Point­less, anx­ious and an­noy­ing

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - ED POWER - AN­DREW HOLGATE

Fran­cis O’Gor­man won­ders why mod­ern life is still rub­bish


What is wrong with the mod­ern world? Why does life seem so point­less, anx­ious and an­noy­ing? For Fran­cis O’Gor­man, the an­swer is pleas­ingly sim­ple: we have lost touch with the sta­bil­ity of tra­di­tions from the past, and now live in a state of con­stant, con­fus­ing flux. It was those Vic­to­ri­ans who were to blame. While ev­ery­one else seems to be watch­ing films show­ing the queen as a feisty fem­i­nist with a nat­u­ral sym­pa­thy for the work­ing classes and other cul­tures, Prof O’Gor­man, a dis­tin­guished Vic­to­ri­an­ist him­self, thinks that it was dur­ing her reign that the rot really set in.

The prob­lem has al­ways been progress: or rather, the be­lief in progress. We are all at­tuned to ex­pect­ing things to get bet­ter and bet­ter so we think in terms of the fu­ture, mak­ing ev­ery­thing con­stantly new, and have for­got­ten that we are cre­ations of a past. Mat­ters have be­come so acute that even when we are re­minded of the value of past times, it is by ad­ver­tis­ers ea­ger to ex­ploit a gap in the mar­ket. The old is, in fact, in­vari­ably new.

O’Gor­man is at his best when he writes about lit­er­a­ture, which is not al­ways the case with lit­er­ary crit­ics. He force­fully re­minds readers that the great Vic­to­rian sage John Ruskin worked hard to pre­serve the Gothic past and to in­spire an in­ter­est in late me­dieval ar­chi­tec­ture through his eru­dite and elo­quent analysis. While Ruskin lamented the on­set of the Re­nais­sance, O’Gor­man re­grets the technophilia of his fel­low Vic­to­ri­ans. A more nu­anced and coun­ter­cul­tural voice was pro­vided by Ge­orge Eliot. In The Mill on the Floss (1660) Mag­gie Tul­liver’s fam­ily has to leave the fam­ily home and sell their pos­ses­sions. As Mag­gie sees her books and ob­jects carted off the reader feels an em­pa­thy for her loss, un­der­stand­ing that she is “a sad, lo­cal, and fem­i­nised ver­sion of an Ae­neas hop­ing to re­build the past who can­not” (p63).

In the fi­nal chap­ter, the au­thor, a keen walker him­self, cel­e­brates English na­ture writ­ing and the tra­di­tion of cul­tural re­cov­ery rep­re­sented in “lo­cal his­tory”. He cites the Shet­land singer and writer Mal­lachy Tal­lack to re­mind his readers that we all have places and homes we need to recog­nise, un­der­stand and love: “be­ing at home is not a pas­sive state. It is a process, in which the heart must be en­gaged. That is as true for the rein­deer herders of Siberia . . . as it is for the in­hab­i­tants of a tiny vil­lage on a tiny is­land.”


Else­where O’Gor­man rails against more pre­dictable tar­gets that im­pede or­dered cog­ni­tive in­ter­ac­tion with the world: mo­bile phones, post­struc­tural­ism, iden­tity pol­i­tics and the bu­reau­cracy that comes with end­less quan­tifi­ca­tion: “Socrates, it goes with­out say­ing, did not re­gard the in­tel­lec­tual life as any­thing to do with tests or mar­ket sat­is­fac­tion”. In­deed, but does this really help us un­der­stand mod­ern cul­tural am­ne­sia? It is sad to learn that the av­er­age at­ten­tion span has de­creased to eight sec­onds in 2013, down four sec­onds from 2000 and that most of us are now one sec­ond be­hind gold­fish in this ca­pac­ity. O’Gor­man does not really have a so­lu­tion to this par­tic­u­lar prob­lem and we might ask what we can do if ev­ery­thing is tech­no­log­i­cally de­ter­mined and has been since the in­ven­tion of the spin­ning jenny.

Forgetfulness is not really a sus­tained analysis of ideas of mem­ory and for­get­ting, more a se­ries of re­flec­tions on the de­ra­ci­nated na­ture of mod­ern life. There is a ten­dency to elide and con­flate is­sues that seem quite dis­tinct, or, at best, only tan­gen­tially re­lated. I find it hard, for ex­am­ple, to see that con­cern for de­men­tia and Alzheimer’s dis­ease has a se­ri­ous con­nec­tion to the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of knowl­edge in uni­ver­si­ties in which dis­tressed aca­demics de­spair when judged by stu­dent eval­u­a­tions.

O’Gor­man longs for the re­turn of tra­di­tions, although I am not really clear at the end of this en­ter­tain­ing book ex­actly what these are. We should read more than we do; go to church a lit­tle more I sus­pect; and turn off our mo­bile phones. Fur­ther­more, we need a bet­ter pub­lic cul­ture. We Brits should have been able to dis­cuss Brexit rather more sen­si­bly than we did. But even then, I am not quite sure how, apart from recog­nis­ing that those who voted to leave the Euro­pean Union might have had a point about their iden­ti­ties, sta­bil­ity and his­tory be­ing lost some­where.

At his best O’Gor­man sounds, per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, like an in­spired young John Ruskin re­mind­ing his readers that they needed to pay more at­ten­tion to their her­itage be­fore it van­ished for­ever and they are left in an ugly, util­i­tar­ian world fit to serve ma­te­rial rather than spir­i­tual needs. At his worst he sounds like an el­derly Ja­cob Rees-Mogg hec­tor­ing an au­di­ence that fool­ishly be­lieves the world might pos­si­bly move on.


Forgetfulness is not really a sus­tained analysis of ideas of mem­ory and for­get­ting, more a se­ries of re­flec­tions on the de­ra­ci­nated na­ture of mod­ern life.

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