Divine Madness

Is information technology — specifically our immersion in information networks — eroding narrative?

Steve opened this question, I think, with a pair of posts on the très chic poet Michael Robbins and poetry in the age of search engines. The Internet does not manifest as the totality of information — a vision of the good, true, and beautiful eidos — but as an endless fragmentary. (Like what is curiously — but more familiarly — named a kaleidoscope.) Our restless search for meaning has internalized the search engine. MacIntyreans may worry about the stakes for the narrative unity we must provide for our lives.

On a similar note, Peter Leithart glosses Present Shock, a 2012 book by Douglas Rushkoff that I haven’t read (and don’t plan to after reading the review):

Technology killed narrative, leaving us in an eternal now. We don’t have to watch entire TV shows anymore or tolerate thirty-second commercials. We click away in the middle of things and never return. Without the time and patience to wait for a plot to unfold, we live in a picaresque novel: one damn thing after another in a world that “just is.” We’ve been thrown into a game to puzzle out rules we don’t understand.

Ignatius J. Reilly is the main character of my favorite picaresque, John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces. New Orleans is a teeming mess of diverse cultural perspectives, sordid vice, and alternative lifestyles; beyond there are beatniks, university politics, and communists. Reilly — who can’t even make sense of how to treat his poor mother — has no chance to make sense of it all.

Of course he can’t, and so he doubles down on Boethius. His inability to comprehend the world is both crippling and empowering.  Reading Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly forces us back to the bizarre claim by Socrates in the Phaedrus that some of life’s greatest blessings come from “divine madness” (244a). Could this be true?

Even with all his comic exaggeration, Reilly has always struck me as a great hulking paradox. Sure, he is a lecherous bigot, a masturbating misogynist with no apparent virtues. At the same time he imagines himself to be a pure, innocent hero clinging tightly to some inner vision of the Good. But he is not simply a parody of the over-educated Catholic conservative, because there is his activism. Strangely, he ends up time and again as a highly motivated advocate of the downtrodden — leading bemused African-American factory workers and gay liberationists with utterly befuddling cross-purposes. His only endearing quality — is it enough to redeem him? — is quixotic.

Perhaps the Internet intensifies the experience of modernity. (One must no longer live in the French Quarter, the cities of the plain, or cities in general to see debauchery — we are all now inexorably cosmopolitan, in some ways.) Children at younger and younger ages, however swaddled in moral narratives, are exposed to the moral fragmentation of the world. Are we threatened with taking on the perspective of Ignatius J. Reilly, imagining vast confederacies of dunces arrayed against our genius?


2 responses to “Divine Madness

  1. “A firm rule must be imposed upon our nation before it destroys itself. The United States needs some theology and geometry, some taste and decency. I suspect that we are teetering on the edge of the abyss.”

  2. Pingback: Atmospheric Reentry for Those of Us Lost in the Clouds (or Cosmos) | sweep·

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