“The illusions which exalt us are dearer than ten thousand truths”
– Aleksandr Pushkin
Perhaps it’s the chill of December closing in on me, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Pushkin lately – and this quote is a favorite. Pushkin was, like so many Russian writers, a man who found nearly carnal pleasure in staring the essence of humanity straight in the eyes and reporting what he saw in a cold, clear voice. Normally, I don’t like translations that seem florid and over-wrought, but in this case it’s Pushkin. The warmth comes in the delight of distilling the essence into poetry, as any true romantic knows. It’s a glow that warms the heart of Russian fatalism, a crackling fire that accepts with a melting smile. It also represents the exact opposite of how we, as Americans, have come to see our own world.
As is typical when people aren’t paying attention, events have been conspiring to tell us something we should find disturbing. Somewhere between Balloon Boy and the White House Crashers, the world of so-called “reality” teevee has become even more ugly and insipid than the banal parade of professional celebrities we have become numbly used to. The lack of reality has met its match in the infotainment world of supposed nooze shows that fuel them. Who are these people? What makes them think that they have the chops to be the latest improv troupe that will pass on this sorry stage?
It’s all very pathetic, but it’s also predictable. For most of my life, the supposed keepers of our culture have been failing in their basic mission, which is to tell us stories that unite and ignite our collective imaginations. They instead became obsessed with something they thought of as “reality” without realizing that, to them, “reality” was more of a goal than any state of just getting on with being human. The result is that the worlds of storytelling, journalism, and any other craft of the printed word are all largely dead. The eulogy was delivered fairly well in this piece by David Carr in the New York Times:
Web crawlers grab expensive content and replicate it far away from the organizations that produce it. Various media labs are now testing algorithms that assemble facts into narratives that deliver information, no writers required. The results would not be mistaken for literary journalism, but on the Web, pretty good — or even not terrible — is often good enough.
This may seem, on the face of it, to have nothing to do with the bumpkins vying to be professional celebrities alongside Paris Hilton, but the two are closely related. As surely as nooze became entertainment, entertainment tried to find its pitiful shadow of “reality”. When the two crossed, the money people gradually took over and found ways to quantify just what would sell. Without any focus on the purpose of their craft, the once powerful keepers of culture completely lost control of it. They were rendered useless in the face of a piece of aluminum adrift over Colorado and a mysterious hole in the tuxedo wall of White House security.
The illusions we have are not “ennobling” a goddamned thing. But we still find them more precious than the truth.
The truth is that we are a people who are divided by dreams and aspirations that we usually regard as more personal than social. It’s hard to find a thread of culture when there are no stories about us, all together, as a people. In the end, it doesn’t matter if the stories are true or false as long as they contain the essence of humanity, and both journalists and poets have their own turns to take in telling us stories that stare us in the eyes. Both have taken a pass for about as long as I’ve been alive. Our culture has reached a dead-end where it must either retrace its steps or simply sit down, exhausted and cowering, while it waits for its own demise.
This may sound harsh, but in the end I am a romantic like Pushkin. I lack his skill in poetry and the delicate ring of words that will sound long after the arrangement of letters has been set aside. As much as I would like to produce illusions that would seem dearer than ten thousand truths, I have no future in our media because I find the cold hard stare of reality far more warming than what has passed for a thin, processed wink of “reality” delivered with the blessing of accountants and marketers.
This has all been a long time in coming. You can read about it many different corners of your favorite media source, on nearly any page you enjoy. Whether you are drawn to the illusions that ennoble us or prefer the cold hard stare of humanity looking you in the eyes, our world currently has room for neither. That’s the chill of doom that is filling the spaces inbetween us right now. Our failing economy and politics are nothing more than reflections of this, the only mirror that popular narcissism cannot stand to stare at in fear of what it might see in its own eyes.
I’m only sorry I lack the poetic skill of Pushkin when I say this.