28 January 2009

Voices in the Line

When the telephone first came to our upcountry farm in Kula,
there was only one wire. The numbers were a digit different,

but it was the same line. When anybody's rang, ours rang
in the kitchen, and so rang the receivers in every other house.
No matter what somebody said, anybody could be listening,

and everybody knew it, so nobody ever said anything important
or personal on the phone. Phones were public, like a restroom

or a library is public. If the words were private, they were taken
outside or penned. Nobody ever called anybody for no reason,

and conversations were short. Before the telephone, we lived
alone where we couldn't even see the neighbors' lights at night,
but the wires shrunk the world. No longer was there anywhere

you knew anybody you couldn't call anymore. So we called.
Whenever we picked up the phone, there were voices in the line.

-- Eric Paul Shaffer, in Rattle 30, Winter 2008.
I know this guy's story. I was a kid when this happened to me, living in one of the first of a five-house plan in what used to be somebody's front forty, our yard still an open wound in the earth, the view still clear down to the creek and the two-lane up the opposite bank.

Mrs. Wilson had the switchboard on a table in her dining room -- I saw it once when I went to play with her son Tad. She was in the kitchen, I think, and Tad showed me how it worked: pull this plug, stick it in this hole, crank the dial for numbers in the county seat 10 miles away, then you asked another operator for a hookup to Pittsburgh, where my grandparents lived.

The phone hung on the wall opposite our back door, in the short passageway between the dining room and kitchen -- a shiny black box with a hook but no dial, no white disk with number in its center. I'd sit there in a chair dragged from the kitchen table, holding the hook down with my free hand, talking into the heavy handset to pretend friends.

It was a party line, shared by six families, and the phone rang maybe once or twice a day; you listened to the pattern of rings to see if it was for you. Ours was long, short-short, long; the Clearys' up the hill was long, short, long-long. Mrs. Wilson did the rings by hand, pushing a spring switch on the panel next to the dial. I once asked her -- she was my Sunday School teacher that year -- who worked the switchboard when she was asleep. "Why, if somebody calls, I just get up and answer it. What do you think?" But what happens when you go on vacation? She just looked at me.

Our parents were our now-kids' age then, maybe younger; those of us watching our contemporaries roll off the table in ones and twos these days are beginning to realize there's a whole world evaporating atom by atom that will only be retrievable in little vignettes like Eric Paul Shaffer's poem -- and if I don't print out the blog for my descendants to find moldering in the bottom of a linen trunk (remember those?), it's likely this wispy commentary will vanish into the digital dark age like the rest of the artifacts we're impetuously entrusting to the cloud.

It's not just the world of quaint devices and their picturesque usage that's disappearing, but a world of relations to each other, as Shaffer's poem conjures with such lovely simplicity. Indirectly, he also evokes the world of silence and distance that his grandparents watched disappear, perhaps with the same nostalgia that he himself seems to be feeling now, and which may have supplied some motivation for writing the poem in the first place.

That silence and distance was not a gap in our relations -- as it appeared to technologists bent on improving "communication" -- it was a room, and each of us had one: in which to rest, to which to retreat, from which to sally forth when it was necessary to communicate with one another. There was peace in that room -- or maybe it just seems so to those of us too young to remember such a condition of things -- where tranquility was attainable in a way all but impossible in the noisy world today.

The heedlessness of technological progress is a dusty old trope -- think of the story of O say the Tower of Babel, or Icarus -- that doesn't much edify. The alarums about dwindling privacy among our young, who don't seem to know what the alarumists are even talking about, is probably in the same class of prudish or plain cranky ranting against change for ranting's (not change's) sake.

That doesn't make the prudes and ranters wrong. Here's what Kafka thought about "improving" communication:

Written kisses don't reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and fights against it and in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create natural communication, the peace of souls, it has invented the railway, the motor car, the aeroplane. But it's no longer any help, these are evidently inventions being made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the wireless. The spirits won't starve, but we will perish.
-- Franz Kafka to Milena Jesenk√°, epigraph to John Durham Peters's Speaking into the Air.

Labels: , ,

2 Comments:

At 06 February, 2009 11:20, Anonymous Lynn L. said...

Bill, glad to see you're writing again. I always enjoy reading!

 
At 07 February, 2009 09:30, Blogger bbly said...

Thanks, Lynn. A New Year's resolution. So far, so good.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home