Consider, if you will, a nudist avatar. Don’t worry, for the moment, about what it has to do with Christmas – even if I was introduced to this mind-bending oxymoron in a casual discussion between two thirtysomething lawyers talking across me at a Christmas lunch. It has something to do with the idea being not merely a conception but a contraption.
One of my neighbours was describing a divorce case. It was initiated by a wife incensed by her husband’s idealised self stripping down to his imaginary perfection with other believers in the same –ism – nudism – on Second Life, the all-digital Never-Never Land. Nudism, we know, is supposed to be about divesting yourself of all the artifice and status encoding that create needless barriers between human beings; about accepting the brute facts of your physical endowment with pride and joy. A vision of swaying, jiggling and drooping en masse inflicted on me on a Greek island at the long-ago age of twenty-one is engraved on the part of my brain that stores minor traumas.
But if nudism is about accepting and celebrating reality, what does it mean to take it all off not you, but the being you’ve invented to give reality the slip?
This manoeuvre struck me as almost as convoluted and unfathomable as some of the contraptions of W. Heath Robinson – the cartooning inventor-fabulist whose flighty meditation on the origin of the classic seasonal food I have borrowed to say – H A P P Y – C H R I S T M A S – a bit early, to everyone checking in here.
I had for some days before the lunch been wandering into an online gallery of his work, trying to decide whether, for example, I liked Compressed Billiards for Maisonettes more than A Cloud Dispeller Designed by the First Lord Discovering a Heinkel Bomber Hiding in a Cloud. That was because some of us on this site had been comparing his work to the creations of Jean Tinguely, the Swiss artist who specialised in designing satirical mechanical sculptures — with, Hazlitt told us, practically no justification at all.
From the lawyerly tête-à-tête, I gathered that the couple in the nudist avatar divorce were, like my fellow guests, in their early thirties – the average age of Second Lifers. When we got to the pudding course, they were complaining that the long sentences and descriptions of Charles Dickens were complicated and annoying, which made me rather sad. I find it disheartening that a generation after my own seems to have no patience whatsoever with his style of mental knotting — but unlimited tolerance for mental acrobatics involving figures in the pedestrian artists’ illustrations that pass for avatars.
How could anyone prefer those pictures to – for instance — the scene in A Christmas Carol when Dickens begins to turn up the suspense for Scrooge’s first haunting with an unexpected reminder of his partner, Marley, who has been dead for six years. On his way home from work, the peerless grump enters ‘a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard,’ and, Dickens continues,
. . . let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened
that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door,
saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate
process of change–not a knocker, but Marley’s face.
Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow
as the other objects in the yard were, but had a
dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark
cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked
at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly
spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The
hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air;
and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly
motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it
horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the
face and beyond its control, rather than a part of
its own expression.
Only being tickled made me giggle as much as listening to this passage, at some age before independent reading – and it has much the same effect on me now.
Do younger people – no matter how bright they are – find sentences of many clauses indigestible because no one read them to them properly, when they were children? I mean, pronounce them rivetingly, varying tone and pace so that understanding the way they worked became instinctive?
Or does the gap between their ability to enjoy Dickensian and digital fantasy have something to do with an inescapable requirement that a solipsism quotient be met? As readers, we let authors annexe our imaginations. It’s different in our compulsive contemporary electronic playgrounds, which cater to self-love by letting us insert pseudo-selves – artefacts of our own imaginations – into stories we help to shape. The imagery is shallow and two-dimensional by comparison with what minds following the multi-faceted directions of, say, a Dickens, can conjure and generate. But in imaginative entertainment, we’ve apparently entered the age of No Complexity Without Vanity.
A shrug seems the only possible response: autres temps, autres moeurs.
Another year is ending, and there’s no holding back progress.