Should the human race survive the twentieth of those wondrous centuries since shepherds quaked at the sight of God’s birth in a Middle Eastern stable (all in all, a bad career move), our century will be noted more for what we managed to lose along the way than for what we acquired. Although the physical sciences took off, literally, and some rightly stuffed American men with nothing much to say lurched about the moon, sublunary population was allowed to get out of control to such an extent that much of the earth’s good land was covered with cement in order to house the new arrivals while the waters of the globe are now so poisoned that on the just and the unjust alike pale acid rain everywhere softly falls. As we get more people, we lose “amenities” of every sort.
The century that began with a golden age in all the arts (or at least the golden twilight of one) is ending not so much without art as without the idea of art, while the written culture that was the core of every educational system since the fifth century BC is now being replaced by sounds and images electronically transmitted. As human society abandoned the oral tradition for the written text, the written culture is giving way to an audiovisual one. This is a radical change, to say the least; and none of us knows quite how to respond. Obviously the change cannot be all bad. On the other hand, what is to become of that written language which was for two millennia wisdom’s only mold? What is to become of the priests of literature, as their temples are abandoned? What happens to the work of (now one strikes plangently the diminuendo!) Logan Pearsall Smith?
It is startling to think that someone like Pearsall Smith actually lived most of his life in our century. Entirely possessed by the idea of literature, Logan was besotted with language and “the lovely art of writing.” As a result, he spent almost as much time searching for the right unhackneyed adjective to describe the moon as any of that body’s recent callers spent in getting there. He even belonged to something called the Society for Pure English, surely long since dispersed, along with its objective. Yet he was not a pedant; he believed in “Idiom before Grammar.” Finally, like so many of us, in old age, Logan fell in love—with the adverb.
There is something heroic in all this. There is also something beautifully irrelevant to a culture where the idea of literature is being erased by the word processor while even its memory is less than green in the minds of those proud school-teachers who are currently charting for themselves vast cosmogonies of words and signs in the vacuum of Academe. Logan actually thought that there was such a thing as good—even…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.