Pointless, anxious and annoying
Francis O’Gorman wonders why modern life is still rubbish
FORGETFULNESS:MAKINGTHE MODERNCULTUREOFAMNESIA FRANCIS O’GORMAN Bloomsbury, 185pp, £14
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.