Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Prime Passage: E.B. White on Christmas in 1949, The New Yorker

“Christmas in 1949 must compete as never before with the dazzling complexity of man, whose tangential desires and ingenuities have created a world that gives any simple thing the look of obsolescence — as though there were something inherently foolish in what is simple, or natural. The human brain is about to turn certain functions over to an efficient substitute, and we hear of a robot that is now capable of handling the tedious details of psychoanalysis, so that the patient no longer need confide in a living doctor but can take his problems to a machine, which sifts everything and whose ‘brain’ has selective power and the power of imagination. One thing leads to another. The machine that is imaginative will, we don’t doubt, be heir to the ills of the imagination; one can already predict that the machine itself may become sick emotionally, from strain and tension, and be compelled at last to consult a medical man, whether of flesh or of steel. We have tended to assume that the machine and the human brain are in conflict. Now the fear is that they are indistinguishable. Man not only is notably busy himself but insists that the other animals follow his example. A new bee has been bred artificially, busier than the old bee.
            So this day and this century proceed toward the absolutes of convenience, of complexity, and of speed. . . Man’s inventions, directed always onward and upward, have an odd way of leading back to man himself, as a rabbit track in snow leads eventually to the rabbit. It is one of his more endearing qualities that man should think his tracks lead outward, toward something else, instead of back around the hill to where he has already been; and it is one of his persistent ambitions to leave earth entirely and travel by rocket into space, beyond the pull of gravity, and perhaps try another planet, as a pleasant change. He knows that the atomic age is capable of delivering a new package of energy; what he doesn’t know is whether it will prove to be a blessing. This week, many will be reminded that no explosion of atoms generates so hopeful a light as the reflection of a star, seen appreciatively in a pasture pond. It is there we perceive Christmas — and the sheep quiet, and the world waiting.” 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Our Identity Is In Our Arts

In February of last year, Wynton Marsalis appeared on Tavis Smiley's PBS show, and had a number of extremely insightful things to say about the place of the arts in American life -- beginning in the schools particularly. In our era of unprecedented national and moral confusion, civic decay, and fraying cultural life, Marsalis's inspiring exhortations are well worth 23 minutes of one's time.

Some choice excerpts:

Tavis: What is the price that we are paying as a country for the abandonment of music education in our schools?

Marsalis: Well, first, let’s not even say just music education. Let’s say just arts. The fact that we are culturally ignorant. We don’t know what our heritage is. The price that we pay is that we act outside of ourselves almost all the time. We make very bad decisions how we deal with other people in their cultures. We no longer want to be a melting pot, because we don’t understand what is already melted. We’re fighting for territory. We see it in our Congress, we see it in our political systems. We see it in our ways of life, how separated we are. ... But our culture is what we did together. What did Walt Whitman represent? What was his message to us? That is an inheritance. And when we squander that inheritance, we act outside—we don’t know who we are. We don’t know where we are. ... It’s like we have a deep—we’re suffering from an identity crisis. And that identity is in our arts. The fact that we don’t find it chief amongst our agendas to teach our kids who we are as a nation, and the battles we’ve had on this ground, and how they’ve been successfully resolved—we can’t enjoy the fruits of the labor of our ancestors. ... That our kids don’t know that achievement, there’s no way in the world that could be good for them. ... And when your political systems and your economic systems start to fail, it’s only a cultural understanding that allows you to reconstruct them and to get back to who you are. And for some reason it hasn’t dawned on us yet.

And Marsalis has much more to say...