It occurred to me, today in the shower (locale for many soggy epiphanies) that we humans have set ourselves up to live the most unnatural lives possible. Caught between technology and imposed restraint, we are as far from Rousseau’s “Noble Savage” as we are from Saturn’s rings.
To wit: we get up in the morning and put on uncomfortable clothes. Women, to conform with society’s mores, regularly torture themselves with pantyhose and heels. We arrive at work and immediately shut down our true selves. Smile at those we hate. Nod vigorously at the boss’s new idea even though it reeks of stupidity. Listen thoughtfully as he/she insults us, giving a desultory “thank you” after being belittled.
Profess joy at camping in a cubicle, with its low-hanging beige “walls” and life-sapping florescent “sun.” None of our interactions at work is genuine: it’s just societal conditioning, based on the premise that we all are thrilled to be there and that serving as a capitalist cog is as good as it can get. We crow about being “team players” when we actually despise the team and would rather work alone. We pretend that a four-hour meeting is better than a trip to Hawaii; that our colleague droning about “process” is like Branagh performing Lear.
We gladly assist our own jailers: disapproving anyone who doesn’t conform (did you see the length of her skirt?!); volunteering to work overtime and cutting into the short hours we have where we can dare to be ourselves: at home.
All of our responses are mechanical, based on what we think we should do. I will attend that noxious party because it is expected. I won’t ram the Mercedes that just cut me off because that would intimate anger. I will pretend to listen to a crazy person because it is polite. I will bite my tongue a thousand times throughout the day, because if I really express my thoughts, I will be fired/arrested/shunned.
And the constructs that we’ve built to keep our True Selves in a box: great inhuman cities which have raped the natural world and robbed it of its splendor; exhaust-spewing cars meant to keep us in isolation – gridlocked on the freeways; following a predetermined path. Skyscrapers like the one in Sinclaire Lewis’s “Zenith” dwarf their creators, creating nexuses of worker bees who seldom go outside.
We don’t need technology to turn ourselves into robots. We’ve done it all by ourselves, for in order to survive (or buy pretty things that make us feel better about ourselves), we’ve adopted our “professional” persona, which means: no display of actual feeling; an exterior that spouts buzzwords and executes (i.e. “fires”) others because the uber-person (the company) is clearly uber alles.
In this world, we’re not really allowed to show compassion (oh, somebody’s fill-in-the-blank died, let’s send a card); a businessperson gives money to the homeless (is there something wrong with her?!); there’s a horrific accident on the freeway (let’s all stop and gawk).
Of course, society has always encouraged anti-human behavior: think Court Of Louis XIV or Hitler’s Germany. It is not a natural instinct to ritualize the drinking of chocolate or to engage in brutal genocide. Both require permission: a mass mindset that says this is OK and in fact, perfectly natural.
Technology tends to isolate further and leads to alienation. That friend you used to call on the phone? Easier to text or send an email. That relative you used to have over? Skype her on webcam instead. That lid you used to snap shut when you got up from your desk, the one that separated Work Life from Your Life? Forget it — it’s gone, replaced by the Android leash. Chaplin brilliantly captured what Marx called “the objectification of the subjective” in his seminal Modern Times. Now factory workers can’t even be dehumanized, since they’ve largely been replaced by robots.
Even Art has evolved from Naturalism (the depiction of real things) to the highly abstract. Is this a progression, or another nullification of the physical world? We know that movies used to contain characters and dialog; they still do – minimally – but now they’re about monsters, aliens, and disasters courtesy of ILM. Music, with the evolution of synthesizers, has been artificial for decades, but now even singing is unnatural, tweaked by Auto-Tune. Thankfully, there are still acoustic instruments, and orchestras that play them.
Writing may be the art least affected by the Unnatural: someone sits down and fills up a page with words, and those words often express real emotion and thoughts, stripped of social PC. Whether they’re disseminated between covers or on a Kindle does not change the intimacy of the medium. Updike is still Updike, and his prose (“The great thing about the dead, they make space.”) conveys truth whatever the form.
Look around at the world we’ve created. It’s finite, confining, concrete. We’ve subjected every species to our mastery, and we’ve put them in cages too. Even our “rebellion” is choreographed, as with flash mobs and performance art.
The natural world is shrinking. It’s being paved over, burnt, and polluted out of existence. Soon the tribes that are living in Nature will lose their habitat and be paved over too.
You could say that nobody wants this modern world – except for those who exploit it. No one really wants to put on heels, a feigned smile, and a Blackberry, to march inside an environment poisoned by the fake . Yet we do it, day after day. We don’t pause to question: “Do I have to agree with that asshole just ‘cause he’s the boss? “ “Do I have to pretend to like that woman even though she’s screwed me over?” “Do I need to nod complacently when that guy is taken away, never to be seen again?”
Solzhenitsyn said: “If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being? ” Our collective caution has become a prison where we deny our natural personhood, and with it, everyone else’s.