Given that the world feels so fragmented, have you thought more recently about the famous Forster phrase, “only connect,” which is the epigraph to Howards End, and is, in part, a call for connection between people?
Yeah. It’s so easy just to fall through the gap because there’s the lack of collective experience. I was making my children watch There’s No Business Like Show Business because Nick was out of the house so I could get away with it. It’s a slightly terrible musical from the early ’50s. In the middle of it, one of the characters leaves the family act and becomes a priest. My daughter said, “What is a priest?” I thought, Jesus, when I was 7, is there any way I wouldn’t have known what a priest is? I don’t think so, just because you had a collective culture, the TV, but also our community, the church at the end of my road. You would’ve known.
It’s like wow, that’s a big gap, clearly that’s a quite serious thing not to know at 7 that there has been, in fact, our whole society is founded on a faith that she only has the vaguest idea of. She’d heard of Judaism just about, but that was it. That kind of thing is quite shocking to me. I don’t know. It’s atomized. I have no answer. It’s curious to me to watch it happening in my children. They’re kind of piecing together a world. They can’t even go through the record collection as we did and think, Oh there was the Beatles and there was the Stones and here’s Ella Fitzgerald. They only have this iTunes, which just seems to be a random collection of names and titles. There’s no pictures, no context, no historical moment. It’s so odd.
That’s a pretty common experience for a lot of us, don’t you think? Not knowing what a priest is — well, that’s pretty extraordinary for Americans, but I suppose much less so for someone who lives in downtown Manhattan. Understand that Zadie Smith lives in the imaginative world of the cultural ruling class. I don’t say that as an insult, not at all. I’m saying it as merely a description. It has been said that the people who go to law schools, especially the elite law schools that train senior judges, are among the most secular people in the country — and this is inevitably going to have a profound impact on their jurisprudence. What’s most interesting to me is not that people don’t believe in God, but that in the case of Zadie Smith’s children — and the generation of those in that cultural class — they don’t even know what a priest is.
And they don’t know what they don’t know. How would they?
Smith is onto something enormously important, regarding the loss of collective culture and atomization. “Clearly that’s a quite serious thing,” she says. Absolutely. Absolutely! And get this: Zadie Smith does not appear to be a religious believer, but she is quite cosmopolitan. And she was shocked to discover the culture her children had lost, or had never acquired. This is what happens in liquid modernity when you go with the flow, and do not consciously resist the forces of fragmentation.
I’m not faulting Zadie Smith, necessarily. If Christianity, or the foundations of Western culture and civilization, were important to Zadie Smith, she would have taught her children about them. Thing is, how many of us non-cosmopolitan people, people who consider ourselves religious and cultural conservatives, are just like Zadie Smith, in that we wrongly assume that our children are inheriting basic knowledge of our civilization in the way we did? Don’t be so quick to judge Smith.
I’ve seen the same thing with my kids regarding iTunes that Smith has seen with hers. In the case of my kids, iTunes has opened them up to far more music than I ever had access to growing up. My kids have a far broader and deeper knowledge of music than I did at their age (and much better musical taste), and I’m grateful for that. But like Smith’s kids, they have no common musical culture with other kids. There are worse problems in the world, I suppose, but it’s not nothing to look and see that your kids have no real historical moment into which to embed their cultural experiences.
There is no more church at the end of the road, so to speak. But there has to be. From an interview I did with Laurus novelist Evgeny Vodolazkin last year:
RD: I think one of the most important moments in Laurus occurs when an elder tells Arseny, who is on pilgrimage, to consider the meaning of his travels. The elder advises: “I am not saying wandering is useless: there is a point to it. Do not become like your beloved Alexander [the Great], who had a journey but no goal. And do not be enamored of excessive horizontal motion.” What does this say to the modern reader?
That it is time to think about the destination, and not about the journey. If the way leads nowhere, it is meaningless. During the perestroika period, we had a great film, Repentance, by the Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze . It’s a movie about the destruction wrought by the Soviet past. The last scene of the film shows a woman baking a cake at the window. An old woman passing on the street stops and asks if this way leads to the church. The woman in the house says no, this road does not lead to the church. And the old woman replies, “What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church?”
So a road as such is nothing. It is really the endless way of Alexander the Great, whose great conquests were aimless. I thought about mankind as a little curious beetle that I once saw on the big road from Berlin to Munich. This beetle was marching along the highway, and it seemed to him that he knows everything about this way. But if he would ask the main questions, “Where does this road begin, and where does it go?”, he can’t answer. He knew neither what is Berlin, nor Munich. This is how we are today.
Technical and scientific revelation brought us the belief that all questions are possible to solve, but that is a great illusion. Technology has not solved the problem of death, and it will never solve this problem . The revelation that mankind saw conjured the illusion that everything is clear and known to us. Medieval people, 100 percent of them believed in God – were they really so stupid in comparison to us? Was the difference between their knowledge and our knowledge as different as we think? It was not so! I’m sure that in a certain sense, our knowledge will be a kind of mythology for future generations. I reflected this mythology with humor in Laurus, but this humor was not against medieval people. Maybe it was self-irony.