All hail Big Other, in whom we live and move and have our being.
All hail Big Other, from whom so many blessings flow.
All hail Big Other, than which no greater can be conceived.
All hail The Big Other: definitely the definite article.
All hail The Big Udder, nourishing us minute by minute with unceasing dopamine hits.
We, brothers and sisters, have been saved, universally and eternally, for BO has elected us all.
Even Nietzsche. The watchman arrives in the Silicon Valley. “God is dead,” he cries. “You have killed him!”
“Oh yeah?” Steve Jobs counters, and tosses an iPhone his way. “What do you make of that?”
The epiphany is immediate. The watchman—after so, so long—smiles. Happiness rises like the sun. They pose for a selfie.
The end of history indeed.
I hear all the questions, too. Loosen up—what’s the harm in a tweet? If we can travel by plane for good ends, surely we can talk by tweet?
But I hear a response rumbling from below, another Berry line: “Thus the age perfects its clench.”
In 1945, speaking before an audience haunted by harrowing high-tech catastrophe, C. S. Lewis granted that the material developments of the modern world appeared irreversible. But this was for him no cause for relief, let alone celebration. “I think it probable that the collectivism of our life is necessary and will increase,” he offered, “and I think that our only safeguard against its deathly properties is in a Christian life, for we were promised that we could handle serpents and drink deadly things and yet live.” “God will be our shield and buckler,” he intoned.
I do not doubt that some may be endowed with a calling that today requires a tweeting presence. But the sober spirit of spiritual warfare is not exactly what comes to mind when I consider our techno-ways. We’re conflicted, in one mood glib optimists about what we’re achieving in the Big Ether and in another resigned realists in the face of intractable, omnipresent structures. So we luxuriate in the greyness of the now-and-not yet, relaxing into irony. It’s all so ‘90s, with Richard Rorty’s “Kuwaiti bazaar” growing more exotic by the month.
Twitter is to intellectual life what Walmart is to economic life.
But Rorty is dead. Let’s keep it that way. Let’s move beyond irony’s dead-end. Twitter is to intellectual life what Walmart is to economic life. We’re all shopping. We’re all dropping. How many more “can’t-read-books-anymore” confessions from hitherto first-rate intellectuals can we take—especially when made against the backdrop of the Ether-glazed stares of our students? Our children?
Moving beyond a dead-end requires a re-routing, and Stewart’s piercing (yet blessedly light-spirited) cri de coeur helps us to see what that may require. By invoking Berry, Stewart is not pointing us to a saint so much as to a survivor, one who has fought to remember another path—a remembering Berry has achieved by preserving the best of what has been, rather than simply writing about it. Refusing to sanction with his life a world shaped by Huxleyan means for Orwellian ends, Berry keeps us in touch with an older, more excellent way.
A letter is worth a thousand tweets. Maybe a million.
Let’s call it the old republic—the republic of letters. I draw no small comfort, and in fact considerable inspiration, from the fact that most of the satisfactions that were available to Edwards, to Jefferson, to Thoreau are also available to me. I too can enjoy an essay. I can hike through the woods. I can play the guitar. I can write to friends. I can go to church. I can walk with my wife, watch baseball with my sons, roast a turkey. It’s worth remembering that Jefferson, our greatest scholar-president, published one single book in his lifetime. But he wrote thousands of letters. As they may one day say, a letter is worth a thousand tweets. Maybe a million.
It was the republic of letters that made democracy thinkable. As our thinking about democracy’s fortunes proceeds in the opposite direction, might we not consider embracing the material, intellectual, and social conditions that sparked our longing for it in the first place? And that made us long, I dare say, for each other?
Thank you, Matthew Stewart. The life you are saving may not simply be your own. Let us, with Berry, stand for what we stand on—not our “platforms” but the very ground of being, with our souls properly attuned to the holiness that is, whatever lies our addled senses may be whispering.