23 March 2013

A Paradigm Shift in the Collective Unconscious

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I never understood the term “paradigm shift” until everything started changing, and I got it: a change in the general culture that’s so massive that nothing is ever the same. I don’t have to spell out the paradigm shift we’re going through today: the explosion of technology—and its miniaturization, which I consider its least anticipated aspect—that has made mysteries and even science fiction of the 1980s and 1990s utterly outdated. New inventions in both communication and transportation have changed everything about how we connect with one another on our shrinking planet.

For my parents, born shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, it was World War I. When they were born, there were no airplanes and few automobiles. People functioned without radios or telephones in the home. As those of us who love British mysteries and historical novels know, before the War, the hierarchical class structure separating Upstairs from Downstairs was intact. After the War, it started to crumble, and after World War II, it had essentially vanished.

For the generation just ahead of mine, the watershed was World War II and plastics. My ex-sister-in-law, twelve years older than I, was a teacher, and for some reason I have a vivid memory of her telling about a conversation with her class about the world before plastics. “What were picnic forks made of?”
“What were raincoats made of?”
What were pens made of?”
“What did people wrap things in?”

It’s odd what memory latches onto: I remember my son, now in his early forties, telling me about a new development called the World Wide Web. “It’s going to revolutionize how people use computers,” he said, and so it did. A couple of years before the ubiquitous cell phone appeared on the streets of New York, I remember an online mental health professional colleague saying on an e-list, “The last two revolutions in the Philippines couldn’t have been conducted without cell phones.”

Until quite recently, as, once again, British novels bear witness, educated people had a cultural common ground based on literature that they could draw upon and refer to in a reasonable expectation of being understood. Everybody who read had read Shakespeare and Alice in Wonderland. Lord Peter Wimsey could quote from either, and we knew what he was talking about. We had even read Homer, if not in the original like Lord Peter (when I went to college, the Iliad and the Odyssey were required reading in Humanities 1), and could field a reference to Achilles or the Trojan War with ease. In contrast, I remember a conversation with a fourteen-year-old cousin in 2004 or so about the movie Troy, which reduced that epic conflict from ten years to three days and took many liberties with the plot. “Have you read the book?” she asked.

Nowadays, not only have our culture’s reading habits changed dramatically, but there’s too much to read. Politics have decreased the attention in the school curriculum that was once paid to “dead white males” like Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll. This is not all bad. I would have loved to be made to study Little Women or The Help instead of Silas Marner and Giants In the Earth, the two most stultifyingly boring novels I can remember being assigned in school.

As the fact that a billion people worldwide watched the Oscars this year attests, movies occupy the space in the collective unconscious that used to belong to books. Movies provide the material by which we communicate through common points of reference. Most people know The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind and The Godfather from the movies they became, rather than the books they were based on. Instead of “To be or not to be, that is the question,” “My kingdom for a horse,” “I can believe six impossible things before breakfast,” or “It was the best butter,” we all resonate with “We’re not in Kansas any more,” “Tomorrow is another day,” and “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” How many people nowadays know that Dorothy originally had silver shoes, not ruby slippers? Some of us have read the books. But the reason everybody knows these references with all their implications is that we’ve seen the movies.


  1. Thoughtful piece, Liz, and very much on target, I think.

    I love movies (many of them, anyway), but mourn the passing of shared literary memories. I find that one of the great differences beween the two mediums is intellectual scope. When great novels are discussed, it's not unusual to find very differing opinions about the characters and themes, but with film it is less so; at least when it comes to film versions of books. With a movie the director imposes a strict interpretation in order to present something coherent for the camera which, unlike the human mind, cannot fill in anything for itself. So, inevitably, the shared experience of the viewers is based on the director's interpretation. Though often fun, it lacks the intellectual exchange literature inspires.

    Wow, I'm very cheeful this morning, aren't I?

  2. Hey, I liked Giants in the Earth. Arrowsmith, now, that was a slog.

  3. Hmm, Dave, I don't think I agree. The individual human mind perceives the film or TV show, as it does the written work. Example: I just had a dinner conversation with two Sisters in Crime (one a former screenwriter) who do NOT think well of Downton Abbey and gave cogent reasons for their (minority) opinions. We can always disagree and interpret what we perceive differently, whatever the artistic medium.

  4. Great post, Elizabeth.

    Hmmm...Gotta say, I actually do find myself agreeing with David's explanation. Yet, I'm not a Downton Abbey fan either. Loved the first season, but -- as a bit of a history and military buff -- saw what I considered major errors in the second and third seasons. Thus, I find I’ve lost a certain respect for it.

    Consequently, I wonder if perhaps differing views of literary works derive – as David suggested – from the separate mental construct (or interpretation) of a written text, while differing views of filmworks might derive more from the differing backgrounds among viewers.

    Certainly, all audience members bring their own baggage to an art work of any type – literary, auditory or visual – but I wonder if film’s necessarily-greater interpretive roll (for the reasons David suggested) reduce the field of potential debate among that art’s patrons.


  5. Then there are the films that clarify the message of the books they're based on in an illuminating way. I read most of Henry James's novels as a college English major, and I had my favorites among them, but I suspect I didn't have a clue what they were about until I saw the Merchant-Ivory movies years later, with a lot more life experience under my belt. For example, I loved Portrait of A Lady, but it didn't occur to me at 17 that the book was about domestic violence or at least emotional abuse.

  6. Elizabeth, our high school did assign Little Women. As for dull, Sir Gawain and The Greene Knight comes to mind. Talk about deathless prose! Okay, okay, deadly poetics.

    I agree with your thoughts about movies, except for their ephemerality as films are pushed aside in the newly released crud and remakes constantly pushed out by studios. A friend refuses to see movies more than a month old, calling them "too old to see" as if good movies have expiration dates.

    I marvel at my grandmothers, born into the world of horse and carriage, who saw us land a man on the moon. Sadly, movement isn't always forward, as medievalists can testify. No one under the age of 40 has witnessed a lunar landing.

    And the quality of education has changed. While literacy has spread among citizens, it's become much more shallow. Experts say our vocabulary has declined by as much as 40% since the mid-1800s. On the other hand, what would someone in the era of the American Civil War make of an iPad or laptop?

  7. I confess to a certain vanity over having read the series of books and not just having watched the movie. For example, up until recently i could smugly feel i was the only person in the world who knew who Oscar Diggs was!

  8. Very astute analysis. I realize that in today's terms, I'm illiterate because I don't watch TV, the pop culture's current frame of reference.
    Do you remember the time we were sitting on a beach blanket, overhearing the people in the group next to us playing "Trivia"? Your comment then (1988?) was, "We used to call it 'general culture"."


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