The other morning I awoke off a callous couch with a jolt, a half-empty jar of Nutella in one hand and in the other, an almost indecipherable communiqué magic-markered across page 56 of my copy of Slaughterhouse Five: “We will never ever, EVER! touch art again”, it slurred.
Beguiled but puzzled, I churned another glob of Nutella off a dirty salad ladle into my mouth, and attempted to decode this anomalous phrase. At first I wasn’t too sure Kurt Vonnegut had much to do with it, although for half a moment, I could imagine his spirit exiting the dusty library of the netherworld, and possessing my stupor, taking my sugar-driven hand to heed some enigmatic warning to the world.
Listen: my son and I recently enjoyed that new movie inspired by a famous brand of toys – Lego. People with children will recognise this particular phase of the parent/child dynamic, it comes somewhere in between goo-goo, ga-ga, dinosaurs and “I hate you, give me the car keys.”
My son and I are well into the cult of the block: we’ve got the games, the actual blocks themselves and of course the movie. We’ve had a fair run with the blocks so far; building passable wheeled contraptions and top-heavy aircraft that would make even Howard Hughes balk. We dismembered their famous men, replaced heads with till registers and attached doors to disembodied legs to create beautiful absurdities and other crimes against nature worthy of Dali.
But every cooling off period with Lego begins more often than not, with someone – inevitably me – taking a midnight barefoot trip to the kitchen across the sitting room floor, mined with the most murderous mini-monoliths known to the human race.
Soon enough these Legos are packed away on the highest shelf in the house until the child is a little older and learns to pick up after himself, or at least, until some marketing genius decides to make a movie based around the damn things, and suddenly Legos are cool again, taken down off the highest shelf in the house and once again ending up in the strangest places; like in your shoes, down the couch, down your bum, up your nose: everywhere and anywhere, Legos, by design, fit any space.
But first we have to watch the movie, dad.
Not too sure if I was watching the world’s longest toy commercial, some bizarre existential post-modern art installation or some highly sophisticated political propaganda film.
The plot itself is remarkably cohesive for children’s movie, if a bit erratic, and fairly easy to grasp for 4-year-olds and 40-somethings alike. The film is clever, irreverent and works really well as either some kind of Randian parable or be-yourself-and-be-cool-to-each-other analogy – depending on which side of the schoolyard Rubicon you stand.
It has a catchy song; Batman shows up in the middle of the movie for no reason at all and it has a grand poignant finale with a wholesome message, before everyone breaks into another chorus of that diabolically catchy song. It stands up remarkably well compared to, say, the average Lady Gaga song or episode of Glee or whatever other current pop culture touchstone is injecting our kids full of self-esteem these days.
Above all, it is a great family event, enjoyed by all and bringing families closer together. It lit up my boy’s eyes with wonder and fascination, inspiring him to search for a greater knowledge of how the basic principles of symmetrical construction work in real life.
“Sure, son” I smile proudly as I head to the highest shelf in the house, “I think you’re now old enough to handle these again.”
“No, dad, I want to play the game.”
The family electronic tablet – it’s an iPad-adjacent really, kind of like Nickelback is Led Zeppelin-adjacent – is everyone’s favourite thing at the moment, not only because it makes us all look like we’re on Star Trek, but because it can do so much stuff on it.
Mom pins things of interest in a giant digital scrapbook, dad looks at the latest trends in bikini fashion and the boy likes to play games on it. Apparently you can use it for actual useful things, too, but we’re still stuck on knitted Rasta-coloured tea cosies, Kate Upton and Need For Speed.
“I want to build blocks on the ‘pooter,” he tells me. And I let him, for no other reason than I’m too speechless with confusion to argue otherwise. And there he sits, like some deft urchin at the controls of the Death Star, playing a game that involves connecting blocks of varying sizes and colours together to make some kind of stylistically pleasing structure. All by moving fingers across a screen.
The only difference between this and the actual blocks I still rattle in the box with absentminded incredulity is that at the completion of the computerised construction, it squeaks or honks or unveils some sort of universal truth, along with various remarkable rewards.
Retiring to my solace later that evening, with a spoonful of the brown stuff, I still reel with the astonishment of it all: of how far we’ve come in the world, in our evolution, where we can do everything we’ve ever wanted with a computer, but also: of how far away we’ve drifted from the conventional idea of reality.
We don’t touch things anymore. Things like music, film, books, art and almost everything in our every day have become the great intangibles. We listen to music, yet we never feel it. We see moving images on screen, yet we never enjoy the process we used to get to that point. We read, yet we never count the pages nor remember the words.
Music used to be an event, an unwrapping of a vinyl record, the opening of a CD case; the placing of it on and in a player; the unfolding of the words and images of its cover – an art in itself – the reading of it like some undiscovered scroll of knowledge, filled with poetry and identity. Those days are gone. Now all you have to do is punch it into YouTube or iTunes and you have it instantly. No unearthing, no excitement of holding something that is yours and yours alone. Now you share it with millions, it drops out of a chute like a convenient capsule of immediate gratification.
Film was an occasion, too – in the real sense of the word. You had to go out if you wanted to see the latest blockbuster, you had to dress up and drink shitty fake-Coke and buy overpriced chocolate for a girl who might end up letting you put your arm around her, but probably didn’t.
Now, again, all you have to do is point and click and you have it. There is no romance left in a Netflick nor does popcorn taste quite the same if you have to clean it out your own couch.
Books, the final bastion of great tangible art – clucked labouriously and industrially by writers of yore onto magnificent lever-driven typewriters or smudged in ink, sweat and tears onto every conceivable surface, and delivered to your fingers in great wedges of enlightenment and dog-eared, spine-cracked knowledge – they, too, now have slimmed down to a single slab that you page by swiping to the sound of a manufactured soundbyte of “a turning page”.
Don’t ask me how Kurt Vonnegut ended up in all of this. I think while rolling all of this around my head, I had to pick up something real just to make myself sure that I was still here and I didn’t turn into an app or something.
And inevitably, in my house anyway, a book is always close by, and you don’t get more real than Slaughterhouse Five – one of my favourite books, not because it has aliens and time travel (those great intangible traditions of modern storytelling) – but because – like its hero Billy Pilgrim – a man tossing and turning in between the bed sheets of time and place – experiencing the book, you slowly begin to realise that you’re hurtling so fast through these rapidly changing times, you try so desperately to attach yourself to something real and tangible, just so that world won’t let go of you.
Reading through random lines of the book, I realised what Uncle Kurt was trying to explain to us all (and he does it not so much in his narrative, than with his wordplay): we lose a little of what we are, the faster we evolve. Our senses start to fade the faster we travel, and these senses are, no matter how the world changes, still the only connection we have with the world we live in.
They say the mind is the grand central station of the senses, and for the most part it really is that final destination where all our other senses revert back to and bounce back from again.
But touch is the soul of sense, of being. Corporeal interaction is what amplifies the sight, sound, smell of who we are and what we do. It’s no wonder the blind read with their fingers, the deaf feel vibration; touch enhances everything.
Building blocks with your hands is a lot different to sliding a finger over a virtual element, sliding it into place to a rhythm of an electronic click.
Listening to music without touching its closest point of creation – the groove of a record, the flap of a liner note – is not the same as simply plugging into instant access.
A movie isn’t a movie until you take your seat, and even more vital, a book is not a book and words are not words if you can’t feel yourself turning the page.
Living in a world without touch is like watching alien beings in a glass zoo. Billy Pilgrim taught me that.
Eventually, my son tired from sliding the blocks across a screen and wondered to himself if the box on the highest shelf in the house might promise more satisfaction…and it did.
The jagged monstrosities of real Lego could never compare to the perfect, pre-destined, game-theorised world behind the glass screen, but he felt with his fingers, and jimmy-rigged any challenge that got in his way with his hands. He improvised and experimented, improved and experienced, because he could touch.
Some great jazz musician once said that improvisation was the greatest freedom anyone could experience in anything from changing your underwear to composing a symphony. And it all starts with a touch.
Featured Image Credit: “Kurt Vonnegut” on Flickr
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