Apr/May 2015  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Virtual Vanaprastha Welcomes the Spring

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Was Shake-speare Gay? (Not that there would have been anything wrong with that).
Gilbert Wesley Purdy.
The Virtual Vanaprastha Press. 2015. 43 pp.

I opened the windows yesterday for the first time this year. Spring, it seems, has arrived at last. Winter had been mild until February arrived. For that final month winter was even a little harsh for Richmond. If I hadn't been calculating the electrical bill each time the furnace came on, a month of real winter would have been perfect, neither too much nor too little.

I had been expecting it. The apartment was stocked with everything I might need. A walk to the Walgreen's on the corner every few days for an expensive loaf of nearly stale bread, and a trip to the grocery, during the one suitable day for bicycling, for a few tomatoes and a head of lettuce, served to replenish the perishables. Otherwise I was delighted to be hard at work, during the grey daylight hours, on a monograph entitled Was Shake-speare Gay? and reading from biographies of Proust and Virginia Woolf during evenings heated just enough to be comfortable.

Now the city has once again returned to the combination of the genteel South, college town, and state capitol surrounded by a crumbling rust belt landscape that gives it a unique personality. As unique, anyway, as it is possible to be in this post-industrial age of omnipresent fast food franchises, Walmart Super Centers, and a public with its collective head down, peering intently into their smartphones as they walk.

As usual, while I was working on the monograph I could not help but ask myself how I had come to write it. For all I love writing about the Shake-speare Authorship Question, for all the delightful little surprises I have tucked away in one or another folder, the world that was streaming into the apartment by way of the computer monitor was struggling as always. ISIS was producing YouTube videos of their horrifying methods of capital punishment. Africa was racked with Ebola and rebel armies only slightly less ferocious. The residents of Eastern Ukraine were without power or water and under continuous bombardment.

Sadly, there is nothing I can do about these things and the problems closer to home seem dwarfed by comparison, hardly even problems. As humble a life as I lead, I still have merely to click a link in order to watch Deusche Welle's English language broadcasts, streamed half-way around the world, from Berlin, or France24 from Paris or RTVE from Spain. In the mornings I can click-up the N-Back game or the NBA box scores and highlights from the night before. While streaming, I can wander into the kitchenette for a snack from a gently humming refrigerator. I can only be enormously thankful to have been born in the United States, in the developed world. How, given all of this (and a great deal more), can I be saddened by what we are making of the immediate world in which we live?

But when I check the monthly bill from the Internet provider which brings me all of this wonder, I cannot help but notice that it charges an enormous amount for its service. While it purports to be a staunch believer that competition creates quality at the best possible price, its lobbyists are busy doing all they can to prevent meaningful competition in their "territories". Of course those lobbyists cost big money. I, as a customer, am forced to pay their salaries. Their job pretty much comes down to one thing: making sure that I have to pay the maximum possible price for the least effective service. That expense added to the huge profit margins made possible by preventing competition means that I'm paying an outrageous price for third rate service.

Next I cannot help but reflect upon the content these remarkable United States are streaming toward such viewers as I via these overpriced third rate carriers. If we set aside the fact that pornography is the most pervasive and lucrative product on the Internet (after computer hardware and software), and consider the window the media provides us into our world, we find labor organization being made illegal once again, reversing the trend of almost the entire 20th century. Wages are slowly going down while expenses are none too slowly going up. Benefit packages are simultaneously being stripped away. This is the result of power groups buying access to government on a scale unheard of since the days of the infamous 19th century Robber Barons.

Of course, the first thing we notice is not labor relations. The reports about our incredible new medical technologies are punctuated by reports on the impossible expense of medical care. Not only are workers having their wages and benefits reduced, the safety net programs designed to prevent the worst results when workers are most vulnerable to nature or to those power groups are under sustained, cold-blooded assault. Fewer and fewer people have effective access to this new technology.

But this all wouldn't be quite so disheartening if it weren't for our collective reply. For the most part, we reply in public comment sections following brief opinion pieces, untainted by research or the least disinterested thought, written in blogs dedicated to encourage our biases and our irrational sense of entitlement in order to attract our gaze toward targeted advertising.

From time to time we electronically sign an online petition. I can only believe that this gladdens the hearts of the infamous 1% and their lobbyists that we pay for when we buy the products from their companies. Each person who discharges their duty to their children and their fellow beings by signing an online petition is a person who is not arranging a boycott or sending a letter to his or her Congressperson or researching the company's records for exploitable weaknesses. It is one more person who is absolutely unaware of the complexities of an issue thus easily refuted.

So then, dozens of online petitions are floating around at any one time asking for one's signature. Most are about nothing beyond assembling a mailing list for future donations or even targeted advertisements for products. This is now what the "Right to Petition" has become. Perhaps millions of comment threads are filled with brief rants for or against one thing or another, otherwise known as "venting". This, or some close variation, is now what the "Right of Free Speech" has become. Well, this or a product survey or an opinion poll.

Should the reader have some experience in trying to get anything accomplished in the public sphere, these being the available means, she or he will recognize just how thoroughly our myths fail us now. At some point, they, too, have likely become impressed with just how diverse are the opinions in the aforementioned comment threads. If they have failed, at first, to see the obvious, they will learn from experience just how impossible it is to bring the commenters to any kind of consensus, how impossible it is to "make sense" to anyone who isn't already of one's opinion. The comments are not discussion. They are venting. The last thing someone venting wants is to be called upon to calm down and seek a workable consensus.

The 1% doesn't have to sell their souls in order to rake the national wealth into their pockets. Souls exist any longer only insomuch as they can be parlayed into service contracts. They don't even need to feel guilty: we can't be bothered to do more in our own collective behalf than to scream names and insults—not at them (which is either useless, or, if not, dangerous) but at each other. We neither have nor want a more effective means to express our collective will than to click ads and occasionally buy products. They just have to flatter our collective self-image while rigorously acting in ways that make it clear that they (or rather the experts on their payrolls that we pay for with each purchase we make) are clinically aware that that self-image is all but entirely delusional. They just have to sell us vast quantities of third-rate products.

If this seems like a pretty bleak perspective, consider the fact that no past time seems to have done better for the "common man". There have been better times and worse, more creative and less, and the average life has continued to be about restful sleep, freedom from pain, tasty meals, venting, and occasionally getting high and/or laid (a.k.a. an endorphin rush). Add a fortress mentality—a group of "uncivilized" barbarians against which all must be watchful—and the need of a police force, largely to protect the general population from the raging hormones and ennui of the 16-26 age group, and social cohesion is pretty much guaranteed into the bargain. Technologies aside, the formula for happiness and satisfaction has remained unchanged since the beginning of civilization itself. People, today, are just doing what people do. As has been the case since the beginning of civilization, that will be enough... until it isn't anymore.

Yesterday evening, I managed once again to break away from my internal dialogue about these matters—to accept that there was nothing of consequence I could do beyond what I was doing. I was pleased to be an individual once again, only responsible to do the best I could to inform and delight (as the poet Horace would say). As I was reading several 16th century accounts of the social politics in England and France a knock came softly at the door. I assumed that I was hearing wrong. Usually the knock comes several times a night at the neighbor's door, not mine. The knock came again, slightly harder. I returned to the present and opened the door. A 20-something young man, marginally kempt, stood with bills, their dollar denominations folded out of sight, in his hand.

"Joey says you got the weed," he mumbled.

"I think you want the next door down," I replied, then gently shut my own. As long as I had been called back into the present, I decided to check the Amazon/Kindle Sales Dashboard an extra time.


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