The pressure of reality: What a wonderfully powerful phrase. And connecting the words of poet Wallace Stevens to the ‘tyranny’ of the omniscient, ubiquitous 24/7 news is brilliant.
Let me explain.
Recently, a good friend asked my opinion on the ongoing debates about Obamacare, the performance of the President with a couple of specific questions regarding recent events in the administration of the man who many regard as crazed, Donald Trump. My friend was especially interested in what I had to say about health policy since I’d spent a career in academic medicine.
I told him that I could answer none of his questions because I lacked the knowledge to do so as well as the desire to gain it. Even the one which should be of interest to me: health care. Some of the reasons for my lack of interest in the institution mistakenly called, ‘health care’ have been covered elsewhere.
It was Wallace Stevens who penned that delicious phrase, the pressure of reality, decades before the acronym for north, east, west, and south co-opted the homes and the psyches of Americans. The news was deemed essential to our lives, instituting a new commandment: the need and right to be informed. A new profession was born to distill the tidal wave of information, opinion-makers with perfect hair and teeth which somehow augmented their credibility. Despite evidence to the contrary a majority of Americans believe that their safety and peace of mind reside in the words of strangers on a screen.
Wallace Stevens’ published his book, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination was in 1951 and titled it after one of his poems:
I am the necessary angel of earth,
since, in my sight, you see the earth again,
Cleared of its set and stubborn, man-locked set….
I have not read the book nor the poem in its entirety but these first few words illustrate the raw power of poetry, the vast truths implicit in just four words, “stubborn, man-locked set,” arrogance, greed, blindness, distortion, perversion are just a few which spring out from the phrase.
Maria Popov terms Wallace’s words as ‘astoundingly prescient’ because they were written over half a century before the present tyranny of the 24/7 news cycle. Is she being overly dramatic when she uses the word tyranny?
Before you answer, consider the passage Popov quotes from Wallace’s book:
By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.
For more than ten years now, there has been an extraordinary pressure of news — let us say, news incomparably more pretentious than any description of it, news, at first, of the collapse of our system, or, call it, of life; then of news of a new world, but of a new world so uncertain that one did not know anything whatever of its nature, and does not know now, and could not tell whether it was to be all-English, all-German, all-Russian, all-Japanese, or all-American, and cannot tell now; and finally news of a war, which was a renewal of what, if it was not the greatest war, became such by this continuation.
And for more than ten years, the consciousness of the world has concentrated on events which have made the ordinary movement of life seem to be the movement of people in the intervals of a storm. The disclosures of the impermanence of the past suggested, and suggest, an impermanence of the future. Little of what we have believed has been true… It is a question of pressure, and pressure is incalculable and eludes the historian. The Napoleonic era is regarded as having had little or no effect on the poets and the novelists who lived in it. But Coleridge and Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen did not have to put up with Napoleon and Marx and Europe, Asia and Africa all at one time.
That first sentence bears repeating: By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation. (italics mine)
And in this 21st century where so many have ceded their common sense to strangers, we now have intriguing new reasons for more psychoactive drugs: internet addiction, social media addiction are two possibilities for inclusion on the DSM 5. And the advice to look before you cross the street has been appropriated by the need to check smart phones for the latest text message.
Try taking a day off from the news, and see what good things may pop up from your imagination, a consciousness freed from fear. And then maybe tomorrow too.