Friday, November 27, 2009

Private and Public

A striking contrast between the private and the public becomes sharply visible at certain times. Vacations are one category of such occasions—family visits and reunions another. The media recede; they’re temporarily pushed aside. And then—so long at least as the economic foundations are firm enough—the unchanging aspects of life come to the fore so that, remembering the distant past, it echoes the personal present—and, turned about, the present echoes the past. In this country Thanksgiving is perhaps the best reminder of the perennial human pattern. Above all it is a family holiday. It chief symbol is a common meal. Its rootings are in festivals of harvest as far back as we can see—thus in humanity’s organic dependence on the earth’s bounty. Yes. The increasingly hysterical anxieties of our seemingly failing commercial society intrude ever more into this time. My last trip out to buy the last few ingredients at Kroger carried me past vast Christmas trees; wreath and garlands everywhere; and the Salvation army’s huddled figures already rang their bells next to the red pots. The late night check of e-mail last night brought strident reminders that today is Black Friday—which is supposed to arouse my anxieties lest I miss out on some unspeakable bargains today. Christmas, alas, has long been destroyed.

What strikes me about all this is the permanent character of the personal and private and the brittle artificiality of a public projection of—words fail me—of something, of some desired state of mind or nerves, the projection of lures, prods, reminders, and supposed desires in pursuit of which we shall serve some common good, namely the expenditure of money so that those economic foundations, already mentioned above, will remain firm enough to sustain this St. Vitus dance of public insanity.

Twenty, thirty, forty years ago we saw the technological expansion, begun in the early decades of the nineteenth century, as making the world smaller. And smaller it is. Now our children Skype across vast oceans and kid and tease each other as if they were cheek to cheek. But the strange phenomenon of a crazed, brittle, public realm, grinning down at the personal life with a phony smile and deadly eyes—using symbols once infused with feeling and with awe as reminders of crazed commercial need—suggests something else to me now. It suggests that the world has grown tight, as if the sky were disappearing. The limitless dome of sunny blue above us has come to be thickly covered by a dark and incessantly moving wirrwarr of mechanical nastiness. It is thickening, descending—like a curtain, like a pall. It constricts our private and real life. We’re forced now to live our lives with more and more conscious and active effort to disregard a whole dimension of reality, once helpful and encouraging. We must fend it off, ignore it, cope with it as best we can lest it press out the last bit of air from our rapidly heaving chests. This can’t and won’t go on much longer.

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