In John Keats‘ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, a knight wanders through the winter landscape, which reflects his own wintry decline towards death. But what is the source of his despair? Simply this: he has tasted a more intense reality which makes ordinary life appear nothing more than a ‘cold hill’s side’. Now he wants nothing to do with dull, colourless reality. He only wants the ‘faery’s child’ who bewitched him. This haunting poem captures perfectly the experience of plunging back into cold reality after a thrilling experience.
The advent of youth culture from the fifties onwards has mass produced this kind of experience. Its hedonism is a kind of debased Romanticism for the masses. We have travelled from the pale knight at arms, unwilling to overcome his melancholy, to the self-destructive narcissism of modern rock stars. In my teenage years it was Kurt Cobain with his heroin addiction and suicidal depression, and Liam Gallagher telling us that we ‘might as well do the white line.’
So I drifted through my adolescence, seeking various escapes. But by far the most successful one was computer games. I grind my teeth whenever I think of the thousands of hours I wasted in virtual reality. I was particularly addicted to strategy games like ‘Civilisation’, in which you ruled the world.
Of course, my addiction didn’t prevent me from gaining top grades at school, because I hardly needed to learn anything to do so. If the academic work had actually been demanding, I might not have had so much time to waste.
I have been struck over and over again by the dominance of video games in the thought world of boys and young men. Smartphones and tablets have led to an even greater invasion of virtual reality, so that now it’s almost impossible to avoid the flickering screens. I was reminded of this again recently, when my son was in hospital for most of a week and the children’s ward was stuffed full of electronic entertainment. My sister came to visit and thought he was a bit ‘out of it’. She supposed it was the painkillers, but by that time he was only on ibuprofen and paracetamol. No, he was ‘out of it’ because he was being drawn into all the flickering screens that filled the ward. A boy who is usually so chatty was hardly interested in making conversation most of the time.
Video games, in all their guises, are worse than drugs, because they have all of the psychological effects without the attendant physical ones, or the social stigma. They entice you out of reality, and leave you thinking real experiences are rather pale and dull. They give you instant gratification. They make you think you are the centre of the universe. And most parents in Britain are actually feeding their children this psychic poison.
Given the ubiquity of entrancing audio-visual entertainment in homes across the land, schools have an ever more important role, as one of the few places where people are forced to remove their electronic appendages and focus on reality. If schools themselves fail to provide a refuge and a sanctuary where virtual reality does not invade, what hope do our young people have?
I’ll leave you with Keats’ vision of enchanted victims:
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.