In the presence of reality

March 5, 2010

Recently, I was accused of being ‘out of touch with reality’ because I don’t have a television. The person who said this certainly hadn’t thought about it at all, but perhaps felt that I was being pretentious. (She also seemed to believe that it was hypocritical to enjoy films on DVD, unless also watching telly.) What perturbed me, in retrospect, was the assumption, vehemently held, that things on TV were somehow more real than actual experiences. Thus the celebrities chatting she’d watched that afternoon were more true, more like ‘real life’, than the people walking under the beech trees I’d simultaneously seen on Hampstead Heath.

This might not have depressed me so much, except that I’d just had a long cross-purposes conversation with an older person, which exposed a similar confusion. We were talking about beautiful natural sights we remembered – a goose-skein flying along the horizon, a flock of redwings landing in a snowy rowan-tree – and she said that the most extraordinary of such moments, in her experience, had been thousands of flamingoes rising up from their great lake. It transpired that the lake had been in Africa, the marvellous experience on her television. (Of course, the nature programmes are marvellous etc etc, but not – surely – quite the same as a personal encounter?)

But then, think of the eclipse. The total eclipse of the sun, a few years ago now, was broadcast live, so people could see this remarkable natural phenomenon relayed onto their TV screen inside, while it was actually taking place outside. (Is this ‘in touch with reality’?) The reason was supposedly because of the risk of eye-damage – as though the very newspapers hadn’t been giving away free specs to watch it through a glass darkly for weeks beforehand. No, it was because it would seem more impressive, worthy of notice, like a ‘real’ happening, if it could be watched on telly.

Virginia Woolf, again, had strong views on the writer’s relationship to reality, which she was so often accused of knowing nothing about, often by critics who confused it with realism, or a realistic style of writing. In A Room of One’s Own she wrote:

‘What is meant by ‘reality’? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable – now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now in a daffodil in the sun… It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech – and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly… But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. Now the writer, as I think, has the chance more than other people to live in the presence of that reality.’

There! It’s only the chance, it isn’t automatic, but it is a possibility. As ever, such opportunities bring certain obligations for, as Woolf continues, it is the writer’s ‘business to find it [reality] and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us. So at least I infer from reading Lear or Emma or La Recherche du Temps Perdu.’ For, she finds, having read such books ‘one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life. Those are the enviable people who live at enmity with unreality…’

This book – so well-known, so much-quoted – is hardly obscure, certainly neither is Woolf’s clarion-call to the women writers of the future; ‘I am asking you to live in the presence of reality’. But its familiarity doesn’t make it less relevant or, to me, encouraging. There are now more forms of the unreal, in more devious versions, than perhaps ever before. There are also therefore more opportunities for confusion over which is which, particularly when the flamingoes flying up in one’s own sitting-room are so striking, so beautifully filmed. Every strong assurance of the difference, every piece of elucidation, is essential reading and re-reading, especially for the writer who attempts to ‘live at enmity with unreality… to collect reality and communicate it’.


2 Responses to “In the presence of reality”

  1. Phil Says:

    How can anyone really experience anything on television. There is no smell,no hot or cold no wind, no sense of scale,it is just a flat secondhand image. It is like watching someone cooking a meal and eating it on TV.You get no satisfaction no experience…I remember the eclipse I felt cold and a bit scared,there was a shared sense of something strange taking place, tv could not have given me that chill.

    I love your work and the blog….please don’t get depressed
    God bless

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