The Marabar Media Cave (11/06/04)

December 29, 2006

Like many of the people on the right side of this battle, I’m taking a few days to decompress after weeks and months of eating, drinking and sleeping politics. There are doughtier souls out there who haven’t so much as paused in their efforts. Bev Harris of BlackBoxVoting.org, for example, is making a very strong case for the view that massive voting fraud took place through the medium of electronic voting, and she’s pursuing a Freedom of Information Act request that will probably turn out to be the largest every filed. Bev was on this story from the start, pushing it hard while the big time press pursued swamp-gas wraiths like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The fight will continue: it has to, what with the pimp-slapped press crowning Bush with laurels for what was a very narrow victory, and Grover Norquist all but begging for somebody to knock him on his ass.

But right now I’m finding nourishment in the classics. Early favorites like John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and The Pastures of Heaven. The Icelandic sagas: particularly Egil’s Saga, for its sardonic humor and Egil’s starkly beautiful lament for the death of his son; and Laxdaela Saga for its captivating women — Unn the Deep-Minded, building her ship in a grove of trees, and Gudrun, one of the most fearsome women in all literature. Shakespeare, naturally: Henry V and the St. Crispin’s Day speech are a great morale booster. Maybe George W. Bush’s supporters see him as young Hal, transforming himself from a tavern lout to a warrior king, with Fallujah as his Agincourt. The comparison only works if you picture Hal staying home to loot the treasury alongside the priests, while his undermanned forces endure daily poundings from the French. (Besides, who would be Falstaff? Ralph Reed?) I see Dubya as closer to Richard III, though even that comparison falls apart. After all, the hunchbacked villain was not afraid to do his own dirty work.

For me, the worst thing about election night — worse even than the outcome — was the prolonged exposure to the empty suits of cable news. Switching between Chris Matthews and Wolf Blitzer, I was reminded of a sequence in A Passage to India, E.M. Forster’s novel about the uuneasy coexistence of Brits and Indians in the city of Chandrapore. Just today I looked it up, and it’s even more appropriate than I remembered.

About midway through the book, an idle remark from one of the British guests leads the hapless Dr. Aziz to organize a hugely expensive expedition to a curious geological formation called the Marabar Caves. There they encounter — well, I’m not sure if this is Forster’s invention, but he describes it brilliantly:

“There are some exquisite echoes in India; there is the whisper round the dome of Bijapur; there are the long, solid sentences that voyage through the air at Mandu, and return unbroken to their creator. The echo in a Marabar cave is not like these, it is entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. ‘Boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘bou-oum,’ or ‘ou-boum’ — utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot — all produce ‘boum.’ Even the striking of a match starts a little worm coiling, which is too small to complete a circle, but is eternally watchful. And if several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which writhe independently.”

Mrs. Moore, a British matron out to see some of the real India, endures a trek through one of the tunnels and emerges shaken:

“The crush and the smells she could forget, but the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur, ‘Pathos, piety, courage — they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.’ If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same — ‘ou-boum.’ If one had spoken with tongues and pleaded for all the unhappiness and misunderstanding in the world, past, present, and to come, for all the misery men must undergo whatever their opinion and position, and however much they dodge or bluff — it would amount to the same . . . suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from ‘Let there be Light’ to ‘It is finished’ only amounted to ‘boum.'”

If that doesn’t describe the wholesale cheapening effect of corporate media, then nothing does. The endless blizzard of data-noise and infotainment, the perverted notion of “balance” that allows a paid Republican courtier like Tucker Carlson to dispute the credibility of Paul Krugman, an economist whose name ranks on many short lists for a Nobel Prize. Where a genuine war hero like John Kerry is considered a ditherer while Bush pretends to be a fighter jockey; where TV reporters bend the knee to power while robotic pundits prattle about the liberal media. A war Bush lied us into, then manipulated to boost his election prospects, is about to devour more American and Iraqi lives, and yet the most important thing now is to see if Jessica Simpson breaks up with her husband. There were terrible, urgent issues at stake in this election, but the glittering Marabar Cave of our media turned it all into one dull “boum.” What I need to do this weekend, above all else, is to get that awful sound out of my head.

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