In one of his essays, T. S. Eliot mentions, offhandedly, “the poet at his typewriter.” After all these years, that phrase still haunts me. Would a current version be “the poet at his word processor?” One can easily admit that state-of-the-art equipment would improve his golf game, but poetry? (Eliot must have given up golf. A thousand lost golf balls?)
On the one hand, Max Brand, a veritable fiction machine, repaired to an upper room to compose poetry with a quill pen. His fiction, modest as it is, and banged out on a typewriter, is better than the poetry. On the other hand, Ezra Pound’s typewritten letters are almost a new art form.
There is a false nostalgia involved in my reaction, perhaps. Imagine a clerk, weary of the modern world, resorting to an abacus rather than screening bar codes and letting a computer do the adding.
I began to write in longhand but soon turned to composing on the typewriter, a mechanical one that involved physical work – remember bringing the carriage back manually? – and gave one, as well as one’s reader, perhaps, a pain in the neck. Switching to an electric typewriter involved a keyboard with a sensitive array of chiclets that responded all too quickly to the touch of a finger. Not lifting a finger from the space bar produced the sound of a machine gun. And voilà! there on paper, each letter uniformly printed, no dark and light variations, looking as final as a published page, more deathless prose. What further progress could there be?
The computer, of course. The word processor. Not a phrase one would care to dwell on, suggestive as it is of sausage, but however reluctantly one turned to the computer, the transition was surprisingly easy and the benefits many. No more pain in the neck. No more need for carbon paper or the weeks-long prospect of typing out a revision of a manuscript. Corrections are easily made, copies are had at the touch of a finger, or just email the text off to your editor. What would those fabulously productive authors of earlier centuries have done with a computer?
It hasn’t stopped with the computer of course. I am no longer surprised by solitary passersby babbling away as their voices bounce off a distant satellite to be drawn down into another’s ear. The cell phone, cupped to the ear like a deaf man’s hand, as if one were calling in the music of the spheres; ear plugs filling the head with God knows what cacaphonic music, messages, photographs zapped from unit to unit, dozens of means of communication which seem somehow to leave the communicators isolated. Silence and solitude exert an almost sensual attraction. Where will it all end?
Books have been written about the deleterious effects of all this on the young. Zillions of bits and pieces of information available on command, but where has understanding gone? The world has become kaleidoscopic, flashing images, no continuity. Bedlam. Once years ago at a reception in Edinburgh I met a Trappist abbot in a swallow tail coat and wearing a hearing aid. Think about it. Do Carthusians now have cell phones in their cells? I have heard recorded Gregorian chant in Trappist churches. Sometimes I feel grumpiness coming on.
Strolling through the student center induces long long thoughts. Television brings in its deadly fare, students are either busy with laptops or on the ubiquitous phones. What smidgen of influence do we faculty have on those young minds? They are so constantly in tune with the wider culture that classes must seem an interruption if not largely irrelevant. Google is so much quicker. And Wikipedia, God save us. Essays on any subject can be downloaded in a trice. Have I devoted a lifetime to a dying enterprise?
The other day I noticed a lone Canada goose wandering in my yard. Apparently he had lost his flock. Can a single goose survive? Man is of course a social animal but our forms of communication seem to isolate. I can easily imagine two persons standing face to face communicating through their cell phones. But it is isolation from the self that is the threat. There is something desperate in this need to be constantly on the phone. Churches now remind worshipers to turn off their cell phones. Perhaps there is a deeper message there. God is closer than a phone call.
But I am getting unctuous. Excuse me, my phone is ringing.
Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught for many years at Notre Dame.
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