A Post-Literate Age

One of the paradoxes of the modern world is the fact that while statistical literacy has never been higher, a mature literary sensibility is fast disappearing.  We have taught millions of people to read and write, but there are fewer and fewer persons of sophisticated verbal ability, even among our supposedly erudite teachers and professors.

Read an article in a learned journal, and you will be shocked by the jargon, the sheer vulgar banality, the absence of style and grace.  You will say “Here is someone who is entrusted with the teaching of our young people, and he shows not the slightest sense of verbal expertise, wit, or even belles lettres.”  In 1940, the articles in PMLA were expertly composed.  In 2009, the articles in PMLA are unreadable.  And, dear reader, if you are going to try to defend that development on some specious grounds like “diversity” or “openness” or “paradigm shifts,” then just stop reading here.  You are part of the problem, and I consider you beneath contempt.
Let’s give a more specific example.  Recently at Hunter College I was in the elevator when four graduate assistants entered.  They had been hired by the English Department to teach freshman composition and the intro-to-lit courses.  As we descended, these four argued about what in the world the term harrow meant, as it occurs in the ghost scene of Hamlet, and in the medieval text The Harrowing of Hell.  None of them had the faintest idea what the word signified.
They really didn’t care.  As far as they were concerned, it was an extremely obscure and obsolete word of no real importance, so why should they worry about it, much less look it up?  Their immediate collective interest lay in getting down to the faculty dining room as soon as possible, so they could order their organic yogurt and decaf cappuccino, and decide which comedy club to visit that evening.
These are the sort of post-literate people being hired to teach English today, and who in the course of time will eventually dominate literature faculties throughout the United States.  If they didn’t know what the word harrow means, can you imagine the range of vocabulary that is also beyond them?   Would such a radical lack of curiosity concerning language—their professed field of expertise—be conceivable in college faculty half a century ago?  But in a post-literate age, their attitude is quite normal.  Why learn any word that isn’t part of one’s daily conversation? 
What is a “post-literate age”?  It’s an age when literacy ceases to be the dominant mode of human thought and discourse, and retreats to being just another option in the spectrum of communication.  Since it becomes merely one skill among many, literacy is no longer cultivated with the love and intensity that literate persons in the past devoted to it.  People have enough to get by, and no more.
It’s an age where people don’t actually love books—the touch, the texture, the look of them—in the way that was always common among highly literate persons in the past.  It’s an age where no one feels it necessary to own an extensive library, much less spend money on fine bindings and rare editions.  It’s an age where people want a summary (the gist or “the skinny,” as they vulgarly put it) rather than the detailed flow of rhetorical copia.  It’s an age of misspelled, ungrammatical e-mails and barely decipherable text-messaging, where persons would no more dream of writing a longhand letter on fine stationery with a fountain pen than they would consider putting on a whalebone corset.  It’s an age where having an extensive vocabulary is considered unnecessary, pretentious, and even vaguely insulting to others.  I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
Part of the post-literate age manifests itself in impatience, or a basic unwillingness to take the extra time and energy required to appreciate the more complex aspects of language.  Why know what thrice means if you can just say “three times”?  Why bother distinguishing between who and whom, or that and which?  Why use the subjunctive in dependent clauses?  None of these niceties seems necessary to a certain type of modern mentality.  I once tried to explain to a woman (she actually taught in a college English Department) that Greek had a multiplicity of participial forms, each with a slightly different nuance of meaning.  She rolled her eyes in exasperation and said “Who needs them?  Thank God we have only two in English!”  She had apparently never heard of the perfect participle. 
Want to dismiss me as a cranky, out-of-touch, right-wing old fogey?  Sure, I’ll cop to that.  But the issue isn’t merely details of idiom and usage.  It’s a lot more serious than forgetting the subjunctive.  Think about your children and their brainless addiction to TV, video games, and mind-numbing rap music.  Think of their cultureless inattention to any text or fact dated earlier than last week.  Think of their utter inability to form a clear sentence, much less a coherent thought.  Those are your kids.  I see them every day in my classroom.  Those are the airheaded lemmings that a post-literate age produces.  If you’re happy with that development, fine.  But just keep your mouth shut in the future when the next library closes, or another newspaper goes out of business, or one more repertory theater bites the dust.  We can do without your hypocritical whining.
Albert Jay Nock famously asked “How can one tell that one is living in a Dark Age?”  The question has the advantage of being both facetious and frightening.  T.S. Eliot himself observed, back around 1950, that the cultural levels of that time were markedly lower than they had been half a century earlier in his youth.  Can you imagine what Eliot would say if he were alive now?  That most fastidious and erudite of poets would no doubt look upon us as Hottentots.
The coming of this post-literate age was foreseen by some people.  In Germany, thinkers like Friedrich Jünger and Romano Guardini sensed it as early as the 1940s, and predicted some of its characteristics.  Others, like the Canadian pop-guru Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, celebrated its advent.  But whether damned or welcomed, the post-literate age is here to stay.  As the Cumaean Sibyl says, “The descent to Avernus is easy—coming back is the difficult thing.”  It’s going to take a few centuries to repair the damage, even though it’s not a very long time since the early stirrings of modernism, and our current predicament.
I’m often accused of blaming the modernists for everything.  I don’t.  The early modernists, though guilty of many crimes, had the advantage of being highly cultured and well-read persons with a sophisticated literary sensibility.  They may have opened the floodgates for the sewage that currently inundates the arts, but that was not their intention.  Pound was appalled at what poetry in the Anglophone world had become by 1970.  In a famous New York Times interview towards the end of his life, he screamed “Disorder!  Disorder!  I can’t be blamed for all this disorder!”
Poor Pound.  He was partly to blame, and I think he knew it.  If he hadn’t been so all-fired rambunctious and combative in 1912, blasting away at the Victorians, the Edwardians, the Georgians, and anyone else who still maintained the inherited craft, maybe genuine poetry would have survived a bit longer.  But violent rebellion was part of the Zeitgeist of those heady days, so the collapse of aesthetic traditions (parallel to the simultaneous collapse of political, cultural, and religious traditions) was probably inevitable.  If it hadn’t been Pound, someone else would have come along.
That is the overall context in which we have to understand our post-literate age.  When an entire civilization begins to disintegrate, it’s naïve to imagine that the inherited norms of literate discourse are going to be any more exempt from overall decay than any other part of the tradition.  They’ll die too, along with everything else.  Our post-literate condition is of a piece with all the garbage that surrounds us.  Modernism didn’t cause this to happen, but modernism was one of the opportunistic infections, so to speak, of a more generalized syndrome.
But that doesn’t mean we have to celebrate what happened.  It doesn’t mean that we should sit around with complacent smiles on our faces, accepting artistic and cultural degeneracy with the same sort of equanimity that we feel in the face of inclement weather.  True, nothing can be done about the situation now.  But we can still spit venom at it, and at its mindless partisans. 


Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.