How many times have I read Jane Eyre? It seems like dozens, given the depth of ardor I feel when the novel comes up in conversation. “It’s just perfect,” a favourite student said a few weeks ago, and I agreed immediately and without reservation. But, later, remembering the conversation, I found I barely recalled the plot; all that came to mind was image & atmosphere: the red-room’s terror, Rochester’s flashing eyes & St. John’s pale piety, a wild silhouette against a wall of flame. Jane, running. Fog and rain. Brackish fen. I knew I did indeed love it, but I hadn’t any idea why. Last night, wandering Netflix, I came across the 2011 adaptation, with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. I thought it perfectly cast, as I tend to do anytime Dame Judi appears onscreen, and I was stuck by how much it looked like the vague impressions I’d retained. Wasikowska is simultaneously heroic and pathetic; Fassbender (le sigh) morphs effortlessly from rake to beloved. I hated St. John exactly as much as I wanted to. The film confirmed everything sailing my memory’s surface, but by the time the credits rolled I was wondering if I still had my copy. In showing me the surface, the movie helped me remember exactly how much of that story couldn’t be rendered in image and action alone. While the exterior is undeniably beautiful–the plot gripping, the characters complex & sympathetic–I wanted Jane’s voice in my head, Jane’s eye selecting the details, Jane’s emotion investing each image with meaning. I wanted poetry: the unseen world made visible.
Lately so much of what I read feels like the film version of some deeper, more complex idea. A few months ago, I made an effort to extract myself from mindless Internet use, deactivating Facebook and scheduling email sessions, even keeping a list of things I wanted to look up instead of doing so in the midst of whatever had prompted the query. After a few days of the DTs, everything snapped into focus: my concentration improved. Simple tasks remained simple tasks. I solved problems by thinking instead of Googling–or I accepted that some things had to wait to be figured out; more often than not, in waiting to seek an answer from elsewhere, one appeared from within. I read actual books. I actually read, cover to cover, the contributor’s copies of journals where I’d recently published, something I did with great reverence and honour when I first started publishing, when I wrote out of and for love, and stopped doing as soon as publication–and writing itself–became a means to an end, an obligation, a line on the CV. In short, life got better. I was better, in innumerable ways. When I deemed myself ready to once again access every piece of information known to man–dangerous territory for a knowledge-addict–I recognized how superficially our culture has seen fit to treat that astonishing store. Ideas abound, but no one seems to be thinking terribly hard about them, a superficiality limited not only to news articles and op-eds, but to essays and poems. (Fiction seems, to me, immune to this watering-down.) Poetry in particular tends towards dazzling artifice: so much internal rhyme and wordplay and cleverness, so little feeling. So little depth. No wonder; we live increasingly online. (Hi! I’m a blog post!) Last night, watching a two-hour movie, I pressed pause innumerable times: I wanted to know the difference between a moor and a fen. I couldn’t place Fassbender’s face. I inexplicably started to think about gluten-free naan. At least, I suppose, I had the presence of mind to stop doing one thing in order to turn my full attention, momentarily, to the great god Google. But I had the nagging feeling I was backsliding as I did.
I can remember life before wireless Internet–I can remember life before Internet, period–when I’d regularly sit down to read a book or watch a movie for hours uninterrupted. I have no illusions that my mind didn’t wander, that I didn’t get bored or curious about something else, falling through one or another of the mind’s rabbit holes. But I know, when those lapses in concentration occurred, that I didn’t reach reflexively for a solution, didn’t immediately seek out a map to find my way back to the surface. It’s the difference between turning on the kitchen light, up late at night for a drink of water, and finding your way in the dark: softly palming the air where you know the cabinet knob to be, fingertips bumping the glass, the silver glint of the faucet and the vessel guided by the sound: rush of the tap enclosed, echoed, the water brimming, the sound of something empty filling up.