A review of Digital Barbarism: A Writer's Manifesto, by Mark Helprin
Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism is ostensibly a book about copyright: the need for preserving it and indeed extending its span, the distinctions between it and other forms and kinds of property, the political implications behind recent attempts to eliminate it. As a copyright holder myself, who has not thought lengthily on the subject, but only gratefully collects his peasantries (as I refer to my rather meager royalties) and moves on, Mr. Helprin's argument strikes me as sound, persuasive, even penetrating. But the book is about much more than copyright. Digital Barbarism is, in fact, a diatribe, harangue, lecture, attack, onslaught, denunciation, polemic, broadside, fulmination, condemnation, no-holds barred, kick-butt censure of the current, let us call it the digital, age. Reviewers have criticized Helprin for the almost unrelenting note of rant in his book, claiming, as one did, that it "corrodes [his] credibility." Poor benighted fellows, they have missed the best part of this unusual book.
Mark Helprin is a brilliant writer, of great descriptive power and independent mind, whose views are often unpredictable and always lively. He was an advisor on defense and foreign relations for Bob Dole when he ran for the presidency in 1996, which, in the lost-cause department, strikes me as a job akin to having the bagel concession in Hitler's bunker. I mention this odd biographical fact—he brings up many others in the course of his book—to show that Mr. Helprin does not run with the gang, any gang. He doesn't, that is, find much to choose from between Ann Coulter and Al Franken.
Digital Barbarism had its origins in an op-ed in the New York Times that Helprin wrote in 2007 in defense of copyright.* Such was the reaction against this piece, some 750,000 uniformly ticked-off outbursts on the internet, that Helprin came to realize that forces greater than the matter of the validity of copyright were at issue. He determined, in fact, that a great cultural disruption had occurred, and that the attack on the age-old institution of copyright is merely the tip of the iceberg toward which we, jolly passengers on a cultural Titanic of our own devising, are all blithely sailing.
As for copyright, those who would eliminate it, placing all works in the public domain—a condition to which much recorded music has not aspired but appears to have attained—feel it is little more than selfishness legalized. Art, like ideas, they hold, ought to be common property, enjoyed by all, with future profit for none. Helprin clubs adherents of this view down, showing that copyright is nothing like the monopoly they claim, nor is it the same as holding a patent, which they ignorantly aver. He convincingly makes the case that copyright is a form of property—intellectual property—and that sustaining it is important for stimulating individuality, originality, and creativity of a kind without which life will quickly lapse into a bland collectivity that will make us all much the poorer—and not merely in the economic realm.
"Copyright is important," Helprin writes, "because it is one of the guarantors of the rights of authorship, and the rights of authorship are important because without them the individual voice would be subsumed in an indistinguishable and instantly malleable mass." A mass, one might add, of the kind that ganged up against Helprin in reaction to his New York Times op-ed. "The substance [of the reaction to his op-ed] was disturbing if only for its implicit comment on the state of contemporary education," he writes. "The form, however, was most distressing, in that it was so thoughtless, imitative, lacking in custom and civility, and stimulated—as if in a feedback loop or feeding frenzy—by the power it brought to bear not by means of any quality but only as a variant of mass and speed."
* * *
Without gainsaying the rich new possibilities that digital technology has made available, Helprin makes the case that this same technology inculcates a frenetic habit of mind, quick on the trigger yet slow to appreciate subtlety and dazzlingly blind to beauty. "The character of the machine is that of speed, power, compression, instantaneousness, immense capacity, indifference, and automaticity," he writes. The other side of this debased coin is that the machine does not understand tradition, appreciate stability, enjoy quality, but instead "[hungers] for denser floods of data" and fosters a mentality in which "images have gradually displaced words."
Early in Digital Barbarism, Helprin posits two characters, one a high-flying executive in 2028 of a company that "supplies algorithms for the detection of damage in and the restoration of molecular memories in organic computation," the other a British diplomat in 1908 on holiday at Lake Como. The first is living virtually the virtual life, so to speak, which means that he is hostage to the machinery of communication and information, flooded by e-mail, cell-phone calls, screen imagery, in a life lived very much from without. The second, reachable only by slow international post, lives his life with ample room for reflection, cultivation of the intellect, acquiring musical and literary culture directly and at leisure. Helprin naturally prefers the life of the latter, and if you don't grasp the reasons why, you are a digital barbarian in the making, if not already made.
Helprin tells us that "I look at a computer screen as little as possible"; and, later, that his satellite television system "was destroyed by a discerning lightning bolt." Yet he is no Luddite, or even against technology per se. He recognizes, as he puts it, that to deplore "the factual trajectory of things makes one reactionary, a dinosaur, rigid, unimaginative, impotent, a fascist, and a chipmunk." (A nice touch, that chipmunk at the end of the list.) But, boats against the current, Helprin beats on, claiming that "one need not be a Nazi brontosaurus to question the trajectories of one's time if indeed one's time produces people who think their grandchildren are their ancestors."
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The real enemy, the digital barbarism of Helprin's title, is the kind of mind that is likely to oppose copyright—a mind propelled by a strong sense of entitlement, inane utopian visions, and less than no regard for those distinctions and discriminations that make a complex culture hum. Digital Barbarism is meant to be a torpedo aimed not across but directly into their bow. The anti-copyright movement, he holds, "is against property, competition, and the free market"; and its adherents are those who "favor a world that is planned, controlled, decided, entirely cooperative, and conducive of predetermined outcomes," even though history has long ago taught that those outcomes have a way of working almost precisely against the utopian dreams of the planners.
Nudniks, the Yiddish word for aggressive pests, is only one of the vituperations Helprin casts upon people possessed by minds organized in the movement against copyright. "Unlike the troublesome and annoying classical nudniks of the past," he writes,
the electronic nudnik is sheltered by anonymity, his acts amplified by an almost inconceivable multiplication and instantaneousness of transmission. This new nudnik is therefore tempted to exchange his previous protective innocence (think Alfred E. Neuman) for a certain sinister, angry, off-the-rails quality (think the Unabomber), which is perhaps to be expected from the kind of person who has spent forty thousand hours reflexively committing video-game mass murder and then encounters an argument with which he finds himself in disagreement.
Helprin believes that he, in his op-ed, offended "a subcult amid those modern people who dress like circus clowns or adorn themselves like cannibals," presenting a spectacle akin to Queequeg having been "dropped on Santa Monica." He also avers that they have "a brain the size of a Gummy Bear" and, elsewhere, "of cocktail onions."
"At risk of straying too far," Mr. Helprin writes well into his slender book, to which one's response is, Not at all, old sport, stray quite as far as you like, plunge on, for the rest of this sentence reads: "I must relate the story of how a long time ago a great friend and I, alighting from a freight train in northern Virginia, proceeded to Crystal City, where we insolently skated in our shoes across an empty ice rink while a Zamboni machine was grooming it, leading to our detention by a security guard with the physique of a whale."
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Much of the pleasure in this book is in its digressions, for which the main argument, one sometimes thinks, is merely the excuse. Copyright, in other words, is the trampoline upon which Helprin jumps, the better to pounce on that new cultural type, the digital barbarian, he despises. Digital Barbarism, in much briefer compass, gives some of the same oblique pleasure as Tristram Shandy and The Anatomy of Melancholy, two works that, without their digressions, could scarcely be said to exist.
An "essay-memoir" is the way Helprin describes his book, but it is also something of an advertisement for himself. Normally, this would not be a good thing, but here it is, somehow, amusing, like those television commercials that are superior to the show they are sponsoring. In his preface, for example, he informs us that he would "sometimes write speeches for politicians…always from deep anonymity and always without any compensation." He has an interest in physics, he tells us, "half-theoretical, half-empirical, and entirely amateur." He recounts that he went to Harvard, where his classmate was "that spritely lummox, Al Gore," and thence to Oxford, and that he was in the Israeli Air Force. His father, we learn, was in the movie industry, his mother an actress, but he is no more specific than that. (Was his father successful? Is his mother, who goes unnamed, famous, or was she famous in her day?) He claims—no reason to doubt him—to have taken a cross-country bicycle trip at the age of 14. He makes himself out to have been fairly well off, yet lets us know he worked two jobs after Harvard. He taught at the University of Iowa 30 years ago, where he was befriended by the now alas forgotten novelist Vance Bourjaily. He rows, about which he wrote a fine short story called "Palais de Justice," and used to be a climber (mountains, one presumes), and currently fly fishes. Greek sponge-fishing holidays, he instructs us, are "vastly overrated." Had he told us that he had flown three kamikaze missions (insufficient death wish?) or used to play gin rummy with Osama bin Laden's mother, we should, after all these autobiographical tidbits, have taken these, too, in easy stride.
Along with building up this persona, Helprin shoots off lots of lovely zingers. At these prices, he must have concluded, why accept repression? On his bicycle trip, he tells, to illustrate a point about private property, that a farmer caught him eating an ear of corn from his field, and came off as "irate as Al Sharpton," even though the farmer, "perhaps like Van Gogh, would not have missed a single ear." He remarks that the New York Times Book Review is our equivalent to the French Academy, deciding "the relative values and appropriate rewards for literary endeavors," but "at least it's not in the Constitution." He cites the "Chronicle of [supposedly] Higher Education," which "exhibits less intelligence than a Kleenex." He takes time out to attack Levenger's, which sells pseudo-elegant writing equipment, as part of a general tirade against the modern tendency to be over-equipped for all activities. He bangs the idiot professoriat, and bings the contemporary novel, a stellar example of which he feels might be titled
Rimbaud's Macaque, a Novel of the Hypothetical Romance of Isadora Duncan and Nikolai Tesla, or, the Birds of Werbezerk, which, to quote from the publisher's copy, is "the dark and unforgiving account of a Santa Monica professor of Jewish studies who discovers that her parents were Bavarian Nazis and practicing cannibals."
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What makes Mark Helprin a gifted polemicist is his ability to combine the humorous with the tiradical. "A man blowing a trumpet successfully is a rousing spectacle," the Welsh writer Rhys Davies noted. Something no less rousing about a man standing up and blowing off, full steam ahead, as Mark Helprin does about, for only one example, the self-importance of BlackBerry-bearing human beings:
[T]he text-messaging approach [to making a dinner date] would take at least four messages, each typed in even more time than required by the entire voice transaction, over a period of hours or days, "from my BlackBerry." Excuse me? From your BlackBerry? I don't think the purpose of this declaration is to explain the brevity of your message, as you could probably type War and Peace with one thumb tied behind your BMW. I think its purpose is an ad from BlackBerry to let me know that you have a BlackBerry. May your BlackBerry rot in hell.
Many fine blasts of this kind are to be found in Digital Barbarism, some cutting an admirably wide swath. Here is Helprin on the hopeless attempts to fight the relentless debasement through vulgarization of contemporary culture:
No one has control of what is happening. It is the result of the hundred million decisions that taken together mark the decline of a culture—the teacher, lacking anything to say about his subject, who promotes an ideology instead; the publisher who cannot resist the payout from sensationalism and whips it into a dollar-frosted frenzy; the intellectually lazy reader who buys a prurient thriller, knowing that its effect is equivalent to a diet of gas-station junk food, "just for the plane ride"; the drug-addled Hollywood solons who have blurred the line between general films and pornography, and have created a new nonsexual pornography of hypnotic, purely sensational images, substituting stimulation and tropism for just about everything else (except popcorn); narrow intellectuals who mock the ethical precepts, religions, and long-held beliefs of civilizations that have evolved over thousands of years, in favor of theories of more or less everything that they have designed over an entire semester; writers who write according to neither their consciences nor their hearts, but to sell.
O.K., everyone breathe out.
Mark Helprin is a man of belligerent integrity. He recounts turning down an enormous fee from Time for a cover story because he attacked the egotism of Lee Iacocca. He has lost lucrative film deals because he refused to yield his copyright to film studios. He does not suffer slovenly editing, and once instructed an editor who inserted the word "pricey" in his copy to bugger off, though he does use the word "seminal," which has always seemed to me greatly to underestimate the power of semen. Although dependent on publishers, as are all we scribblers, he doesn't in the least mind mocking them. The only authority he submits to is that of sound intelligence allied to the mission of saving what is best in Western culture.
Great fun though it is to read, one has to ask, how high is the truth quotient of Digital Barbarism in the picture it presents of the general degradation of modern life? When one allows for Helprin's hyperbole, his ripping tirades, his penchant for amusing over-statement, and allows further for the possibility that he believes he is guilty of none of the foregoing, the truth quotient, it strikes me, remains damnably high. Now in his early 60s, Mark Helprin is old enough to recall another time, with different beliefs, and higher standards, and over a long career he has earned the right to be cranky about its fading away. His fate is not so different than that of the Goncourt brothers, who in 1860 wrote in their journal: "It is silly to come into the world in a time of change; the soul feels as uncomfortable as a man who moves into a new house before the plaster is dry." The question facing Mark Helprin, and us with him, is what the place is going to look like once the plaster has dried.