Monday, January 16, 2006

WHEN THE HOME ALTAR IS A TV


TV room
Originally uploaded by reddirtrose.

An article culled from Arts and Letters Daily caught my attention today and set me spinning off into weird habit #3, otherwise known as "ranting and raving". Once I get some abstruse point on my mind, I harangue everyone around me until they finally get it through my head THEY DON'T CARE, or I just wear myself out--whichever comes first.

This particular episode of ranting was triggered by the social conservative, Theodore Dalrymple. Though I am often at odds with Dalrymple, he rattled my bones and my equally brittle assumptions with this piece. Having gone through the files of dozens of Australian murder cases, he invokes a stunningly repetitious picture:

The homes in which the murders took place - and here I am speaking of what James Thurber might have called naive, domestic little murders - have, from the photographic evidence, a terrible similarity. There is the same narrow hallway, with the same detritus strewn in it.

Into the living-room through the door on the right: the same gas fire, but above all, and always, the prominence of the video machine, which is to the British home at the lower end of the social scale what the icon was in the Russian muzhiks izba: the focus of the household's spiritual life, if spiritual is quite the word I seek. A Martian visitor might take it as an object of religious veneration or propitiation, so dominant is it in the room.

Strewn on the floor, there are always several videotapes, probably just watched: these are the homes in which the television or video is never switched off so long as there is someone awake in the house. There are also many more videos on shelves in every room throughout the house, for images of a pseudo-reality mean more to the inhabitants than most of life as they actually live it.

Some wise person said that in every heart there is an altar, and similarly in every home, there is an area that is by its central location or its surrounding radiance, and the reverence with which it's looked upon, a focal point, an altar. In ancient times, it was quite simply a fire, a contained flame where you could look for hours and see survival, warmth, beauty. If the altar is a video screen that regularly flashes scenes of violence and lust, ego and passions, untempered by wisdom, then clearly the worshippers at this particular altar are in trouble.

And if a society is composed of rows and rows of houses on rows and rows of streets all worshipping at the same empty home altar, then that is an impoverished society, indeed, no matter what the GNP might say.

When I look back on all these murders and murderers, what do I feel? And do I remember the murderers as evil men, who joyfully did what they knew to be wrong and were prepared to take the consequences, even as they tried to avoid them? Did they all have black hearts upon which murder had been inscribed since birth?

No. I am overwhelmed by a sense of the unfitness for life of all the participants in these sordid dramas: their main problem was that they had not the faintest idea how to live and yet - this is the hallmark of modernity - they were plentifully supplied with ego.

They had received no guidance from religion, naturally enough, since God is dead for them, and never has been very much alive. As for social convention, it has not so much been destroyed as turned inside out. The poor who once prided themselves on such things as respectability, cleanliness, honesty, orderliness and thrift, often in the most difficult circumstances, now pride themselves on their bohemianism. Disorder and chaos are a metonym for freedom and authenticity. But they are bohemians without being artistic, and the result is a squalor scarcely credible in times of supposed prosperity.

There's an uncomfortable tinge of snobbery here. Surely, murders are committed in orderly homes with framed Matisses on the walls, as well as in the dumps inhabited by poor slobs who think they're bohemians. (And really are drunken slobs who call themselves 'bohemians' any more worhty just because they're artists? But I am particularly disconcerted by the prominence of the VCR and TV--partially, because it enjoys a pretty central location in my own home. Right where the fire would have been in an ancient hut.

In my previous post, I spoke of the best fiction as an exercise in revealing truth through metaphor. Similarly, whatever we exalt on our own personal home altar, must be capable of rendering truth and wisdom to those who gather around to venerate it. Religions of all kinds, whether you believe they are literally true or whether you see them as beautiful myths and metaphors have provided answers to every question the human heart can pose. Listened to with an open mind and without distortions, they calm and elevate the heart, and call the worshipper not to BECOME his passions, but to shape, use and ultimately transcend them.

The exceptions and there are tragically many, are those who have not heard the message they claim to exalt. Suicide bombers creating devastation in defense of a religion of peace. Christians who relegate people who are often kinder and in all ways better disciples than they are to "a lake of fire", simply because they haven't pronounced the right words.

And yet the great religions do not fail. People fail. Meanwhile, all the noble faiths keep their bargains with those who are willing to raise up an altar in the heart: When you need guidance, you will have it, when you seek mercy, it will be yours; when you are in pain, you will find comfort, and perhaps most important of all: when you are overwhelmed by the miserable delusion of your own importance, we will remind you how small you are. And how loved.

If we as a society, really think we can live without all that, we'd better find a better home altar than the television set or the VCR with its endless images of egos gone wild to replace it. (Or maybe I'm just getting old and cantankerous. Always a possibility when I start in on a good rant and rave.)

So to summarize today's rant: You better start believing in something higher than yourself, whether it's God or Socratic principles or the sanctity of nature, and whatever it is, you better teach your children to honor it. If you don't, you just may end up raising a pack of selfish morons. Who knows? You may even become one yourself. (Is there a test for this on one of those quiz sites?) (If so, I'm heading there immediately.)

17 comments:

Perfect Virgo said...

Disappointing that all are tarred with the same brush in the guy's article Patry. So we all worship at an empty home altar do we? This virtual icon at the heart of every "British home at the lower end of the social scale." Smacks of sanctimony I think.

He conveniently ignores that the TV screen flashes with similar regularity scenes of humour, pathos, wit and wisdom, nature, science and culture and stories of love, hope and aspiration.

Dalrymple is to be pitied if he implies that selective viewers of TV are somehow inferior to readers of pages. The TV is large and heavy so must sit permanently in the most convenient spot for spontaneous viewing however regular that may be.

Will you tell him or shall I?

Lhombre said...

Ah! Patry I share your pain as well as your confidence in metaphors. As you are probably aware, the vuisual metaphor has been an ongoing exploration in my work as well. But...as we both know there are good metaphors and there are bad metaphors. The bad one's usually fall more directly iinto the ash can of analogies that simplyn can't apply to a given set of circumstances. For as we also know, even good analogies are limited to the reasonable understanding that they always fall short of the mark...like the set of circumstances, events, and objects that Dalrymple tries to put forth! To the trash heap! At least, that's what I think!!!!!

Patry Francis said...

p.v. I think with your clear British eyes, you were able to see right through this, while I was more willing to test his principles a bit. The man was damn priggish and sanctimonious.

You are so right. Television is an instrument. We choose how we use it.

I think the one thing that captured me in all of this was his point that a significant number of families (from all classes, Mr. Dalrymple) are raising their children and similarly conducting their own lives based on values gleaned from TV. That seems an impoverishment to me.

In any case, thanks for straightening Dalrymple (and me) out a bit with your virgo wisdom.

lhombre: Thanks for your firm and unblinking assessment. Now I"m off ot check otu your visual metaphors...

Becca said...

Well written, Patry. Dalrymple certainly comes across as arrogant and, yet, I find his "television as altar" to be uncomfortably close to the truth. There is no question for me that the foundational values and worldview of many of the television shows we watch will do nothing to help form strong, courageous, unselfish and values-driven young (or old) people. Your last few lines are extremely well taken.

Diana said...

I came to say mostly what becca said. While I winced at several of his sweeping judgments and overgeneralizations, there was enough truth there to also make me squirm. I'm still thinking about this one...

Seeking Clarity

Patry Francis said...

I think that was how I reacted--which is why I initially removed the post. I think Dalrymple had something to say, but unfortunately, he turned it into an unfair sweeping deduction.

steve said...

Dalrymple's comments reminded me of David Macaulay's wonderful 1979 book, "Motel of the Mysteries," in which archaeologists from the year 4022 discover an American motel (The Toot 'n' Come-On Inn). The television set is seen as an altar for comunicating with the deities, while the bathroom was a sort of holy of holies. Of course, Macaulay was kidding archaeologists who see a religious motive in every artifact, but he's also pointing out that applying preconceived notions to appearances can lead to some erroneous, even bizarre conclusions. Patry, I think your larger point is a valid one, but perfect virgo is right about Dalrymple.

Patry Francis said...

Steve: Thanks for clarifying what I was trying to say. I found Dalrymple's focus on the "lower end of the social scale" so offensive that for a while I took this post down. However, I think
the point that many people in all social strata have made entertainment and self-gratification their highest value, whether it be in the form of TV, books, or casinos is something worth thinking and talking about.

Meanwhile, I tried to add something to my template, and screwed up my blog so badly that I thought it was gone for good. Apologies to all who visited over the last twelve hours and found only the jumbled product of my technical expertise.

Perfect Virgo said...

Dalrymple's tirade and your own indignation at it have rubbed off on me here Patry! I visited to re-read and noticed you were wrestling with whether to leave the post up this morning, I'm glad you did.

It is his sweeping generalisation that rattled my cage. A whisker away from saying TV turns you into a murderer. I heartily agree that gratuitous images of violence are to say the least unhealthy but concentrating on those couple of videos strewn near the TV sounds like judging a book by its cover.
More than a trifle judgemental.

You have probably guessed that being a ridiculously tidy Virgo all my videos have been replaced by DVDs which are shelved in strict alphabetical order.

I like your belief Patry, I too watch some TV but like you I also believe in "the sanctity of nature."

Patry Francis said...

Thanks, p.v. You've added a lot to the discussion, and helped me clarify my thoughts. I guess, according to Dalrymple's logic, Virgos would be incapable of murder. Not only do you have no VCR tapes lying about, you'd never be able to stand the mess.

Perfect Virgo said...

A highly thought-provoking post Patry, it has made me think a lot. By the way I trod on a snail by accident once and felt very guilty - I hope that doesn't count as murder! Naturally I had to get a brush and bucket of bleach to clean the entire patio...

Lynn Hayes said...

This is a very interesting post; however, I have to say that I have long bemoaned the use of the TV as an altar in the American home. All too often the TV is used as a substitute for personal interaction in families, and for paying attention to the world around us. Most Americans are more interested in who will be voted off the island than in what is going on in our political arena. I totally agree with you about the tone of that article, but I think there is a kernel of truth...;

Dave said...

Patry, you might enjoy my own foray into the TV altar theme - It's art, dammit!

Patry Francis said...

Dave: You're right; I did enjoy it. Trouble is now I want to try it at my house. Don't think my "housemates" would like it much though.

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