Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Thursday, July 28, 2005

We're In SO Much Trouble--Here's Some Healthy Reading For You

I worry about the times we live in, I do. Revolutions come with a price. Industrial Revolutions breed events like World War I. Technology lends itself to abuse, especially when it exceeds our understanding of its consequences. The Information Age is going to start delivering backlashes--severe ones--and soon. Not sure what they'll be--but consider what would have happened if the Y2K crisis had been real--something like that. In the meantime, consider this (it's about a month old, but I find myself coming back to it again and again):

Couple's online gaming causes infant's death

Korean press picks up tale of tragedy when couple plays World of Warcraft to excess, infant perishes from neglect.

In a story out of Korea, which is just now surfacing in the Western press, a couple in Incheon, South Korea, were arrested last week when their 4-month-old daughter died after being left alone by the couple for hours. The mother and father reportedly had gone to a nearby Internet cafe, lost themselves in playing Blizzard's massively multiplayer online PC game World of Warcraft, and returned to their home only to find the infant dead from suffocation. "We booked the pair on criminal charges, judging that when you consider the situation, they were responsible for their daughter's death," a policeman told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper. The couple reportedly told police, "We were thinking of playing for just an hour or two and returning home like usual, but the game took longer that day." The infant was the couple's only child.

I think back to a piece written by Matthew Arnold, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," where he notes that the decline of critical thinking--that thinking that responds not only to art but to life and its variety of meanings--can only spell disaster for society. He too mentions the death of a child. This section is lengthy, but much better written than anything else you'll ever see on this blog:

It is because criticism has so little kept in the pure intellectual sphere, has so little detached itself from practice, has been so directly polemical and controversial, that it has so ill accomplished, in this country, its best spiritual work; which is to keep man from a self satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarising, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things. A polemical practical criticism makes men blind even to the ideal imperfection of their practice, makes them willingly assert its ideal perfection, in order the better to secure it against attack; and clearly this is narrowing and baneful for them. If they were reassured on the practical side, speculative considerations of ideal perfection they might be brought to entertain, and their spiritual horizon would thus gradually widen.

Mr. Adderley says to the Warwickshire farmers: --"Talk of the improvement of breed! Why, the race we ourselves represent, the men and women, the old Anglo-Saxon race, are the best breed in the whole world. ... The absence of a too enervating climate, too unclouded skies, and a too luxurious nature, has produced so vigorous a race of people, and has rendered us so superior to all the world."

Mr. Roebuck says to the Sheffield cutlers: --"I look around me and ask what is the state of England? Is not property safe? Is not every man able to say what he likes? Can you not walk from one end of England to the other in perfect security? I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like it? Nothing. I pray that our unrivalled happiness may last."

Now obviously there is a peril for poor human nature in words and thoughts of such exuberant self-satisfaction, until we find ourselves safe in the streets of the Celestial City. "Das wenige verschwindet leicht deln BlickeDer vorwärts sieht, wie viel noch übrig bleibt -- " says Goethe; the little that is done seems nothing when we look forward and see how much we have yet to do. Clearly this is a better line of reflection for weak humanity, so long as it remains on this earthly field of labour and trial.

But neither Mr. Adderley nor Mr. Roebuck are by nature inaccessible to considerations of this sort. They only lose sight of them owing to the controversial life we all lead, and the practical form which all speculation takes with us. They have in view opponents whose aim is not ideal, but practical, and in their zeal to uphold their own practice against these innovators, they go so far as even to attribute to this practice an ideal perfection. Somebody has been wanting to introduce a six-pound franchise, or to abolish church-rates, or to collect agricultural statistics by force, or to diminish local self-government. How natural, in reply to such proposals, very likely improper or ill-timed, to go a little beyond the mark, and to say stoutly: "Such a race of people as we stand, so superior to all the world! The old Anglo-Saxon race, the best breed in the whole world! I pray that our unrivalled happiness may last! I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like it!" And so long as criticism answers this dithyramb by insisting that the old Anglo-Saxon race would be still more superior to all others if it had no church-rates, or that our unrivalled happiness would last yet longer with a six-pound franchise, so long will the strain, "The best breed in the whole world!" swell louder and louder, everything ideal and refining will be lost out of sight, and both the assailed and their critics will remain in a sphere, to say the truth, perfectly unvital, a sphere in which spiritual progression is impossible.

But let criticism leave church-rates and the franchise alone, and in the most candid spirit, without a single lurking thought of practical innovation, confront with our dithyramb this paragraph on which I stumbled in a newspaper soon after reading Mr. Roebuck: --
"A shocking child murder has just been committed at Nottingham. A girl named Wragg left the workhouse there on Saturday morning with her young illegitimate child. The child was soon afterwards found dead on Mapperly Hills, having been strangled. Wragg is in custody."
Nothing but that; but, in juxtaposition with the absolute eulogies of Mr. Adderley and Mr. Roebuck, how eloquent, how suggestive are those few lines!" Our old Anglo-Saxon breed, the best in the whole world!" -- how much that is harsh and ill-favoured there is in this best! Wragg! If we are to talk of ideal perfection, of "the best in the whole world," has anyone reflected what a touch of grossness in our race, what an original shortcoming in the more delicate spiritual perceptions, is shown by the natural growth amongst us of such hideous names, -- Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg! In Ionia and Attica they were luckier in this respect than "the best race in the world;" by the Ilissus there was no Wragg, poor thing! And "our unrivalled happiness;" -- what an element of grimness, bareness, and hideousness mixes with it and blurs it; the workhouse, the dismal Mapperly Hills, -- how dismal those who have seen them will remember; -- the gloom, the smoke, the cold, the strangled illegitimate child!" I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like it?" Perhaps not, one is inclined to answer; but at any rate, in that case, the world is very much to be pitied. And the final touch, -- short, bleak, and inhuman: Wragg is in custody. The sex lost in the confusion of our unrivalled happiness; or, shall I say? the superfluous Christian name lopped off by the straightforward vigour of our old Anglo-Saxon breed! There is profit for the spirit in such contrasts as this; criticism serves the cause of perfection by establishing them. By eluding sterile conflict, by refusing to remain in the sphere where alone narrow and relative conceptions have any worth and validity, criticism may diminish its momentary importance, but only in this way has it a chance of gaining admittance for those wider and more perfect conceptions to which all its duty is really owed. Mr. Roebuck will have a poor opinion of an adversary who replies to his defiant songs of triumph only by murmuring under his breath, Wragg is in custody; but in no other way will these songs of triumph be induced gradually to moderate themselves, to get rid of what in them is excessive and offensive, and to fall into a softer and truer key.

Me again. "Wragg is in custody." That couple in Korea are not Wragg--she acted out of fear and desperation and a horror inflicted upon her by an uncritical society. But the Korean couple (I identify them as Korean not out of racism or nationalism, but because their names are not given) acted out of ignorance--indifference--and yet, out of a horrific mindset that the world is pushing upon them: that the world of the Internet and its immediate, illusory gratifications is more important than the drudgery of real life. That existing in a fake world is better than existing in a real one. I worry--the story has shock value, which means that it's the exception, rather than the rule--there were far more Wragg's in Arnold's England than such couples in modern Korea (or America.) But where does this revolution lead us? We have to ask--we have to think critically. Otherwise...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought our healthy reading might be something from Alexander McCall Smith - you are reading him and he certainly deals in critical truths. Perhaps you will favor us with a few comments on his critical philosophy, as imbedded in his fiction.

3:58 PM  

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