Friday, December 31, 2010

A thoughtless post

Prompted  by having just read Joe Klein's provocative year-end wrap, which begins "Nothing much happened in 2010," I just thought, "nothing much happened this week" -- a much more defensible proposition, snowstorms notwithstanding.  The corollary, 'nothing much is happening in my mind," leads me to an old want-to-write trick, writing without thinking, which will never see the light of bloggy day unless thinking transpires. The best expositor of such self-stimulating tricks remains Winnie the Pooh, who, wishing to complete a half-finished hum, repeats the previous portion in expectation that the next part will present itself.

How often do most of us remember that "blog" derives from log, as in weblog, as in a kind of writer's notebook. The first blog so-named that I recall paying attention to was kept by a small business journalist, David Lidsky, and I've retained the notion I picked up from one of his introductory posts (as I remember it...) that a blog is a kind of public scratch pad, or commonplace book, the raw material that a writer of whatever kind compiles as fuel for more finished productions, albeit meant from the first to be public-ized.

My thought here was to spin out the analogy with the commonplace book of renaissance or later vintage, which I recall as a personal log of quotations that struck the author as worth remembering.  I may have first encountered the concept in a footnote (or lecture note?)  to Hamlet's exclamation, post-ghost trauma: "My tables--meet it is I set it down/That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain." -- I recall this being glossed as Hamlet thinking how right he had been to have bookmarked this jewel of wisdom when he encountered it in his studies and put it in his "tables," which are like the multiplication tables minus the multiplication, i.e. a written record meant as a memory aid.

So...checking my memory of what a commonplace book is (no free association these days is free of instant fact-check...), I find, inevitably, that its relationship to the blog has already been noted, probably repeatedly, but first in Google by a certain Lisa Spangenberg, who dredges up this wonderful definition from Jonathan Swift (get the Swift link from Lisa...):
A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there. For, take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his.

One wondrous thing about the blog, that is the webbified log, is the massive leverage it supplies to the intellectual capital stored in Swift's inky virtual memory, via a search engine that retrieves anything you've seen fit to quote and/or link to in posts past.  Hence too the often grating repetition and outsourced argumentation of bloggers, who can deploy arguments we've appropriated from our betters without troubling to scratch them out longhand.  The ease of reference (and access provision) makes DJs of us all (to borrow Andrew Sullivan's analogy), displaying our pastiche as if selectivity were creativity -- which, to a limited extent, it is, as what new creation is not to some degree a pastiche or remake of productions past?

Sullivan is fond of citing as a protobloggy progenitor Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century French aristocrat often styled the father of the essay as we know it (and coiner of the term, which he used to denote trial or experiment, a thought experiment played out on the page). I have tried hard at various points to like Montaigne, though most recently he struck me as a self-dramatizing diva, objectively wrong about most things verifiable or disprovable (in his own time or subsequent ones) that he was pleased to hold an opinion about -- and pleased to hold an opinion about everything that came within his purview. That's a rather Montaignian bit of summary judgment right there, not worth the pixels it's printed on, but in any case...

I am constitutionally better disposed, Eeyore that I am, toward the work of another obvious protoblogger, Samuel Johnson, 18th century pioneer of short-form personal journalism, or personal advice journalism, or self-help journalism, or more accurately confessedly self-helpless journalism, as Johnson made his personal mental infirmities known to his readers (as did Montaigne, though his confessions were more a form of boasting).  In fact, I must confess that, sensing from the start where this Rambling was heading, I've been semi-consciously miming Johnson's aureate diction throughout.

Johnson's musings are nicely distilled, since of the multiple intelligences to which humans may be heir he was prodigious chiefly in the one that yields insights by examining its own workings, that is he was a psychologist of the self, who assessed human activity according to the way it played out in his own consciousness.

Johnson was also a pajamas media prototype insofar as he was a compulsive procrastinator; the relentless unproductive passage of time is perhaps his most heartfelt theme. His ruminations on this obsession were quite productive, however, since he most profitably observed his own failure to stick to whatever task he thought he ought to be about. Here he is, for example, ruminating on how we inevitably waste one another's time:
It is well known that time once past never returns, and that the moment which is lost, is lost for ever. Time therefore ought, above all other kinds of property, to be free from invasion, and yet there is no man who does not claim the power of wasting that time which is the right of others. 

[Ah, postmodern pampering...I hand-typed the paragraph above, then switched to Google and am pasting the rest...]
This usurpation is so general, that a very small part of the year is spent by choice; scarcely any thing is done when it is intended, or obtained when it is desired. Life is continually ravaged by invaders; one steals away an hour, and another a day; one conceals the robbery by hurrying us into business, another by lulling us with amusement; the depredation is continued through a thousand vicissitudes of tumult and tranquillity, till, having lost all, we can lose no more.
Johnson goes on to consider the extent to which the great and the not-so-great impinge upon each other's time-horde, and, royalist contrarian that he is, suggests those in power get rather the shorter end of the stick:
He, whose rank or merit procures him the notice of mankind, must give up himself, in a great measure, to the convenience or humour of those who surround him. Every man, who is sick of himself, will fly to him for relief; he that wants to speak will require him to hear; and he that wants to hear will expect him to speak. Hour passes after hour, the noon succeeds to morning, and the evening to noon, while a thousand objects are forced upon his attention, which he rejects as fast as they are offered, but which the custom of the world requires to be received with appearance of regard.
How much the more true for democratic leaders! I love to contemplate the humility of our elected officials, megalomaniacs though they must be to enjoy the sweet humiliations of constituent service and the thousand small arts of vote-getting. 

Ultimately, while lamenting our mutual temporal predations, Johnson also embraces them as a feature, not a bug, in our mortality:
If we will have the kindness of others, we must endure their follies. He who cannot persuade himself to withdraw from society, must be content to pay a tribute of his time to a multitude of tyrants; to the loiterer, who makes appointments which he never keeps; to the consulter, who asks advice which he never takes; to the boaster, who blusters only to be praised; to the complainer, who whines only to be pitied; to the projector, whose happiness is to entertain his friends with expectations which all but himself know to be vain; to the economist, who tells of bargains and settlements; to the politician, who predicts the fate of battles and breach of alliances; to the usurer, who compares the different funds; and to the talker, who talks only because he loves to be talking.
An inveterate moralist, Johnson cannot forbear leaving off with an admonition:
To put every man in possession of his own time, and rescue the day from this succession of usurpers, is beyond my power, and beyond my hope. Yet, perhaps, some stop might be put to this unmerciful persecution, if all would seriously reflect, that whoever pays a visit that is not desired, or talks longer than the hearer is willing to attend, is guilty of an injury which he cannot repair, and takes away that which he cannot give.
Well, one consolation of this particular time-wasting exercise: if you, dear reader, have got this far, I guess I haven't talked longer than (at least one) hearer is willing to attend.  Thanks!

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