Marvin’s nephews … The conclusion was too obvious when they brought along their computer games and their cell phones and shrugged off their uncle’s suggestions about activities he had enjoyed as a boy. Fishing, exploring the lakeshore for agates, whizzing downhill on a toboggan, and reading Tom Sawyer had no appeal. Fishing and whizzing they could do in all seasons on a computer, along with hide-and-seek, monkey in the middle, snowball fights, and anything else he could think of… Uncle Marvin was out of touch and weird, Penelope along with him.
— from Everywhere in Chains
Nothing looks old sooner than current fashion. I first heard it in school, and if you stand perfectly still, every twenty years you will be up-to-date. For many such intervals this has proved to be the case.
Certain things, however, are timeless, and seem to reside in that place I once described as where a river called time washes into an ocean called eternity.
The rough stuff from which stories are constructed is never dated – love lost and won; faith lost and regained; crime and punishment; sin and redemption; betrayal and forgiveness; etc. Nothing is crafted as fiction without some of this somewhere in it. Only the stories themselves can sooner or later seem out-of-date if the author is excessively concerned with writing up-to-date, fashionable fiction.
I try to acknowledge such things as computers and cell phones in stories I write these days, but I deliberately treat them as incidental and as unimportant. I long ago grew tired of the theory that media and technology shape our lives and define who we are. It is all cupcake-wrappers, Marshall McLuhan. Such things have negative importance. As I see it, the cake is what counts.
G. K. Chesterton somewhere noticed that one letter only distinguished the cosmic from the comic. The man who tossed buns in the air and attempted to catch them in his mouth for the entertainment of children would still be entertaining. Embedded somewhere in his comic trick was a cosmic mystery. Were he with us yet, he would still insist – to the consternation of his friend H. G. Wells – that science is not at odds with faith and amusement, never has been at odds, and never will be.
The revelations of scientific research are indeed revelations coming from another source. Evolution, the “Big Bang Theory”, the Higgs-Boson particle etc. – I am not the first to say – are simply the fingers of God playing the instrument of creation. We knew it all along.
Consider these opening lines from John Dryden’s “Song for St. Cecelia’s Day, 1687”:
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
‘Arise, ye more than dead!’
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey.
Poets do not need particle accelerators to perceive such things.
To quote Chesterton from Orthodoxy: “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens; it is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head.” A world of difference, of course, separates the one who asks from the one who seeks, and Chesterton, literally a wordsmith and metaphorically a blacksmith, well knew the difference.
The blacksmith often melts the old to create the new. This is the true business of a writer of fiction as I see it. As Sister Hilaria once pointed out in a deleted portion of something I wrote: “a kite will beat a helicopter any day: a helicopter can lift people and things, but a kite can lift spirits.”
We may be “married” to technology, to computers, to smartphones, and the like, some days seeming to have and to hold till death do we part. We may look for those iconic Facebook “likes” in something like a never-ending marriage reception where congratulations are always in order. Nevertheless, it is much pretense and not much heart. St. Paul’s “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal” have become cell phone rings, summoning us to a loveless marriage of convenience and self-congratulation.
That’s how I see it, and so, you will not find much of it in fiction I write. As Huck Finn says at the conclusion of Twain’s great novel, “I can’t stand it.”
Author’s note: “Riding Goats” was the title of a series of short op-ed pieces I wrote years ago, published in The Loyolan, my high school newspaper and in the Winona Courier, a diocesan weekly. Now, in my writing second childhood, I have decided to revive it.