The Paradox of the People who want Us to Buy Their Stuff so that We Will Be HAPPY

I’m still reading ‘Darling’, the spiritual autobiography by Mexican-American writer Richard Rodriguez, and am beginning to feel the pre-emptive regret that sets in when you know something wonderful is about to end. I don’t want this book to stop.  The wisdom that Rodriguez unveils in ‘Darling’ – why women will lead the future of humane religion, the use and misuse and underuse of newspapers to define cities, the interplay and collisions between sexuality, sacrament and the internet, and most especially the question of how, in the age of superficial connection, we might both retain and renew ourselves as embodied souls – is of the kind that causes me to scrunch up my nose and smile with gentle awe. Rodriguez understands that good writing – or at least original writing – depends on (in fact, may consist in) taking two things that aren’t already understood to belong together and out of them creating one new thing.  And so, this, tucked into his argument (‘Final Edition’) that the death of newspapers may mean the death of cities, and launched from a riff on the epidemic of disembodiment our age has embraced and regretted at the same time:

‘Something funny I have noticed – perhaps you have noticed it, too. You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Dovos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? they want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can clock your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.) They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo; they want the pages of their New York Times all kind of greasy from croissant crumbs and butter at a cafe table in Aspen; they want to see their names in hard copy in the ‘New Establishment’ issue of Vanity Fair; they want a nineteenth-century bookshop; they want to see the plays in London; they want to float down the Nile in a felucca; they want five-star bricks and mortgage and Do Not Disturb signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure out a way to pump episodes of The Simpsons through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (ADD TO SHOPPING CART), they will do it.’

Wily, Rodriguez anticipates the reader’s question (what must be done, etc.) with ‘An obituary does not propose a solution.’ He’s right – lament and renewal are not the same thing. They can happen at the same time, however, or pretty close to it, and, of course, the tools of disembodiment are not inevitably so: I’m writing this on one of them. But I’m feeling more and more drawn to consider the degree to which I am an embodied person with access to technological tools that, when stewarded thoughtfully, can promote the common good (and mine), held in tension with the degree to which every day I am being invited to surrender my will to a machine in order that I might become more like one.

 

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