Commonplace Book

These comments on the meaning of television are from E.B. White’s monthly column for Harper’s Magazine, July 1938.

I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television–of that I am quite sure.

It must have been two years ago that I attended a television demonstration at which it was shown beyond reasonable doubt that a person sitting in one room could observe the nonsense taking place in another. I recall being more amused by what was happening in the tangible room where I sat than by what appeared in the peephole of science. The images were plain enough, however, and by paying attention I could see the whites of a pretty woman’s eyes. Since then I have followed the television news closely.

Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God. Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound “effects” are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself. Television will enormously enlarge the eye’s range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sound, images–these will emerge as the real and the true; and when we bang the door of our own cell or look into another’s face the impression will be of mere artifice. I like to dwell on this quaint time, when the solid world becomes make-believe, [Charlie] McCarthy corporeal and [Edgar] Bergen stuffed, when all is reversed and we shall be like the insane, to whom the antics of the sane seem the crazy twistings of a grig.

When I was a child people simply looked about them and were moderately happy; today they peer beyond the seven seas, bury themselves waist deep in tidings, and by and large what they see and hear makes them unutterably sad.

– White, E.B. “Removal” in One Man’s Meat. Gardiner, Me. Tilbury House. 1982, pp. 2-3