A man who climbs a mountain to see the sunrise sees something quite different from that which is shown in a magic lantern to a man sitting in an arm-chair. — G.K. Chesterton.
Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton was offering up a luminous metaphor when he wrote those words. Believe it or not, he was writing about broadcasting. Chesterton died in 1936, during the adolescence of radio and long before television. But in this case he seems obviously to be writing about the emerging capability of broadcasters to reproduce visual images on a universal scale, hence the reference to a magic lantern.
Chesterton’s life bridged Victorian and modern times. In his experience, a “magic lantern” was an image projector that — and I did not know this — dated all the way back to the 17th Century as a source of entertainment. It originally projected hand-painted slides through a light source, probably a candle. Ultimately, as time went on, it could project photographic images with the help of an electric light source. That could include things like, well….sunsets. (Chesterton’s contemporary Oscar Wilde said we did not value sunsets because we cannot pay for them. Check your cable bill this month and see how much you’re paying for sports, news, entertainment — and maybe a few sunsets.)
Grand as were Chesterton’s many paradoxical insights on many subject, he seemed, for the duration of this short essay — and the duration of his relatively brief 62-year life — to be casting a cold eye on this new broadcast technology, seeing it as an unworthy and potentially duplicitous substitute for the real world. He feared it would make us lazy; inclined to settle for the mock reality over reality itself — among other evils. To his mind, that would probably include the mass propagation of audal and visual dross, trivia, lies, and other garbage on line, and on big and small screens. Chesterton, Catholic apologist and Victorian curmudgeon, was foretelling our wired future.
Paradoxically, Chesterton seems elsewhere in the course of the same short and obscure essay to acknowledge the undeniable mass social function of the coming mass media. I sense, however, that he might have wanted that function limited to letting us know when we’re about to have a bomb dropped on our heads. In the years after his death, many bombs would be dropped on many heads, or be planted in backpacks. I was two blocks from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and I definitely heard the bombs with my own unaided ears. But only my colleagues the videographers made it possible for me and millions, after the fact, to see and hear the explosions and their horrible aftermath by means of the prostheses known as cameras, microphones and TV. We may not have wanted to see or hear them.
Beyond sunrises and sunsets, we would all, in our lifetimes, be seeing “movie pictures” of things we were not certain we wanted to see, the World Trade Center attacks, for instance. But there’s no turning back the clock — or turning off the camera. Feel free to turn off the TV. But if you’re sitting in a Fifth Avenue bar/restaurant, you may find yourself encircled with flat screens instantly replaying, in living color and sometimes with sound, things that very recently happened everywhere, from Afghanistan to Gillette Stadium. I guarantee on nightly news, you’ll see lots of cellphone video of the undesirable. Cell phones — now we all have the entire virtual world in the palm of our hands — good, bad, ugly.
Speaking of Fifth Avenue, I’ll always remember the time walking down “America’s Street” sometime back in the 70s and seeing a guy sitting under an inverted cardboard box with the equivalent of a TV screen cut out of the front of it. His face was in “the screen” and he was talking to passersby on the busy sidewalk, as if he were on TV. Wonderfully crazy people, God bless them, stand on sidewalks and chatter all the time to people, especially in a place like New York City. This guy must have figured he’d command more attention if he looked like one of those corporate oracles known as “broadcasters” — especially “news” broadcasters — than if he were merely standing there in his ragged street clothes holding forth on matters he deemed important. Call it, thinking inside the box. ( An added anecdote to this anecdote is that, immediately after taking note of this boxed broadcaster, I looked up to see, about five paces away, Tom Wolfe approaching from the other direction, gently easing into a refined but appreciative smile at the sight of this bit of performance art. (And how did I know it was Tom Wolfe? Well, I’d seen him in many a “magic lantern” — unmistakable in a double-breasted, yellow pinstriped suit and distinctive hoary coiffure. The modern media have made it possible for us to recognize and even believe we know people we may never see or really know. But I know I saw Tom Wolfe, and I’ll bet the “boxed man” was glad to see him, in all his trademark sartorial splendor, perhaps hoping he had Wolfe’s consequential attention.
As for Chesterton and broadcasting: In 1931, The BBC invited him to give a series of radio talks. It’s been noted that he accepted “tentatively,” but, beginning in 1932, gave forty talks a year. Some scratchy recordings have been preserved by the mass technological means Chesterton foretold and may be heard somewhere on that trash barge of the internet.
I think, had he been born at another time, old G.K. could not have resisted the allure and undeniable power of the coming “magic lantern” that is television.