Thursday, September 11, 2008

E.B. White - Novelist, Poet, and Critic

I have wonderful book of quotations by E.B. White which I can randomly page through and find a great deal to think about. In a quote under the entertainment heading he writes:

"I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television — of that I am quite sure."

Most people know E.B. White as the author of Charlotte's Web or Stuart Little which I remember well as a kid. Nevertheless he is a brilliant writer, poet, and cultural critic. This quote comes from a letter written to a friend and I ponder what he meant by it. He seems to have an entirely apocolyptic understanding about the tv, which is the centerpiece in nearly all American homes (multiple rooms for most).

It is my understanding that the television and the video games that come with it provides the opportunity for a complete and utter retreat from the real world. When the modern world was ripped apart the tenants of the post-modern age crept in by moral cultural relativism and existentialism. This is marked by the rejection of reason, the abdication of meaning and objection truth, and replacing the great void with a completely subjective universe.

When I look back at my education, it seems a miracle I got out of high school with my soul intact (and a much greater miracle getting through the university). I received very little of the classic canon of western literature (I had to get through Shakespeare on my own). We spent lots of time with existentialist literature. One author of which I had to read considerably was Albert Camus, who termed his writing "absurdist fiction." I remember my classmates were transfixed by a horrid novel called the, "Stranger." The idea pushes by the book is that a) there is no god b) everyone will one day die c) therefore all endeavors are meaningless.

I don't think this is an obscure creed but a very popular one. A large segment of the world operates under this belief system. I think an obsessiveness with television is a large consequence of it. If all those things are true, and if truth is subjective, it would be natural to create our own worlds. This is the great thing about television. Don't get me wrong, I like to briefly escape my world with entertainment from time to time. But I think the television serves a greater purpose for subjective universe surfers. The "image" takes precedence over the written and objective word. There is precedent with style over substance and with emotional gratification over reason. Television provides disconnected images, a visual frenzy of meaningless shapes, sound bits, and snippets.

I think E.B. White with great perceptiveness saw this threat with the television and what it meant for the modern age. The very medium celebrates existentialism, meaningless entertainment, that suggests no rhyme or reason to the meaning of life - only subjective feelings, flashing images, mind numbing stimulation. Has it been a general "disturbance to the peace" or has it been the "saving radiance in the sky?" - the two possible outcomes proposed by E.B. White? Has the advent and popularism of television strengthened the family or deracinated it. Has it strengthened or threatened the competency of its devotees? Does it strenthen us in our vocations or hinder our perspective in them? Does existentialist dramatic performance have a healthy or unhealthful impact on how one views reality?

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