Many are rightly concerned about the violent, hedonistic, and pornographic content readily available to young people on television, in movies, and in video games. Some excellent work is being done to educate parents and others about the dangers that come with the casual push of a button on the television remote control, the click of a mouse at the computer, or even the touch of an iPhone or iPad.
These efforts to educate the public might receive more attention, however, if the broader issue of how screen entertainment affects the human person were more commonly understood. How does spending over seven hours per day viewing a screen—television, computer, iPad, or whatever—as the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates, affect the way a person thinks about and relates to the world around him?
Roald Dahl addresses this question in his novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though written in 1964, when the transformation of our culture by screen entertainment was at a far less advanced stage, Dahl's humorous critique of television has important insights for us today.
The basics of Dahl's "Willie Wonka" novel are familiar: A poor and unspoiled child, Charlie, wins a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the inner workings of the world-famous chocolate factory with a group of children who, one by one, are eliminated from the tour because of their various vices. One of these children is Mike Teavee, who is undone by his fascination with television. In the novel, the factory workers, the Oompa-Loompas, give Dahl's commentary on Teavee's weakness:
The most important thing we've learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set—
Or better still, just don't install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we've been,
We've watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone's place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they're hypnotized by it,
Until they're absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Dahl anticipates the usual excuses for allowing the children to watch television:
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don't climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink—
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
As Dahl concedes, one result may be an artificial calm ("keeps them still"), but how is it produced? At what cost? Dahl spells out the effects of television:
IT ROTS THE SENSES IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK—HE ONLY SEES!
Dullness Sets In
Dahl's last line, "HE CANNOT THINK—HE ONLY SEES!" is especially insightful. Rather than consciously directing his attention and producing the images necessary for thought by himself, the TV viewer becomes semi-hypnotized. He lazily absorbs and follows the images that are presented to him on the screen, becoming DULL.
Though a viewer's imagination can function to some extent when watching a video, especially if the pace is slow, the nature of the medium requires an unconscious surrender of control over the thought process. It is common for a viewer's mental image of a literary character or scene in a novel to be subverted once he views a movie version. Many Tolkien readers note that the Lord of the Rings movies supplanted their original interior visions of the characters and landscapes. The images that the viewer created are replaced, and he can't impose new ones of his own. Thus, the medium KILLS THE IMAGINATION DEAD.
The viewer may feel excited if a film powerfully engages his senses and emotions through rapidly changing scenes, a carefully engineered sound track, and fast-paced action or an emotive plot. He becomes absorbed in it, swept away, giving over the control of his imagination, surrendering his mind to the images and emotions presented. But the more his passions are aroused by the images he absorbs, the more passive he becomes—the less his intellect functions in a self-directed manner.
Dahl further suggests that the person who indulges in screen entertainment risks impairment not only of his mental faculties, but also of his relationship with reality. Entertainment overload dulls one's normal sense of wonder at the real world. Contact with reality is replaced by captivation with a "virtual reality." In Dahl's words, "IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND/ HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND/ A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND." The sharp edges between fantasy and reality are blurred, and true enjoyment of and wonder at the world are lost. The child -heavily sedated by hours of screen images will be unable to enjoy reading a fantasy, and even fairy tales will seem boring.
At the end, Dahl's Oompa-Loompas anticipate the question of parents who don't know what to do about the problem:
"All right!" you'll cry. "All right!" you'll say,
"But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!"
We'll answer this by asking you,
"What used the darling ones to do?
How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?"
Have you forgotten? Don't you know?
We'll say it very loud and slow:
THEY . . . USED . . . TO . . . READ! They'd READ and READ,
And READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more . . .
Why is reading better? For one thing, as already noted, television and movies supply images directly to passive viewers, but a reader's imagination must work to produce the images. Beyond this, there is pacing. If you read out loud the lines above, following Dahl's stage directions ("say it very loud and slow"), you'll notice a major shift take place, mirroring just one difference between television viewing and reading: pacing. The intellect is allowed enough time for reflection.
A film that is slow-paced, full of long scenes with significant and sophisticated dialogue, can be viewed in a manner somewhat similar to reading a book. The mind has time to consider the information presented to it and, though the images -certainly have an impact on the imagination, the person is left freer to ponder what he is receiving. Many such films can benefit those who watch and actively reflect on them.
But there is more to reading than just the pacing. Here, it is helpful to reflect on the activity we call study, because it is just about as antithetical as one can get to screen entertainment. We study to gain knowledge and understanding; endeavors such as engaging a great work of literature, mastering the details of a complex biological system, or understanding a difficult historical period require an active and disciplined use of the mind over an extended period of time. Fortitude is necessary to maintain one's concentration and focus and to resist the temptation to quit or to give in to distractions. No such fortitude is required to watch television.
Taking It Home
While many today rightfully object to the content of screen entertainment as harmful to the viewer (e.g., pornography), Dahl's point is that the very nature of screen entertainment has the power to cause the intellect to atrophy—especially at current levels of consumption. If he is right, then shouldn't screen entertainment (or most of it) be rejected? Such a renunciation will be difficult, but significant progress cannot be made without at least cutting back.
This would free up time not only for more reading and study, but also for the cultivation of silence. Silence is not merely the absence of noise. True silence can be strenuous. Just as it takes fortitude to focus on a text in silent study, it takes strength to slow down to a more human pace and to consider the higher things that have inspired the greatest art and literature of all ages: the meaning of human love and friendship, the reality of suffering and death, the possibility of sacrificing oneself for a noble ideal, living by faith, and what it means to be human.
A crucial battlefield in determining the future of any society is always the home. Parents must recognize this battle for what it is and become convinced that they have the authority and the responsibility to appropriately govern and guide their children in their "viewing habits." This governance must actively extend to all electronic media and entertainment, with an eye to increasing reading, studying, and silence.
Otherwise, we risk becoming a dull society of Mike Teavees, who can no longer think deeply about life, but only watch a screen . . . while eating some chocolate. •
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