Eca de Queiros and a Metaphysical Googlelarity

McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of EffectsWe know technology changes us, rearranges the sensorium; the printing press, for example, gave the eye dominance over the ear, as McCluhan explained. But is technological change bad for us? What do we value? What do we want? We survive by our abilities to adapt; change is irrelevant. The question shouldn’t be “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” but, is Google making us happy?

In Eca de Queiros’s The City and the Mountains (1895, new Margaret Jull Costa translation from New Directions, 2008) civilization is defined and confined by its “machines and instruments” (p. 50): “Defeated, my Prince slouched into his study and did the rounds of all those machines intended to complete or facilitate Life – the Telegraph, the Telephone, the Phonograph, the Radiometer, the Graphophone, the Microphone, the Writing Machine, the Adding Machine, the Electric Press, the Magnetic Press, all his tools and tubes and wires…” (p. 120).

There’s even a link, 1895 version: “Then, desperately, he linked No. 202 up with the telegraphic wires of The Times, so that his study, like a heart, would pulsate with the whole Social Life of Europe” (p. 114-115).

But the ruling class isn’t happy, and getting on their machines does nothing to improve their foolishness: “Like some icy, melancholy sun, the Electricity blazed down on the silence and on the pensive immobility of all those backs and all those décolletages. From each attentive ear, cupped by a hand, hung a black wire, like a piece of intestine…superior, civilized beings devoutly and silently drinking in the obscenities Gilberte was bleating down the line at them from beneath the soil of Paris, through wires buried in the gutters, close by the sewers…” (p. 62-63). They are all logged on, severally, to the “Theaterphone.”

The problem is the city, civilization, machines that lack the ability to bestow grace: “But the City has its most deleterious effects on Man’s Intelligence, which it either imprisons in banality or drives into wild extravagance” (p. 93). The city lights do not illuminate most of its inhabitants: “If the illusion of the City could at the very least make all the people who maintained it happy, but it patently fails!” (p. 94). And so they leave for the mountains of the title, taking only a small part of the “super-civilized Prince’s sumptuous collection” with them.

Were it 2009, would they be taking their laptops, which, like Stevens’s jar in “Anecdote of the Jar,” would likely jar the nature of the mountains and their own alike, like nothing else in Portugal? We find out in the second half of The City and the Mountains.

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