Friday, November 25, 2016

A Changin' Time

The harvest of our post-literate society: the Nobel Prize for Literature goes to a songwriter. I’m talking about Bob Dylan, bard of the Baby Boomers, of which I am one.

I call our world post-literate because, although most of us can read and write, the dopamine zap of visual images is obliterating our capacity for complex thought.

Instead of reading, we watch: videos, films, selfies, panoramic phone shots of wherever we or our friends happen to be. We smile at close-ups of our cats, our dogs. We indulge the latest heartstring tweak of manufactured sentiment.

It’s all so easy and quick.

Songs—even the best songs—are easy to understand, compared with poetry. The music helps the lyrics land with force and, sometimes, stick.

Literature, however, is hard. Literature requires effort from the reader, and mental effort is difficult. Few are willing to try. A lot of us tasted Ethan Frome in high school and declared, “nevermore.”

That’s one reason literature has become associated with elitist intellectuals, in opposition to which the Nobel Prize committee chose an icon of pop culture.

Our society embraces the easy emotions of pop culture, even when it includes social criticism. Set to music, the flattest, most awkward lyrics can energize, manipulate the mood.

Poets, though, spend their lives struggling to express human complexity in words alone. Mostly without monetary reward, they evoke the heights and depths of the human experience. And although Dylan’s words, free of music, can qualify as a kind of poetry, they are in no way close to the highest literary achievement.

We can dissolve this reality into the post-literate brain-soup of our personal “likes”, but the standard remains.

The fact is, we need standards of excellence. We have a soul-need for goals to yearn toward, to admire in bald stupefaction when others attain them. That need isn’t merely a desire for entertainment and distraction, the easy fixes of our time. Songwriters require a Dylan to rise toward; poets need a Heaney, or Brodsky.

Standards motivate. Without them, why run a marathon when 5k will do?  Why do baseball teams dream of beating the Yankees? Where sports are concerned, the reality is obvious. Young men will brain themselves for a Super Bowl ring.

In the world of words, however, standards are under siege.

Yes, we are reading, but what are we reading? Texts from friends. Bloviating blogs, in dire need of editing. Headlines designed to juice us up. And when we click through, we find that the headline was a come-on, failing to fulfill its promise of outrage, or titillation. But the damage has been done. We will remember the come-on, and the disappointing content will become another cup of brain soup.

Advertising is becoming our nation’s great creative achievement. From the moment we get up until we turn out the light at night, we’re being sold something. From the cereal box to the toothpaste container to the medicine we take.

We can no longer tell the difference between life and selling. Heck, we no longer even notice.

We’re sold politics just like acid reducers. You and I are sliced and diced into categories of remarkable specificity via data mining. Ever finer differences between us are isolated and bombarded. “Targeted,” is the word, for good reason.

We no longer know how to dig past the surface of a sales pitch for product or candidate to understand the bias, or the agenda, that squeezed it forth. We latch onto conspiracy theories invented by people we hope are seeing more deeply, more truly. We can’t even see through that.

Because the post-literate mind looks for the easy thing to understand. The generality. The simplified answer. It celebrates that Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. It accepts that Donald Trump is running for president. It ignores how the vulgarity of celebrity culture spills off the tabloid racks into our living rooms, into our election dialogue, sullying our children’s innocence.

Celebrity culture is so easy.

The culture of excellence rewards the effort it requires. The Nobel is awarded to elite physicists, biologists, doctors, and so on. The concept of an elite in the sciences is fine. It is only in the language of words which everyone uses to some extent (so much easier than math, after all) that elitism is sneered at.

Definitely, the path to greatness should be open to all talent, but the pinnacle must be there to strive toward.

The way we’re going in this post-literate society is to lop off the pinnacle, lower the standard, give everybody the award.

Render human striving meaningless.

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