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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?

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