Back in the early 2000s I dreamed of writing a novel, but I wanted to set the story in the early 1990s to avoid scenes in which people sat composing emails. I didn’t want my characters to type out messages and then, at best, maybe hesitate dramatically before hitting “Send.” That’s what it’s like to be hung up on realism. Many authors still have their characters meet in person for extended conversations, but that’s a nostalgic take on our real lives. Even at universities where the tradition is to meet in classrooms and talk, the movement now is toward online education in which, one imagines, students and teachers sit alone in their pajamas in front of computer screens eating potato chips at 2 AM. Today’s realistic novels would need to be made up of rapid thumb-twiddling action, as the characters texted one another endlessly. Conversations would be clipped, disjoined phrases that might or might not be heard by the other. The most dramatic scenes would have to begin with the interruption of social media.
I’m rereading Geoffrey Chaucer’s epic story cycle, The Canterbury Tales. The various characters in that medieval narrative meet at a London inn on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. They all agree to take turns telling stories as they go. Their world is one of adventure and risk. Their visit to Canterbury to be in the blessed presence of holy relics is really a way of acquiring health insurance, as well as a socializing opportunity and a form of tourism. Outdoors on horseback among strangers and traveling on unfamiliar roads, the pilgrims know that anything can happen along the way. Chaucer treats this action as merely a frame for the storytelling, but the stories themselves are about dangers that arise precisely on the road or at an inn or when a stranger arrives.
Modern technology is about minimizing risk. Air travel is so boring and soulless because it’s so safe. In a good day of travel nothing happens. What was traditionally the riskiest experience in life – the transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar place, the transformation from homebody to stranger – has been reduced to a non-event. Flying twenty thousand feet above our fields and houses is a sleep-inducing bore, and your ear-plugged neighbor, focused on his hand-held device, is really somewhere else.
The death of childhood is a part of this trend. If you could import a large 1960s family to my neighborhood today, their first impression would be that some sort of holocaust had wiped out the country’s children. When I do see kids, I notice that they’re staring or tapping at their smart phones, watching a show, chatting, or gaming. The constant lesson is to be safe. This explains our immense attraction of fantasy movies and war adventure games – and reality TV in which ordinary people are forced to undergo stressful and humiliating experiences. We entertain ourselves with apocalyptic visions of alien invasions and zombie attacks, as if we had a fundamental need to take on risks.
Our habitual avoidance of risk, and our unfamiliarity with the process of gauging and managing risk, can lead us to want to break out of our doldrums by taking sudden extreme risks. We recognize this cultural sickness in our wild gambles in politics and in business and in monetary policy. We know, at some level, that the better way forward is slower, more patient, more engaged, less ambitious, more open to daily failures and more accepting of inevitable death. More accepting of the stranger – who may have something interesting to say if we could discover how to listen and to see the stranger as something other than a potential terrorist. We know that no wall will help us with that.
Music: "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen