By RURAL’s editor, Alasdair Crosby
IN this lock-down period, I have been amusing myself by re-reading the highly entertaining short stories of W Somerset Maugham. The title of one of these, ‘Appearance and Reality’ is derived from that of a notable philosophical / metaphysical work, very densely written (coded language for ‘pretty boring’) by a late 19th Century English philosopher. As ‘The Master’ wrote: ‘There is no excuse for my making use of the title of so celebrated a book except that it so admirably suits my story.’ And mine.
The difference between ‘Appearance and Reality’ has never been more tangled than it has become in these days of Coronavirus. It might be thought that the two concepts have always been just a bit tangled for writers and journalists, but whatever the conceptual confusion, at least the end product that contained the concepts was undeniably ‘real’: a newspaper, a magazine, a book – something to handle that existed ‘in the real world’.
Then along came virtual reality. I heard the first mention of this as a youth in the 1960s… it was contained in some prognostication of what the future might hold and at the time it was just as believable or unbelievable as any other contemporary science fiction prophecy. Half a century was to go by before the words ‘virtual reality’ became a commonplace encounter, but at the moment ‘virtual’ things are mentioned every two minutes. We are having a virtual celebration of the Liberation anniversary; the States are meeting virtually; we do virtual shopping, meet up for virtual parties and virtual meetings and virtual church services and go to a virtual office. There is talk of virtual cattle shows and virtual flower shows. It is all Appearance; Reality has been kicked by Covid-19 into the outer darkness.
It is not all bad; far more illustrious heads than I have been talking about the advantages brought by technology and the beneficial application of virtual reality to our lock-down lives. Thank goodness for the Internet and the undeniable positive effect on, pro tem, our frustrating daily routines.
For RURAL magazine, of course, as it is for so many other publications, its migration from Reality to Appearance – to ‘virtual magazine’ status – is inescapable at a time when it is a physical impossibility to produce both adequate contents and adequate funding through advertising for a local, printed publication. So yes, thank goodness for the beneficial application of virtual reality.
But all things pass – even (so we hope) the coronavirus emergency. Increasingly pundits discuss ‘life after Covid 19’ and what ‘the new normality’ will be like. If I were to be asked (which no-one has) about my views on ’the new normality’, I would suggest that in some ways it will be much like ‘the old normality’ of most of human history up until the last century, when mortality was a common encounter rather than, as in recent times, something that could be safely ignored until, inescapably, it occurred. Remember the alarm and solicitude expressed in Jane Austin’s novel, ‘Emma’ when a character gets soaked in the rain and develops a sniffle in the nose? He is urged to go to bed and everybody hopes, fingers crossed, that it is only a sniffle and will not develop into something worse. That was ‘the old normality’. We might see an updated version of that in ‘the new normality’, where Covid 19, like The White Witch in the Narnia stories, is never totally and safely dead, but is only waiting for an invitation, opportunity or negligence to slip back to life and resume her evil domination.
And the part that Appearance – Virtual Reality – might play in the new normality? Of course, it hardly need be said, a much expanded one. But an increased withdrawal from community life and social interaction – permanently, not just temporally – is a deplorable and sub-human prospect: as Aristotle said, ‘Man is a political animal’, meaning the proper function of humanity is to take part in the affairs of the ‘Polis’ – i.e, the home community. If the reader will excuse another Aristotelian quote, one that is very relevant to our present situation: ‘He who is unable to live in society, or has no need because he is sufficient unto himself, must be either a beast or a god.’ Unfortunately, in the new normality of virtual reality, the first of the two alternatives quoted is more likely to be expected.
Certainly, RURAL will make use of a virtual magazine and website contents and make use of the convenience and increased topicality of putting news on-line rather than waiting to do so until the publication of the next issue of a quarterly magazine, when it is likely to be out of date. That seems a serviceable and beneficial application of Appearance – our contemporary virtual reality.
But we shall always strive to bring back the printed Word as soon as might be, to do our best to ensure that Appearance never supersedes Reality.