Journal Entry

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Middlemarch: The Video Game

I am reading Middlemarch, by George Eliot. It is a terrific, funny, masterful book.

Middlemarch is set in the 1820s. I am reading it in the 2010s.

Middlemarch is a well-written Novel of the Human Condition. In the 2010s, reading a well-written Novel of the Human Condition is a high-status activity. It is considered edifying. It displays one's educational prowess and sophistication. It is slightly old-fashioned in some quarters, perhaps, but all the more seen as rigorous and worthy for that. It is the sort of activity that do-gooders wish to encourage in the children of the less fortunate classes, for their elevation.

In the 1820s, of course, it was no such thing. In the 1820s it was a flashy, trashy, layabout activity:

"But I shall leave you to your studies, my dear[," said Mrs. Vincy,"] for I must go and do some shopping."

"Fred's studies are not very deep," said Rosamond, rising with her mamma; "he is only reading a novel."

"Well, by and by he'll go to his Latin and things," said Mrs. Vincy soothingly, stroking her son's head.

-- Middlemarch, Ch. XI

This scene might play out today, to be sure, but in a sense the categories "Latin" and "novel" would be arranged almost arbitrarily. Sure, if Fred is reading a novel which is not assigned for class, and skipping Latin which is, his sister may nag. But it is not the case today that the very fact of reading a novel is a sign, as Eliot employs it, for hedonistic slackerism; and few indeed are the curmudgeons today who rail against the tomfoolery of college classes where mere novels are assigned, as base distractions from the true objects of a gentleman's study, viz., Greek and Latin.

In the scene above, however, the sign of The Novel is deployed to illustrate Fred's gay dissolution, his mother's over-indulgence, and his sister's aspirational seriousness. Indeed, the ironic kick of the line "Fred's studies are not very deep" arises from the absurdity of the idea that reading a novel could be considered "one's studies" -- and the fact that Mrs. Vincy is being either over-delicate, or oblivious, in confusing the two.

Reading a novel in Middlemarch occupies the same social position, then, as playing a video game does today. Surely, some radical, progressive apologists might argue in 1820 for the edifying benefit of the better class of novels, just as some apologists today may treat of video games in the same manner; but they will be met with furrowed brows or polite smiles in their less novophilic contemporaries.

Let me ask you this, then: what, in 2100, will be derided as the low, hedonistic, addictive, mindless pursuit which concerned citizens will hope that the callow youth of the day will desist from (or indulge in with the greatest of moderation), so as to turn their attention to the uplifting, edifying, ennobling pursuit of playing video games?

Posted by benrosen at September 20, 2011 12:40 PM | Up to blog
Comments

This is funny.
Any time someone raises the question as to whether I am a slacker, I can just claim that my activities are noble, though premature.

Posted by: rusty at September 20, 2011 05:49 PM

Right!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 20, 2011 05:49 PM

You have identified one of my prejudices. Yes, I may sometimes allow myself to play Civilization as a very great treat, but never without the feeling of guilt because I "ought" to be doing something more "worthy" with my time. If video games really were uplifting, edifying, and ennobling pursuits, perhaps I'd feel differently, but I've yet to encounter a video game that could teach me as much about life as Middlemarch.

To answer your question, why not politics? I can easily imagine a world in which the concept of making it better is met with open derision.

Posted by: Matthew Gatheringwater at September 20, 2011 06:07 PM

Matthew -- I like that! That would bring us full circle, since, of course, the Romans and Greeks didn't think speaking Latin and Greek was all fancy, but revered politics as proper education.

Though my money is on something involving uncomfortably intimate and smart machines.

I share your prejudice, in terms of my reactions and emotions -- I too am far more likely to justify Civ to myself as a guilty pleasure than I am Middlemarch. And yet I am also aware that, in doing so, ultimately I am being just as shortsighted as Rosamond.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 20, 2011 06:19 PM

How about reliving?

"Kim ought to be spending more time on video games, learning agency and independent thought; instead, it seems like all he ever does is relive. Especially that nasty turn-of-the-century stuff. You know, I honestly think he's lived every member of the Kardashian family!"

Posted by: Jim Moskowitz at September 20, 2011 07:08 PM

Thinking about it more, perhaps that would actually be called dwelling. *Reliving* should be restricted to when you're dwelling in your own past. High-fidelity recording of all sensory experience certainly makes it tempting...

Posted by: Jim Moskowitz at September 21, 2011 04:21 AM

You might be onto something there, with the dwelling. Which is amusing, because, of course, dwelling completely inside the perspective of some other person's life is just what novels -- particularly Novels of Character, and particularly of Eliot's era -- aspired to!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 21, 2011 10:56 AM

I think dwelling/reliving is much too substantial to be the mindless pursuit of future youth. It'll be something like Twitter, but solitary, with no other people involved.

Posted by: Ted at September 21, 2011 07:12 PM

dwelling/reliving is much too substantial to be the mindless pursuit of future youth

Really? I was thinking of it as simply passively viewing a previously recorded life, and I can see that as being seen as insufficiently engaged. Kind of like TV...?

something like Twitter, but solitary, with no other people involved

So you make pithy remarks to the circle of your ephemerally generated, insubstantial alternate statistically extrapolated selves or ideal listeners?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 21, 2011 07:16 PM

Really? I was thinking of it as simply passively viewing a previously recorded life, and I can see that as being seen as insufficiently engaged. Kind of like TV...?

It's precisely because it's too similar to TV that it's insufficiently extrapolative.

The mindless pursuit of the future probably doesn't exist yet, but it will most likely appear unfathomably mindless to us. So my hypothetical solitary Twitter won't even seem to consist of "pithy remarks," but more like Butt-Head's "Uh huh huh huh" without even a Beavis present.

Posted by: Ted at September 21, 2011 08:37 PM
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