Readers of this blog will recall my praise for his novel last month, but you might also want to check out CONTINENTAL SHELF, his 2009 poetry collection that contained “Elegies,” his long and masterful ode the victims of the April 16, 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. I referred to that poem several times in the course of our interview. Because CONTINENTAL SHELF was only published (to my knowledge) in England, it really didn’t receive the attention it deserved in this country.
My conversation with Mr. D’Aguiar actually ran quite a bit longer than what was published in The Rumpus. Bits and pieces were cut by me from the transcribed conversation because of space considerations. The other day, I found myself thinking about one of those unpublished bits:
NK: Can you recall where you were—you would have been in London, I guess, when you first heard of Jonestown, the massacre and suicides? Can you recall that moment vividly?
Fred D’Aguiar: It wasn’t a moment. It was a series of days and weeks…The news traveled more slowly back in the 1970s.
NK: I was remembering that the other day. In this country, we heard first of Congressman Leo Ryan’s shooting a day after the fact. Then, dribs and drabs of the mass suicides came out over the following days.
Fred D’Aguiar: It was a real trickle. And the good thing about a trickle of news is that you’re able to listen and hear. It settles in the body, and then it gets corrected slowly. Right now, the news goes off as a kind of bombardment and there’s no real sense of deciphering it. You have to hear fact, counter-fact, a barrage of them. So what you’re doing, which is what I find now, I’m responding to a portion of those facts and trying to slow down my response.
Whereas, back then, you heard something, and then the picture was gradually added to, incrementally, and so you were able to digest the news and theorize about it. Whereas, now, there’s no chance to make a theory. There’s all these quick responses are fired off. And people are doing things now where they’re even firing off a response before they’re even accepting what’s going on around them, so in the middle of something happening, people are sending off news about responses. How can you respond to it if you’re only in the middle of it? So what’s happening is that they’re only half-engaged.
So, for me, that time was the privileged time that’s now lost forever, but it meant that you could hear the news and really listen to the news.
The other day, The Washington Post published an article about how digital and online reading is changing the way we process information. The brain is a highly adaptive organ. Neuroscientists warn that the short sentences, quick links, and the constant impulse towards “non-linear” jumps that one typically finds when reading online articles and websites is re-wiring our brains. Comprehension issues are at stake. Anecdotal evidence exists that college-age students are no longer able to access complicated sentence structures, thus perhaps forcing educators to dumb-down assigned texts.
“I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James,” said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist.
So how does this relate to the quickening pace in which television news organizations report events around the world? Well, I wonder if the flood of information somehow deadens our abilities to understand what is happening. Or even empathize with what the victims of a tragedy experience.
We’ve all experienced times when we’re been riveted to the television for hours on end during the course of some national or international tragedy. Although television is a great medium for delivering images, it’s a horrible medium for conveying anything but a superfluous understanding of root causes and in-depth analysis. So, to fill air time, we’re bombarded with snap judgments, quick opinion polls, and video collages.
I can’t any longer access a bygone era in which news was delivered at a slower pace, but my suspicion is that, in the absence of a constant stream of new information, our minds become more active in sifting through and understanding what has been delivered. We step in and imagine, for instance, what it must have been like to be a child who is forced by a parent or cult elder to sip the Dixie Cup of Kool-Ade that Jim Jones has just poured for you. We imagine, for instance, what it must have been like to listen to the agonizing moans of those dying all around Jonestown’s central pavilion. We imagine, for instance, what it must have been like to experience the great events of our lives.
Thank you for stopping by this blog and reading this post. If you have time, please check out some of my other postings. Here’s an older one about my 2011 Thanksgiving. And here’s one about my feelings toward Jane Fonda, cosmetics and beauty.