Friday, October 26, 2007

Philip Roth on Cell Phones

Or should I say Nathan Zuckerman on cell phones? In any event, this paragraph from Exit Ghost sums it up:

What surprised me most my first few days walking around the city? The most obvious thing-the cell phones. We had no reception as yet up on my mountain, and down in Athena, where they do have it, I'd rarely see people striding the streets talking uninhibitedly into their phones. I remembered a New York when the only people walking up Broadway seemingly talking to themselves were crazy. What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say--so much pressing that it couldn't wait to be said? Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone. Inside the cars, the drivers were on phones. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one's surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one's animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous. And yet it seemed like a real tragedy, too. To eradicate the experience of separation must inevitably have a dramatic effect. What will the consequences be? You know you can reac the other person anytime, and if you can't, you get impatient--impatient and angry like a stupid little god. I understood that background silence had long bee abolished from restaurants, elevators, and ballparks, but that the immense loneliness of human beings should produce this boundless longing to be heard, and the accompanying disregard for being overheard--well, having lived largely in the era of the telephone booth, whose substantial folding doors could be tightly pulled shut, I was impressed by the conspicuousness of it all and found myself entertaining the idea for a story in which Manhattan has turned into a sinister collectivity where everyone is spying on everyone else, everyone being tracked by the person at the other end of his or her phone, even though, incessantly dialing one another from wherever they like in the great out of doors, the telephoners believe themselves to be experiencing the maximum freedom. I knew that merely by thinking up such a scenario I was at one with all the cranks who imagined, from the beginnings of industrialization, that the machine was the enemy of life. Still, I could not help it: I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life. No, those gadgets did not promise to be a boon to promoting reflection among the general public. (pages 62-64)

And yes, that is ONE paragraph written precisely in the way that makes Philip Roth so great!

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