Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Paradigm Shift in the Collective Unconscious

Elizabeth Zelvin

I used to hate that term, “paradigm shift.” I considered it the height of intellectual-snob gibberish. Then everything started changing, and I got it that sometimes it’s the perfect term for a change in the general culture that’s so massive that nothing is ever the same. For the generation just ahead of mine, the watershed was World War II and plastics. My ex-sister-in-law, twelve years older than I, was a teacher, and for some reason I have a vivid memory of her telling about a conversation with her class about the world before plastics.

“What were picnic forks made of?”
“What were raincoats made of?”
What were pens made of?”
“What did people wrap things in?”

For my parents, born shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, it was World War I. When they were born, there were no airplanes and few automobiles. People functioned without radios or telephones in the home. As those of us who love British mysteries and historical novels know, before the War, the hierarchical class structure separating Upstairs from Downstairs was intact. After the War, it started to crumble, and after World War II, it had essentially vanished. I don’t have to spell out the paradigm shift we’re going through today: the explosion of technology—and its miniaturization, which I consider its least anticipated aspect—that has made mysteries and even science fiction of the 1980s and 1990s utterly outdated. New inventions in both communication and transportation have changed everything about how we connect with one another on our shrinking planet.

It’s odd what memory latches onto: I remember my son, now in his early forties, telling me about a new development called the World Wide Web. “It’s going to revolutionize how people use computers,” he said, and so it did. A couple of years before the ubiquitous cell phone appeared on the streets of New York, I remember an online mental health professional colleague saying on an e-list, “The last two revolutions in the Philippines couldn’t have been conducted without cell phones.”

Until quite recently, as, once again, British novels bear witness, educated people had a cultural common ground based on literature that they could draw upon and refer to in a reasonable expectation of being understood. Everybody who read had read Shakespeare and Alice in Wonderland. Lord Peter Wimsey could quote from either, and we knew what he was talking about. We had even read Homer, if not in the original like Lord Peter (when I went to college, the Iliad and the Odyssey were required reading in Humanities 1), and could field a reference to Achilles or the Trojan War with ease. In contrast, I remember a conversation with a fourteen-year-old cousin in 2004 or so about the movie Troy, which reduced that epic conflict from ten years to three days and took many liberties with the plot. “Have you read the book?” she asked.

Nowadays, not only have our culture’s reading habits changed dramatically, but there’s too much to read. Politics have decreased the attention in the school curriculum that was once paid to “dead white males” like Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll. This is not all bad. I would have loved to be made to study Little Women or The Help instead of Silas Marner and Giants In the Earth, the two most stultifyingly boring novels I can remember being assigned in school.

My point is that books no longer provide the material by which we communicate through common points of reference. Instead, movies occupy that space in the collective unconscious. We all know The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind and The Godfather. Instead of “To be or not to be, that is the question,” “My kingdom for a horse,” “I can believe six impossible things before breakfast,” or “It was the best butter,” we all resonate with “We’re not in Kansas any more,” “Tomorrow is another day,” and “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” All these movies were made from novels, and some of us have read the books. But the reason everybody knows these references with all their implications is that we’ve seen the movies.


jenny milchman said...

I remember reading the word as "para-dig-em" and thinking it sounded really cool.

I don't know--this may be an issue that varies by region, school, and other strata. My second grade and kindergartener still communicate by way of books. "What was that character who...?"

And better than that: I hear both girl and boy (the girl more, it's true) chatting with friends about this book or that one. "Wasn't that story great about..."

The classics seem to be in full swing if the dump bins at B&N are an accurate reflection.

I do think it's true that our tastes have sped up and these books (and also films from forty years ago) proceed at a much slower pace than that which we are used to.

But if we can settle in for something a little different, the rewards are truly great, for young and old alike.

jenny milchman said...

One encouraging factor I should add: there's a whole slow living movement catching its wave. Slow food, slow money, slow travel.

And slow books.

Slow may turn out to be the new fast.

Sheila Connolly said...

I fear that Jeopardy is caught up in the midst of this. More and more often, the clue will relate to some quotation or book that was once part of the common culture, only to meet with blank stares from all three contestants, no matter what their age. And Alex Trebek looks upon them with pity.

On the other hand, I always wondered about those English books wherein the Oxbridge crowd could leap into reciting great swathes of Greek and Latin at the drop of a hat, not to memtion the entire canon of Western literature.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Who sez slow travel is in need of a movement? On my recent NY-California trip, I sat on the ground for three hours waiting for my JetBlue flight to take off BOTH WAYS.

Georgia said...

I feel your anxiety and therefore asked to see my oldest grandsons high school English textbook.They go to a Charlotte,NC, public school.I was very impressed.In addition to Shakespeare, Aristotle, Frost, Dickenson and many others that I studied, they had contemporary writers represented in prose and poetry from several countries.I borrowed their extra reading for this year, The Alchemist, The Chosen, and The Ct of Monte Cristo to read.The 3"thick textbook had grammar rules, and addressed writing essays, novels, poetry with a unique voice. Discussed character arcs.Very comprehensive.And my daughter-in-love sent me this summer's reading list.There were the old books:Of Mice and Men, Tender is the Night,along with The Water is Wide, and The Things They Carried. And choices between authors like Annie Dillard or Thoreau.
I was relieved because there are many lightweight selections making it to print.

Julia Buckley said...

I think sometimes people still make those references, but don't always know their origins. I read that "To be or not to be" are the most oft-quoted words in the English language. Now--how many of those quoters know that the words begin one of Hamlet's famous soliloquies, I'm not sure.

I do think that movies and television have moved into a great deal of space that was once reserved for books--but by some definitions even movies and television are texts, and as long as people are analyzing them intelligently, we are not lost.

Julia Buckley said...

PS--Those "great swathes of Greek and Latin" that people could recite (funny phrase, Sheila) often make up dialogue in Mary Stewart's mystery novels.

In one of my favorites, MY BROTHER MICHAEL, both the heroine and her love interest just happen to be Classics professors, and they quote away at each other as a kind of foreplay.

Maybe that's why I'm the way I am. :)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, that particular novel takes place in Greece, and if I remember correctly, the reason the heroine originally gets into trouble is that someone invites her to take a ride, and she forgets that in Greek, "nai" means "yes."