Is there a contraceptive
for the machine, that we may enjoy
intercourse with it without being overrun
When Thomas published those lines, in 1990, our internet world was a glimmer on the tech horizon. Yes, there were computers – he refers to them in several poems – but they were bulky and balky, and he never used one as far as I know.
Thomas, although he lived until 2000, could scarcely have imagined our world of email, iPhones, apps, Google, blogs, etc. Yet he coined a phrase, “being overrun by vocabulary,” that precisely encapsulates our world.
We are engaging in condomless sex with the machine – the internet world – and as a consequence are being overrun by vocabulary. E-mail words, text-message words, cell-phone words, voice-mail words. Sometimes we feel we’re a dam for the vocabulary streaming into us.
And sometimes we are literally run over by vocabulary. Almost daily there are reports of someone texting while crossing a busy street, being hit, occasionally killed.
To symbolize this world that he half-experienced, half-foresaw, Thomas uses The Machine.
Which stands for the industrial-technological-capitalistic-utilitarian-consumerist environment in which we live and move, communicate, and have our being.
Here is Thomas on what happened to villages when tending a machine in a factory began to pay better than tending cows on a farm:
. . . The machine appeared
In the distance, singing to itself
Of money. Its song was the web
They were caught in, men and women
Together. The villages were as flies
To be sucked empty.
A tear. Enough, enough,
He commanded, but the machine
Looked at him and went on singing.
And former villagers picked up their pay packets, slouched off to pubs, clinked their pints, and joined the beery chorus.
Thomas poeticizes that they were better off back in the village, back on the farm, with a cup of strong tea.
Better off? Through the eyes of a Romantic, perhaps. And Thomas was part of the Romantic tradition that, beginning with William Blake, decried the “dark Satanic Mills” of the industrializing world.
Thomas romanticized life in remote Welsh villages and farms, saw it as being closer to the soil, which it was, praised those who endured this way of life, but often overlooked the fact that it was hardscrabble and cachu-smirched.
Thomas chose to live in small villages or in cottages standing almost alone, but he did not make his living in the soil, or on a fishing boat, or at a shop counter. His stipend as a parish priest came from church offices whose coffers were kept full, directly or indirectly, by the industrialized world.
An industrialized world in which Thomas, too, held citizenship. He drove a machine, talked on a machine, listened to opera broadcasts on a machine, typed final drafts of his poems on a machine, and depended upon a brigade of machines to advance his poetry into the world.
Did he imagine he was describing someone else when he wrote about “the smile / on the countenance of the machine / he was in adultery with”?
I don’t think so.
I think he understood his own extra-marital relationship with technological-utilitarian culture.
I think Thomas viewed the Transcendent Other as his true life-partner, so it was adulterous to go to bed with the machine.
Yet he found himself, as human beings do, with a commitment and an entanglement.
Can all this be translated into everyday prose? Yes, but doing so adulterates Thomas’s poetry.
Make the internet world your employee, not your employer.
Use technology, but do not bow down and worship it.
Do not have condomless sex with the machine.
Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“Is there a contraceptive” – “’The body is mine and the soul is mine,’” Counterpoint, 47.
“The machine appeared” – “Other,” H’m, 36.
“the smile” – untitled poem, Counterpoint, 52.