Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (with apologies to David Bowie)

I recently started reading Verlyn Flieger’s A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie and it got me thinking.  Flieger discusses the changes that were occurring in the world during Tolkien’s life, particularly during his late-teens and early-20s.  In many ways, this begins as a New Historicist read, noting the major movements and such that were part of Tolkien’s socio-historical context, beyond the old references to WWI.  Flieger examines the movements and countermovements that occurred in the early-20th century in science, art, and philosophy, thoughts and knowledge that changed worldviews.  The work of Freud, Jung, Einstein, Planck, Pound, Joyce, and Picasso.  Each of whom essentially changed how we view the world, or responded to such changes.

 This got me thinking about my grandparents’ lives.  They went from radios and public phones to four channel black & white TV and rotary dial to cable, smartphones, and streaming TV.  Even in my own, relatively short, life, the technological changes from VHS to Blu-ray, landlines to pocket size cell phones, green screen dial-up computers to tablets.  Not to mention all the scientific advances, medical advances, changes in psychology, and philosophies of the last three decades.

 Unlike Tolkien, I grew up with theories of uncertainty regarding the world and continual change, from Einstein to Schroedinger, Jung to Freud, and others.  I grew up with the idea that change is the only constant in the universe.  I grew up in a household with science and mythology, both of which essentially teach the same thing via different methods and languages.  I love the “uncertainty” theories, multiverse theory, and all the possibilities that come from them.

 But, I can also understand why some people desire the comfort of perceived solidity often found in conservative religion and revisionist history (the idea that history never changes, therefore our knowledge of history never changes).  The very things that I enjoy, the uncertainty they engender, can be frightening.  The perception of something going on, unchanged, for 1700+ years (as false as that belief is) can be a comfort, I suppose.  Personally, I think that way lies stasis, which is in many ways equivalent to death.  But, that’s me.

 The fear is then fed by our changing technology.  For instance, dissemination of news.  In my grandparents’ day, there was only an hour or so of news a day (on the radio and at the movies) and newspapers came out twice daily.  Reporters had to be good at what they did.  They had to condense the entire day’s news into an hour block.  Even in my lifetime, I recall only having news on TV at 5, 6, and 11, or about three hours of news a day.  Even then, reporters had to keep things condensed and focused.

 Today’s 24 hour broadcasts let reporters get lazy, with ten, twelve hours covering the same story.  The coverage starts with Geraldo, then Van Susteren, then O’Reilly, then Hannity, for instance, all talking about the exact same event.  It is easy to see why fear develops and gets out of hand.  It is easy to see how 10+ hours of coverage of the same event turns into the belief that multiple events occurred, thereby amplifying the reaction.

 While our technological advances have unleashed at era of unprecedented access to information, I’m not sure that it is good for society or the individual psyche, especially when the internet news and mobile update elements are added.

 Thinking about these things, I think it is easy to see why we appear to have increases in mental disorders, people (a shrinking number) clinging to conservative religion (theoretically stable and unchanging), and an inordinate growth of fear among the general public in developed nations, particularly the U.S.

3 comments on “Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (with apologies to David Bowie)

  1. earthoak says:

    Enjoyed this post! Just reading the list of changes in our lifetimes is both exciting and a bit disconcerting too – where will it lead? What ethical boundaries will eventually be crossed? And I’m someone who also welcomes technological advances. You make an interesting point, about some people – the likes of Tolkien I guess – clinging to old ways out of fear of instability and the unknown. But perhaps there’s a slîghtly more positive and less reactionary reason – maybe people aren’t averse to change per se, but are sad at the increased cynicism in modernity. Tolkien celebrated enchantment – his works went against the grain at the time, in which artists and writers focused on cynicism, irony and disillusionment after the horrors of the First World War. Wasn’t Tolkien’s apparent resistance to change actually a search for a return to hopefulness? A re-appreciation of beauty? Perhaps he would have been less conservative if the present (in his view) didn’t appear to discard enchantment simply because it doesn’t seem to have a function in the modern world. Anyhow, thanks for the discussion!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would not say that Tolkien was conservative as such. He certainly looked to the past, for myriad reasons, unlike most of his contemporaries (Picasso, Joyce). In his case, I think the looking to the past was based partially in seeing the effects of industrialization (leading him to a resurgence of the old medieval-Renaissance pastoral) and, eventually, his experiences of WWI. But, uncertainty definitely played a part, I think, in his embracing escapism, which is not necessarily a bad thing obviously. A certain degree of escapism is, I think, required for sanity and re-centering, whether that escapism comes from immersion in fantasy (books or video games) or physical activity (from “working out” to golf to sports) or something else.

      My own point, though, was not to comment on Tolkien as such. Rather to share some thoughts that came to mind while reading Flieger that I think apply on a much broader stage. Tolkien’s socio-historical context was merely a stepping off point into thoughts about more modern issues and concerns.


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