Sense and Nonsense: A Technological Mind

On clement Street in San Francisco this spring, I did my usual prowl of the used-bookstores, but I also managed a couple of hours at McDonald’s downtown, a rather chaotic but rich used-bookstore off Turk or Ellis. There I found a book called The Ideal Reader: Selected Essays by Jacques Riviere. I had, perhaps in connection with the Maritains, vaguely heard of this French critic, who had edited the Nouvelle Revue Francaise from 1919 until his death in 1925.

Riviere began one essay, “Marcel Proust and the Positivist Mind,” in this fashion: “Marcel Proust died of that very incompetence which allowed him to write his work. He died because he lacked a practical mind…. ”

This sentence is the origin of the account I am about to give. My brothers, to be frank, are not necessarily impressed with my “practical mind.” If they ever manage to corner me during a time they are building or moving, they put me to work hauling rock or lifting boxes. And to give them credit, they seem pleased that anything gets done at all.

About ten years ago, when I first came to Georgetown, in those distant days of primitive technology, I was in need of a typewriter. Thanks to the kindness of the Jesuit Community, I ended up with an IBM imitation called Sierra Juki 3300 Electric. This was a fine typewriter and worked quite well for years. Even when I managed to learn how to use a computer for ordinary things, I still used this typewriter for smaller things like brief notes and such. About a month ago, I was typing something and the letter “z” stuck, so every time I hit the “z” about ten zzzzzzzzzz would appear.

Even I knew something was wrong, but that this could be no major repair job. So I sent it off to a place called the Leon Office Machine Company where I got the machine and which made repairs in the old days. Soon I was informed that this company no longer did anything but electronic work and suggested that I try another general repair shop, whose name I now forget. I called them and explained the machine I had. They said that they did not do repairs on that sort of machine, making it sound like I was asking them to fix the original John Deere tractor. Well, I also called a couple of other places only to get the same answer.

It was at this point that I knew I was encountering modernity head on! A ten-year-old typewriter is so obsolete that no repair shop in the greater metropolitan area of Washington, the nation’s capital, will even look at it. I had a notion to donate it to the Smithsonian. Well, I knew the typewriter was basically obsolete, except that one of my nephews once had a job selling Smith-Corona typewriters and told me that the newer versions were good. You just had to know what you wanted to do with them.

It was at this point I consulted Father Martin Casey, our house treasurer, a wonderful man and experienced in these worldly affairs. He used to be pastor at Holy Trinity down the street, and pastors are supposed to be able to handle any emergency. He suggested that there was quite a reasonable version of the Smith-Corona portable typewriter that they were using in his office.

So shortly, I was in possession of this new type-writer which is equipped with a number of automatic beeps and electronic slides that make you realize that it, too, is totally dependent on the repair facilities in case anything goes wrong. But the machine worked fine once I got the hang of it.

Just after school was out in the spring, as I said, I went out to California for a couple of weeks. On my return, I wanted to type something quite brief, so I put a piece of paper and a carbon in the new machine, which I had not used all that much. I turned the machine on. All sorts of buzzes and purrings went on as the carriage was automatically put into position. But when I tried to type some letters, nothing happened. I lifted the hood. Things seemed to be fine. I tried again. Again nothing would work. No key would move, shades of the zzzzzzzzzz on my old Sierra Juki.

I told Father Casey of my problem. He said to bring the machine down and his very nice Filipino secretary would look at it. So I did. I ran into Father Casey a couple of hours later. He was laughing loudly and told me that the machine was now working perfectly. “What was wrong?” I naturally inquired. “You didn’t have any ribbon in the machine!” he roared delightedly.

At first I wondered who on earth would have taken a Smith-Corona ribbon out of my typewriter, a rather useless item without the machine. Jesuits’ rooms are used like hotel rooms for other visiting firemen when they are gone. But even I could not imagine what a Jesuit might want with a used ribbon. Only later, when I again looked into the machine where I had not noticed this problem before, did I realize that it was I who had taken the ribbon out before going to California and forgot about it!

Needless to say, this story will not surprise my brothers. Nor do I wish to claim that I therefore have many of the good qualities of Marcel Proust. Father Casey was quite bemused however. For him, this incident is more or less the equivalent of the absent-minded professor who cannot tie his shoelaces. I would wish, in this case, that he might not be right. But I have so little evidence to go on….

Anyone who has need of a ten-year-old, obsolete Sierra Juki with a stuck “zzzzzzzzzz,” just let me know.

Jacques Riviere went on with his remarks on Proust: “Indeed, on the whole, the value of his work results first, in my opinion, from the fact that, among all works ever written, it is the most devoid of any connection with the useful….”

Is there perhaps a metaphysical point to all of this? Ignatius Press recently published one of the most wonderful books imaginable, namely Josef Pieper: An Anthology [see review, p. 54]. Let me conclude with just one brief passage from Pieper’s essay “The Grandeur and Misery of Man”: “We would be desolate if we had to live in a world containing only things which we could dispose of and use, but nothing which we could simply enjoy….”

This principle, I think, ought to be the first principle of the technological mind as well as the instinctive reaction of Martin Casey in telling me what is wrong with my new Smith-Corona.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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