"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Abridged Version Of Life - Avoiding The Details That Make Sense Of It All

In 1922 DeWitt Wallace started Reader’s Digest, a publication which gathered a sampling of favorite articles on many subjects from various monthly magazines, sometimes condensing and rewriting them, and combined them into one magazine. 

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From the very beginning the magazine was a big hit.  By 1929, the magazine had 290,000 subscribers and had a gross income of $900,000 a year.  Clearly Wallace had hit upon something more than just popular demand – an American simplicity; a profound mistrust of intellectualism, academic airs; and an impatience with complexity.  Americans were doers not thinkers, too busy building the nation to reflect on principles, history, or trends.  They preferred tidbits to depth, casual reference to analysis, and light fare to haute cuisine. 

The Digest was the perfect magazine.  It captured more than zeitgeist and appealed to a very particular type of cultural exceptionalism.  Down home honest simplicity was an American characteristic and model behavior, and the magazine catered to it perfectly.

The magazine's format consisted of 30 articles per issue, a vocabulary page, a page of "Amusing Anecdotes" and "Personal Glimpses", two features of funny stories entitled "Humor in Uniform" and "Life in these United States", and a lengthier article at the end, usually condensed from a published book.

Many ‘variety’ magazines followed the example of the Digest, but few continued the practice of condensation.  Yet this was the genius of Wallace and the magazine.  Americans wanted news but predigested and freed from intellectual entanglements.  Condensation meant editing out the difficult, tenuous bits; providing characters and storylines but without plot complications.  Above all, Americans could get their news in as easy a way as possible.

The Digest is still going strong, but in recent years  the format has greatly evolved into flashy, colorful eye-catching graphics and many short bits of data interspersed with full articles. 

USA Today has followed the modern Digest formula – it does not condense and rewrite articles as the old magazine did, but offers short articles, ‘factoids’, and clear, attractive graphics.  The newspaper can be read from front page to back in fifteen minutes or less.

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Even the august New Yorker changed its format under the stewardship of Tina Brown.  Gone were the issue-long, detailed, and interminable articles on music and dance; the minutely-detailed ‘profiles’, and the in-depth analysis of politics and culture.  The magazine caught up with the times; and although Brown’s stated objective was to make it ‘more relevant’, she knew that relevant meant easy to read.  Not only did readers have less time to read long, involved articles, they didn’t want to.

There are few ‘serious’ magazines left, most notably the New York Review of Books, but its circulation is small and concentrated within a small circle of Eastern left-leaning intellectuals.

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As Tina Brown correctly intuited, Americans could find time to read the lengthy Whitney Balliett pieces on jazz – after all the New Yorker was a weekly magazine and its articles were not meant to be read and digested all at once – they were simply not interested in sorting through ever clef, note, musical signature, and biography of his articles.  It is enough to catch a few bars of Ornette Coleman on YouTube to get what he’s about.  There is little value added to learning about his early life, artistic influences, politics, and social views when his music is there, clear, accessible at a click.

One of the most popular programs on French television a few years back was Apostrophes, a roundtable discussion of books, authors, and literature.  It was aired in prime time, had 6 million regular viewers, and ran for fifteen years.  The French at least until its recent multiculturalism, restive suburbs, and religious and cultural separatism, was truly an intellectual culture.  The six million viewers were not just from the intelligentsia but from all social classes.  The view that ideas were important per se was common; and that an understanding of art, literature, philosophy, and religion could only come through serious thought, dialogue, and analysis.

America was never thus and never wanted to be.  What good could ever come from windy discussions on arcane topics? What was the relationship between abstract ideas and the business of prosperity and progress?

It is no surprise that ‘fake news’ has made the headlines.  What is easier to digest than a viral headline.  Its virality gives it weight, credence, and importance regardless of the sensibility of its content.  It is far easier to scroll, click, share, and send than it is to fact-check, consider the details of the argument, or do comparative research.  When virality is linked with American image-driven popular culture, serious ideas and thought have little chance.

Except perhaps on the Upper West Side, heads nod over dinner when a guest goes on about the moral themes of Conrad, the surprisingly anti-Christian sentiments of Dostoevsky, or the Nietzschean willfulness of the characters of Ibsen or Strindberg.  It would be more than enough to simply cite a brief reference and then, within the context of the practical, immediate concerns of the day – the moral irresponsibility of Donald Trump, for example -  make the point.

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The fine points of Bolshoi choreography, Balanchine, or Indian Kathakali are irrelevant, unnecessary, and boring.  It is enough to describe their performances at the Kennedy Center.

Perhaps our anti-intellectualism comes naturally.  The images of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan cutting brush are as culturally significant as the those on the old French franc notes.

Image result for images old french franc notesImage result for images old french franc notes

George W. Bush, scion of a wealthy, aristocratic New England family and educated at Harvard and Yale deliberately spoke like a Texas rancher – no four-syllable words, no metaphor, no simile, and no literary or remote historical references.  He wanted to be viewed as a man of the people, a ‘regular guy’ with no pretensions whatsoever. 

Few American politicians can come even close to the eloquence of the most junior backbencher in the British Parliament.  The Prime Minister’s Question Hour’ is the best show of the week if only for its display of rhetoric, the quick repartee, the sharp rejoinder, the absolute mastery of language, and the willingness to use reference as a selling point.

The image of the American cowboy is that of Gary Cooper, a man of few words, moral fiber, courage, and principle.  Perhaps above all, ‘few words’.  The Wild West was a simple place, so the myth goes – cowboys, Indians, buffalo, bandits and outlaws, horses and cattle, settlers, and frontier justice.  There was no need to elaborate, no legalese, no unnecessary parsing of right and wrong.  Yet there was a lot of truth to the myth, and the Western vision became without a doubt that of the East.

Image result for images gary cooper western movies

It is hard work to make sense out of anything, let alone the complexities of religion, philosophy, or science.  Simple human behavior alone is a tangle of genes, inheritance, family influence, social demands, native ambition, will, and God-given talent.

When it comes to people it is no wonder we make snap judgments and hope to have them corroborated.  Religion, based on the simplest and most universal principle – faith in a divine being – need not be complicated by Trinitarianism, Athanasius, Aquinas, or Augustine.  It matters not – as it most certainly did to the Early Church Fathers – whether Christ is both man and God, only God, only Man, or united three-in-one.  He is Our Savior, and that is all we need to know.

Tolstoy spent most of his life searching for meaning.  As he explains in his memoir, A Confession, he read philosophy, theology, science, literature, history, and economics in an attempt to come to some conclusions about fundamental existential questions.  God created Man, said Konstantin Levin, a character in Anna Karenina, an intelligent, sentient, creative, insightful, and witty being; gave him a few decades of life, then consigned him for all eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes.  How ironic! thought Levin; how senseless and completely incomprehensible.

Conrad in Nigger of the Narcissus explains his view of intelligent thought.  Better do without it, he said, because it only leads to doubt, dissent, and unhappiness.  Better to work without thought, work within a well-ordered system of social justice, and be aware only of responsibility.

Of course Conrad is one of the most cerebral of writers, and one cannot imagine him following his own advice; but the point is well-made and taken.  There are limits to inquiry.

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It would seem to Conrad that Americans for whom everything seems to be taken at face value – religion, politics, social issues, and economics – and for whom intellectual pursuits have little values are the Singletons of the modern day.  They are not, of course, for even Singleton, a model of probity and responsibility had wisdom which came perhaps not from inquiry but from observation.  Americans seem willing to neither inquire nor observe.

We are a Readers’ Digest society, and since we come by it honestly, no European or Upper West Side intellectual should smirk or gloat.  If there is an American ethos it is not entrepreneurialism, individualism, religious faith, or a belief in progress; but a willing naïveté, a compelling need to keep things simple despite what might lie behind.

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