In Search of Lost Time

David Clemens

Around 10 B.C.E., the Roman poet Horace asserted that poetry’s purpose is “to delight and instruct.”  More recently, in the Wall Street Journal, James Collins declared that in her novels, Jane Austen delights and instructs in how to live a moral life.  He asks, "What, then, are the values that Austen would teach us? Value-laden words and phrases appear again and again in her work, often in clusters: self- knowledge, generosity, humility; elegance, propriety, cheerful orderliness; good understanding, correct opinion, knowledge of the world, a warm heart, steady, observant, moderate, candid, sensibility to what is amiable and lovely." Austen’s words boggle the modern mind as quaintly alien and vaguely religious.  They are signifiers of archaic virtues foreign to our national conversation.  Today, there is only one master virtue that trumps all others:  tolerance. However, real moral instruction is predicated on narrative, the arrangement of events in Time such that choices and actions have perceptible consequences.  Unfortunately, our wired and wireless world tirelessly militates against narrative.  On electronic networks, as Sven Birkerts put it, everything is “laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative” and what comes before is unrelated to what comes after.  The hyperlink replaces the transition word (linking may be a major factor in the decline of student ability in logic, grammar, and narrative understanding).  Students don’t even perceive cause and effect relationships because they have returned to an Eden-of-the-screens, outside of Time, dwelling in what Lewis Lapham called “the enchanted garden of the eternal now.”

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