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3.02.2008

Warning: Lengthy Bellowing Freewriting Below

I woke up this morning at a normal hour. Normal if I was working, of course, and I am not working. I don't have to be anywhere for another three hours, in fact. So I stayed in bed for as long as I could, fighting the very real need to get up and go hunt for some tissue, and the results were interesting. I had the first authentically academic thought I've had since my dissertation. So it's only taken about six months to recover. Bravo me.

I thought I'd share the thought with you, if you care to read.

Long have I been interested in two trains of thought related to literature and - as literature reflects socio-cultural trends - culture. These two trains are A) the loss of mythic sensibility in the modern world, and B) tourism. I have known that these two thoughts are intimately related for some time, but have often had trouble expressing why. I was, in fact, forced to forgo making the connection in my dissertation last summer precisely because I could not adequately prove that the connection existed. I have sensed it; I have read little about it.

[Now would be a good point to throw in a book reference. I have read parts of Walker Percy's Message in the Bottle - completely unrelated to the Nicholas Sparks novel - and happily admit that he talks about this sort of thing eloquently. But I couldn't make his particular analysis shed light on James Macpherson's poetry without some serious finagling that would have been embarrassing for my adviser. Even so, the same book is back on my reading list and will, especially after this morning's happy thought, probably be the next one devoured.]

But as I was tottering about in my brain, trying to keep the cat comfortable while shifting the pressure in my sinuses from one side to the other, one word flashed into my brain with the brilliance of a car dealership before closing.

Voyeurism


This word has come up in my studies before. Mostly regarding Thomas Pynchon, when we read his novel V. (I could write a preposterous but compelling argument asserting that the enigmatic title letter stands for this very thought.) In the academic world - and slowly creeping into the vernacular - voyeurism is no longer strictly a sexual term. It refers more broadly to the tendency to satisfy the need for experience through distanced observation. Thus, one of V.'s main characters, Benny Profane, begins the story in the sewers of New York City - never able to quite fully join the real wakeful world above. (Though it is suggested - three sad cheers for modernism - that the world he must partake in from a darkened distance is itself only an exponentially distanced and distancing world from other worlds of like distance. Voyeurism has devoured itself like a motherless spider swaddled in its own stomach.)

This is where the loss of mythic sensibility gives birth to the tourist industry. We have lost our sense of time and place. We know the name of where we are and we can read the clock, but we do not know the grain of the soil or when the wind will best blow through the palms. 'Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: / Little we see in Nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!' And we have replaced true experience with a tourist awareness of the world. We do not see; we photograph.

Perhaps you will wonder, where was myth in all of that? Myth was replaced by history as a valid form of cultural narrative with the Enlightenment (ah, if my dissertation could only have been a blog entry, I would have been entitled to such broad strokes of summary and assumption! Who needs proof? Just take my word for it: this was the Enlightenment...). And before. And after. Myth became metaphor. Or an artifact from the past. As an artifact in particular, it took its place as one of the first great souvenirs of history. But as we lost the ability to understand ourselves in mythic terms, we lost our ability to understand our own relation to our particular place and time. If there are no brownies aiding your endeavours, any field will do for a farm. If your ancestor was not, in fact, a great giant able to stride the distance between Temora and the Highlands, does it matter what your name is?

It is significant that the first tourists began with Italy and Greece, where mythology's marks line the streets in glorious architectural form. That tourism and museums arose about the same time. It was not just an increased interest in history - but an increasing distance between Things and Meaning. We have Things enough. What we go to look at are Things that once held mythic significance - a scepter in a glass case, a temple to a dead god. (What do you do when your tour guide takes you through an old church, and you find a woman still praying? Is she part of the show? Or are you, in fact, looking at it in the wrong way after all? Ah, for the tourist on his knees!) What is curious is that we now have tourists in forests, tourists at the seaside, tourists in the desert. It is no longer only the Things that have lost their meaning, but Nature itself. And experience.

It is here, and perhaps here alone, that I will remind myself of the frailty of human perspective. It is possible to know a thing, but we have unknown all things in a vaguely self-righteous attempt to be thorough. So we are left with nothing but a TV screen - showing us life at a safe distance, life packaged in glass, prepared by producer and costume designer. If we venture out, we have life delivered in the fine lines of corporate culture, life streamlined, life with a logo.

These are my fantasies: kneading bread. building a brick wall. sweeping the palm of my hand over newly planed wood. toes in the mud. the breathing body of my cat against my arms. not reading but making paper from newly ground pulp. loose leaf tea. carding wool, the warp and the woof, the shuttle, the strings. not ecstasy, but my hand in your hand, dipped in the dirty water, slowly stacking the dishes and breathing barely in time.

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