Fintan O'Toole: The big question of the last decade is...

The Decade in Culture: t’s up to us to reclaim the private self from Google and Facebook

After another 10 years of digital encroachment and data collection, the hidden self is now fully exposed. It is a valuable resource that is harvested and monetised, and it is up to the artist, the individual, to resist this systematic surveillance of our thoughts and desires

To consider what has happened to culture in the decade that is now closing, a good place to start might be with the famous last lines of one of the great 19th-century novels, George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The book is a panorama of social and cultural transformation in a place that was then the epicentre of the epic changes known as the industrial revolution: the English midlands. Its central character, Dorothea, is, ostensibly, a failure – she makes the wrong choices and does not change the world around her as she had hoped to do. But Eliot’s conclusion offers redemption to her and to us as readers: “Her full nature . . . spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

This hymn to the “hidden life” is in some ways a culmination of the great revolution of modernity: the idea of the inner self – even the selves of obscure women – as a vast and deep space. Even more startlingly than in Middlemarch, this idea is dramatised in another of the great 19th-century fictions, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It is in some ways the quintessential epic, dealing as it does with the world-shaking events of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. But Tolstoy gives equal billing, beside the rulers and generals, to a young woman of no importance, Natasha Rostova, and in particular to the inner emotional turmoil of her search for love. The astonishing statement implied by the whole shape of the book is that Natasha’s private emotions are just as epic as the Battle of Borodino, that “unhistoric acts” should matter to us every bit as much as historic ones do. 

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