a debate, check his e-mail, or text a girlfriend about a get-together later on that night. In fact, one often gets the feeling that modern existence is not so much about experiencing things as it is about anticipating or reporting experiences. The immediacy of life – that cogent sense of the present that gives our existence its texture – is attenuated in favour of its virtuality. We’d rather text back and forth to let others know what a great time we’re having than put the iPhone down and actually enjoy the moment. It is saying something when companies such as Apple roll out tools to help users limit the amount of time they spend with their gadgets in a quest to fight phone addiction – the drug cartels promoting moderate use of narcotics. Good luck with that.
Our lives are being shunted from reality to virtuality, from real life to the virtual one. Twitter epitomizes this shift. In the past, journalists would typically interview eyewitnesses or “people familiar with the matter” when reporting on events. For some time now, they’ve been relying on tweets. The media canvass the Twittersphere in order to echo the vox populi. We’ll have to set aside the question of possible manipulation – suffice it to say, the question is legitimate, given that this sort of tweet harvesting can be quite arbitrary (i.e., how do the people posting news articles choose which tweets they want to cull?). More to the point, an observation can be made that life is now viewed, channeled, and beamed through a place like Twitter. What ought to have been a great platform for updates and announcements has become a measure of our existence, a watermark of modern life.
Following the death of Anthony Bourdain earlier this month, the BBC inserted a number of eulogistic tweets into the article that reported his passing. Among them were deeply lachrymose tweets from, to mention but two, Nigella Lawson and Rose McGowan. Now far be it from me to cast aspersions on anyone’s grief: there’s no darker experience than mourning the loss of a loved one, and this is not something to be trifled with. Mourning, however, is also an intensely personal experience, which makes it less than ideal for social media. When you grieve for someone, you typically don’t talk about it, much less exhibit it for the benefit of the entire planet; the depth of your personal experience is inversely correlated to the effort you make to project it externally.
The doyennes of Twitter have other ideas. Rose McGowan, for instance, sobbed directly into the camera, imploring those who want to commit suicide to seek help. Let’s think this through. She had to turn her camera on, make sure she had everything right, and then upload the recording – all of it through a vale of tears. Was there no more dignified way to send her message across? Did the whole world need to see Rose McGowan’s crocodile tears? Apparently, it did: if the world doesn’t know that you’re grieving, then you’re not really grieving. That is to say, if it’s not virtual, it’s not real. Reality is now contingent on being virtual.
Nigella Lawson’s tweet was less emotionally charged, but she too had a bombastic statement to make: noting that she was heartbroken, Lawson told her followers she was “going off twitter for a while”. Now there is something sensational! In case you’re wondering, “a while” translated into two days. Three days later, Lawson was already posting photos of a culinary delight. Perhaps one ought not to be to harsh. In Twitter terms, three days is an eternity. On social media, the deepest feelings are but fleeting, like the fading contrails left behind by an airplane. That might appeal to some people, and that’s fine. Just don’t expect much in the way of profundity or sincerity; shallowness and inauthenticity are what you get when you choose not life, but only its simulacrum.
Social media is the new battleground – with Twitter as the site of its Austerlitzes and Solferinos, it seems, only on a rather pathetic level. A university in a Canadian province congratulates a centre-right party on winning a provincial election (on Twitter), and there is an uproar (also on Twitter) by dyspeptic ultraliberal militants allergic to anyone or anything an inch to the right of Justin Trudeau. A US television personality engages in “ambien tweeting” (obviously on Twitter), and the pharmaceutical company behind the drug posts a witty riposte (on Twitter as well). The CEO of Twitter itself – the irony of all ironies – has a meal at a fast food chain that has been blacklisted by ultralibs, and there is a backlash – on Twitter, naturally. The modern man takes to Twitter to fight his wars and mete out justice. Social media platforms are becoming the global equivalent of a town square where crowds gather to pillory those who have offended the town folk. While everyone across the political spectrum is making good use of the opportunities provided by online prosecution and shaming, the ultraliberal movement has proved to be especially adept at setting up its inquisition to try those who have run afoul of the ultraliberal dogma.
To be fair, this is certainly an improvement on hurtling grenades at your opponents. But there’s a very real risk that this is leading to gross infantilism and the trivialization of debate. At a time when the world is getting ever more complex, trivialization may not be what’s needed. Trivialization promotes the unimportant and scales down the important. Nothing sticks, nothing holds, nothing lingers. A “tweetnado” rips through and does some virtual damage; then the world swiftly moves on to be awed by the next tweetnado. The landscape of today: tweetsters and tweetnadoes.
Naturally, in this kind of environment, it’s all too easy to obfuscate truth and manipulate facts. In the days leading up to the provincial election in the Canadian province of Ontario on June 7th, an article in The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s nationwide newspapers, suggested that Doug Ford, leader of Ontario’s Conservatives and one of the contenders, had vowed to make Ontario great again. Now, in the ultraliberal Canada of today – and given the current temperature – there’s no better way to undercut a politician than to make him look like a budding Donald Trump, so overlaying the image of a Canadian politician with that of Trump is effective character assassination (although, in the event, it did nothing to stymie the landslide victory of Doug Ford). Subsequent fact-checking performed by me, however, failed to reveal any statements made by Ford to that effect. I did find out that some of Ford’s followers had reportedly urged him to adopt the “great again” as a slogan and that a Ford supporter had shown up somewhere wearing a hat something or other with these words; but let’s admit that this still doesn’t come near the allegation that Ford himself had promised to make Ontario great again. Fake news? I wouldn’t want to further undermine the already beleaguered fourth estate, but a journalist writing for The Globe and Mail truly should have known better.
The most disturbing aspect of the proliferation of social media is the impoverishment of language. The use of text messages forces the user to submit to a mode of communication that, by definition, depends on packing as much information as possible into a very small space. It might make communication more efficient, but it also restricts language. Using text messages does not encourage eloquence or loquaciousness. The user is confined to the dictates of his gadget – the tyranny of the screen. For ease of use, the auto editor also suggests words as the user composes a message; the gadget tells the user what it thinks the user’s thinking. The use of language is driven by the gadget and not by the user. The tool dominates the user, and not vice versa.
In the appendix at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell describes how Big Brother obliterates language in order to maintain its oppression of society. The atrophy of language makes society more pliable: if the word “freedom” does not exist in your vocabulary, you won’t be able to conceive of such a term and, therefore, demand it. We’re going through an impoverishment of language of our own, rendering our communication primitive and subjecting many words to linguistic deflation (repeat the term “democracy” or “fascism” enough times, and they will lose their original meaning so as to eventually become meaningless); and while it may be far from the extremes of Orwell’s Newspeak, the sinister thing is that, as it turns out, we don’t need Big Brother to coerce us into destroying language; we’re more than happy to do the job ourselves by choosing to use technology in a way that dumbs us down, stifles all thought, and, in the case of the West, contributes to what can be called – to steal a good title from the philosopher Allan Bloom and expand on it – the closing of the Western mind.
The big question is whether this dumbing down of society is a function of natural (i.e., non-manmade) evolution, or whether there are puppeteers pulling the strings in the background. I am no enthusiast of conspiracy theories and am chary of looking for éminences grises operating in the shadows. Yet the process of the closing of the Western mind is clearly benefiting someone. Who? The gnomes of Davos, naturally – the people who get together for the annual winter confab in Davos (with the understanding that not everyone who goes to Davos is a gnome of Davos and that many a gnome of Davos need not go to Davos at all – this is more of a symbol than anything else). The gnomes of Davos – those who preach diversity, but in fact aim at uniformity; those who profess to celebrate humanity, but reduce the human being to a mindless consumer; those who promise lifestyle enrichment, but in fact deliver a destructive hedonism. The gnomes of Davos want us to believe that the apogee of the Enlightenment is a group of freaks eager to dangle their private parts in front of spectators and brandish their pathology in full view of the world – that for them is the crowning achievement of freedom and liberty. They might well believe that this really is freedom, or perhaps they know that we’re being conned – it doesn’t really matter. As long as the subjects spend money, nothing else matters. That is the new hegemony – the hegemony of the ultraliberal, the hegemony of the mediocre, the hegemony of the average. The hegemony of the gnomes of Davos.
We’ve now come to the why of it: why is the closing of the Western mind happening? By now the answer should be clear. The latter-day hegemons are not particularly interested in promoting reading as an activity – certainly not reading books. Reading books helps escape all the noise. Reading books insulates us against crowd thinking and propaganda. Reading books encourages us to think. Reading books is conducive to reflection. Reading books hones our ability to ask questions. Reading books is a private activity; the gnomes of Davos want to do away with privacy, unless it’s their privacy. Reading books is not good for hegemonies, since these might be questioned. Reading books broadens language and its boundaries, enhances our potential, and ultimately promotes freedom. It should not astonish us, therefore, that at a time when ultraliberal doctrinaires seek to curtail our freedoms in the name of imposing their own notions of liberty, serious reading is in retreat. Reading might lead us to ask whether there’s more to life than rank consumerism, and whether we shouldn’t allow for the possibility that ultraliberals, with their championing of gay rights, feminism, and multicivilizationalism, might be totally wrong. A closed mind is not very likely to ask these questions, and so a closed mind is preferred to an open one. And is there anything as conducive to the closing of one’s mind as a poor reading diet?
Approaching the spot of the now defunct Eliot’s Bookshop from the south, one can now see dense clusters of newly built high-rise condo towers soaring in the background, gleaming in the summer sun. A result of Toronto’s overheated real estate market – which was cited as one of the reasons for the closure of the bookshop, whose owner was ostensibly unable to keep up with rising property taxes – the new buildings tower over the tumult below like multiple towers of Babel, decoupled from the hubbub of the streets and perhaps from reality as such. Taking stock of the shuttered facade of Eliot’s Bookshop and of the freshly minted high-rises beyond is to gaze at a poignant symbol of what our society has chosen as its guiding values.