Monday, January 11, 2010


Nearly six decades ago I had my first lesson about decadence in college—at Rockhurst in Kansas City. Much has changed there. Rockhurst has gone from a males-only to a co-ed institution. It has been transformed from a liberal arts college to a university and now styles itself “Rockhurst - A Jesuit University.” In my freshman year I took a required course in world history from (I’m astonished I still remember this name) a Father Joe McCallin, an acid-tongued, wiry, red-faced Jesuit. He was an energetic if cynical teacher—or so I thought at the time. In retrospect I recognize that his bitterness reflected the modern culture rising all about him—and some of that bitterness stuck to me. At any rate, in that course, trying to make us understand the evolution of the Roman games over the centuries, he used the analogy of stimulus and habituation. In tasting the sweetness of food, he said, we soon get used to the sensation. It dulls with repetition. Then, later, trying to recapture the first pleasure of sweetness, we must increase the dose. The Romans found pleasure in experiencing violence vicariously. They got used to it. To rouse them, the violence had to increase…and increase again…and then again…

Self-evident? Yes, if you think about it. I was young, I hadn’t, and this analogy enlightened me. Obviously I still recall it—and I saw the truth of it played out throughout my life in the development of our commercial culture where drawing (and holding) the customer’s attention is vital even to stand still, never mind to grow, grow, grow—relentlessly, by corporate program, year after year, and preferably at two-digit percentage rates.

The immediate occasion for this line of thought comes from my recent preparations of some graphics (a collage of my old fiction titles) for use on Dwarf Planet Press: wild covers competing for attention. By contrast my new covers are dull, almost forbidding. Odd, this. The contents of these books are much the same. Another context is also present. We got a disc from a good friend of mine, Phillip Marshal Cavanaugh, around Christmas holding a movie. It comes from the old German Democratic Republic and is titled Offiziere (Officers). Brigitte and I enjoyed it a lot—but it also reminded us of visits to the old GDR—and the sharp contrast between that world and the West. That contrast lay in the fact that behind the Iron Curtain the hysterical competition of images and constant sounds, aimed at the customer, was altogether absent. Present in its stead, but much less intensely, was communist symbolism on public buildings here and there. Those old covers of mine are the West. My new covers are like the GDR.

Contradictory phenomena. Good literature aims at deepening perception rather than distracting it. The creative process at its best first deepens the creator’s feelings and understanding, and what the author experiences that the reader experiences later. This deepening is, to be sure, entertaining, but not in the sense of drawing the person into the world of sensation but precisely by its opposite: lifting the reader out of the lower into a higher sphere. Yet, to reach the reader, the publisher deploys a sensory onslaught just to have a chance to sell a book.

Television and movies bear out old McCallin too. On TV producers discovered that a little motion and background music drew more viewership. These days nothing stands still, everything moves on the screen all the time, so much so that the message is drowned in visual and musical noise. Character and plot are vanishing in the blockbuster movies in favor of ever more spectacular special effects—because the public taste has been so jaded by stimulus that nothing arouses any more except vast explosions and morphing monsters.

Jaded. Interesting word. I went to look and discovered its root. It doesn’t come from the hard gem stone but most likely from Old Norse for “mare,” jalda, which in turn derives from the mother of my own mother-tongue, the Finno-Ugric al’d’a, also for “mare.” A jade was a worn out horse—and hence also a woman past her prime.

1 comment:

  1. The French like sober book covers although color is now becoming a tiny bit more stylish. Thierry and I have often remarked on the difference between the covers of his books and mine... Next to his, my American books look so... flashy and gaudy and ... vulgar. But I like McCall-Smith and Faulkner and Tolkien no matter how psychadelic the covers are.