Monday, March 26, 2007

Cell Phones and Literature (and History)

I always joked that if we had cell phones at the beginning of our Gush Emunim activity in 1974-75, we would have run rings around the army.

Well, a similar thought came to a literary critic:-

...cellphones, while they might have their uses in what we are pleased to call “real life” (though I’m still to come to a final verdict on that), are nothing but an albatross around the neck of any writer who wants to tell a story.

Think of all the stories that hinge on the simple fact that X has no idea where Y is and no way of finding out. Take the “Odyssey.” With cellphones, it becomes an epic version of “Honey, I’m on the train; is there anything you need from the store?” Reception’s a bit dodgy between Scylla and Charybdis, I bet, and things might get noisy sometimes (“Sorry! That’s just the Sirens!”), but you’d have your hero home before tea and save everyone a passel of trouble.

Think about it. No “Robinson Crusoe.” No “Lord of the Flies.” No pleasure for the reader in being alone in the knowledge that Penelope, say, has reason to keep the suitors at bay, or that Angel Clare could again love his Tess. “Dramatic irony” is what the critics call it; to readers it’s simply delicious, the blend of hope and despair that ignorance and distance can impart. The atmosphere on that train out of Moscow would have been rather different if Mrs. Karenina had had a Nokia tucked into her coat: “Toward morning Anna, while still sitting up, fell into a doze; when she woke it was already light and the train was approaching Petersburg. At once thoughts of home, her husband, her son, and the cares of the coming day and of those that would follow, beset her. And then Anna’s phone rang.” Tolstoy tells us that Anna, as she returned to married life despite having another man, Vronsky, in her heart, “did not sleep at all that night, but the strain and the visions which filled her imagination had nothing unpleasant or dismal about them; on the contrary they seemed joyful, glowing and stimulating.” Would her imagination have been so active, one wonders, if she’d been able to gossip to her friends until her batteries ran down? Would she have thrown herself under a train if Vronsky had been able to reach her on her cell? Would “Anna Karenina” be 800 pages long?

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