A post from a few years ago that is worth revisiting:
I began this blog in earnest almost six years now, with a post called “Silence in London,” which offered a handful of photos from a recent trip to England. I only made that post, though, because during the trip I left a long comment on a poetry blog, and found that it made me want to write more about poetry and religion and history, to see if anyone online would find it worthwhile.
Soon after, the first essay I posted was “What Eliot Means to Me,” where I talked about my huge debt to the work and life of T. S. Eliot. I also mentioned the elder Eliot’s preference for those essays of his that amounted to appreciations of his favorite writers, as opposed to the more popular pieces where he was just an argumentative critic. I admire this and still do, and despite my own dips on this site into criticism (including this post!), I’m happy that I have mostly written about or excerpted from those artists I admire, rather than simply haranguing those I do not.
Yet just last month I finished Peter Ackroyd’s long and wonderful book, London: The Biography, a book which does indeed include a chapter on silence in London. I thought for a moment to write a long essay about the difference between his experience of London and of England—where he has lived his entire life—and the experience of those places to someone like me who has spent, over the course of a few trips, maybe two months there. Yet as I said in “What Eliot Means to Me,” I’ve always felt an instinctive nostalgia for England and for London, for that kind of rural and that kind of city: it’s as if I belong there, as if I lived there in a past life, or as if I will finally end up there in this one. It would have been a standard essay for a webpage like this, contrasting the real place Ackroyd knows so well, with the imagined one I simply feel drawn to.
But I honestly don’t know what the point of posting that essay would be. Because it struck me that the value I found during the trip to London that started this blog, and the value I found in Ackroyd’s book just recently, and the value I find in most of what I’ve written and posted here for the past six years—it struck me that they have very little to do with the internet. And actually hardly anything I’ve written has emerged from a digital imperative, and my essays may well have emerged from another time entirely.
I’ve been online for more than twenty years now. I was a freshman in college in the fall of 1997 when, with my first email address and having just sent my first message, I went to find the IT guy in the college library, to innocently ask how I could be sure it actually sent. I soon discovered Amazon, and my first credit card filled up as quickly as my bookshelves. I found places like Angelfire and Geocities to post bits and pieces from novels and stories I was writing, and I learned some rudimentary HTML as I went along. (I still recall an especially intense night of webpage design while listening to Radiohead’s The Bends on repeat, when that album was only a few years old.) For a time I was involved with a small press that published almost three dozen books from a handful of authors that, I was proud to say, “I never would have found without the internet.”
But nearly twenty years later, I’m not really sure that’s true; or, if it is true, whether all the time spent online not meeting such people has been worth it. Outside of corresponding with other writers, the only value the internet now holds for me is as a research tool: it helps me find books, find images, find music or videos, and all of this more quickly than I otherwise would have been able to do. It’s really that simple, and much of what I rely on the internet for could have been done in the 1960s or the 1800s, just at a much slower pace. For a time I also thought that, perhaps, I could be more “social” online than offline, but my own temperament simply hasn’t allowed that: I engage with hardly any other webpages, I rarely leave comments, and I reserve nearly all interaction through email. But most people with webpages live for public comments and Tweets, and some have told me quite plainly that they would rather I left a comment than sent an email, and as a result I usually end up doing neither. Considering the time and attempts at self-promotion I’ve tried to put into them, using everything from Twitter to Reddit, Tumblr and Pinterest—and even editing Wikipedia pages—have all been a bust. I either don’t know how to use them properly, am unwilling to learn, or they just aren’t for me.
But it’s also possible that the entire internet just isn’t for me. I wonder if anyone else feels this way? I know it’s too easy to swipe at something so huge and varied that none of us can get away from completely, but sometimes you have to, just to get it out, just to say it. It must have been four or five years ago when I first posted an essay that said, The internet is not about opening people up but making it more easy for everyone to close down. It makes people more sectarian, not less. The intervening years have only proven this, where every one and every group and every label for every painstakingly chosen identity can quite literally believe whatever they want, become immeasurably offended by just about anything, and live in their corner of the digital universe with no test in actual reality. This goes for the whiniest liberal to the dumbest racists of the alt-right.
The internet is not about knowledge and wisdom. By and large, it doesn’t seem to be about much else than the lowest form of thinking and the lowest form of communicating, both of which are tied to platforms that are made to be as addictive, rather than as informative, as possible; and it seems beyond argument that if online ads weren’t successful, there would be no internet. This is different, say, from something like a good library or even a single good book, which are inherently designed to communicate, not to distract. The internet as we know it would be nothing without distraction. And so it’s no surprise that enrollment in basic humanities courses are down, or that there is even an anger directed at authors who don’t want their books illegally available for free online. With the internet’s help, words have become cheap, words have become what everyone just shits out of their keyboard (or more likely their phone) at somebody else. The internet has made us constant and ugly and impatient consumers.
None of this is new, and other people have no doubt said it much better (“I saw the best minds of my generation thinking about how to make people click ads” is pretty much it), and even though I’ve been saying something like it for six years, I’m not sure why I didn’t ask the obvious question: what business does my webpage have, pretending to live in such an environment? How can poetry and art and history thrive in a place where, only a click away, are everything from porn or just Huffington Post or Alex Jones? Or just the most innocent but even more dangerous deluge of constant Popular Culture? The novelist Philip Roth said as much in an interview from about ten years ago (around 26:00 in), where he talks about the rise and eventual consuming power of Popular Culture. It’s worth quoting at length:
“… television began in 1948, really, and Popular Culture just grew and grew and grew and grew, and by the time I was in college, or in graduate school at the University of Chicago, David Riesman was there, and he was writing The Lonely Crowd, you remember. And I used to go to his classes and audit his classes, and they were on Mass Culture. The assumption, I remember sitting in those classes listening, was that there was this thing, Popular Culture, which we could look at… [and inside it] there was great cheapness, and great shallowness, and stupidity, ignorance, etcetera, and that this Popular Culture was taking over American entertainment, they thought. They didn’t think at that moment that it would take over everything…. Back in 1955, say, in that classroom, we all thought that the University of Chicago would win…. I think that was the assumption, that there would continue to be an audience of discriminating consumers of entertainment, of books, of art, of thought, of thinking.”
It feels almost pointless to even post a long quotation like this, since few people will have read this far anyway. But reading it again, it makes sense that I’ve recently been writing essays about the translation of Greek medical texts into Arabic and Latin in the tenth
century, and what a momentous event it was; or about the difficulty in finding scholars available to translate the Quran into Latin for the first time in the twelfth century; or that I’ve been drawn to the stories of Richard Wagner having to wait a month to get a copy of The Volsung Saga, or Leonardo da Vinci spending years trying to find a copy of Archimedes’ Treatise on Floating Bodies, and how both books are now available within a day from Amazon, or for free in shitty translations online. Other examples abound, but it’s clear that I’m drawn to a time when words and important books were rare, were treasured, and where copies of them or just the ability to read them at all was valued.
I’ve also been writing about the Christian scholar Isidore of Seville, who lived in Visigothic Spain the seventh century. Surrounded by what he considered to be “heretical” Arian Christians, he spent much of his life in lonely scholarship, and his greatest work is a kind of encyclopedia of excerpts from Classical literature and the Christian Fathers. Living at the beginning of what we call the Dark Ages, Isidore seems quite consciously to have been compiling a book which would, should civilization go under, preserve for a later time what he thought represented the best of culture and knowledge. In wondering why I feel such affection for Isidore and his project, it wasn’t long before I realized that in a much more modest way, I’ve been doing the same thing here.
This is all a long way of saying that I pretty much won’t be doing anything here for a long time. I’ll continue with the Great Myths series, but I’m not sure about anything else. A year ago around this time I started to post all of the Tao Te Ching, chapter by chapter, and it’s high time I took my advice from that scripture, and practiced a little wu-wei. A bit of productive non-doing is in order.
In that same interview with Philip Roth, quoted from above, he pushes back when the interviewer seems to deride “stuffy elites” and their love for “high culture”:
“Last night I was in New York, I went to see the third in a series of Shostakovich quartet recitals as being given by the Emerson Quartet. And these quartets of Shostakovich are unlike anything else in the twentieth century. And a third of the hall was empty. This is Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. Now, that’s okay with me, it’s probably okay with the Emerson Quartet, and it’s okay with Shostakovich. But the people who were sitting there were not stuffy or elite, they were people who find great pleasure and sustenance in listening to Shostakovich….”
Over the past six years, I’ve presented my dozens of versions of Shostakovich, in whatever gems of poetry, religion or history that I’ve been able to find, and in some of my own essays and poetry. Half of the irritation in is this essay, of course, is that I haven’t been okay with the hall mostly being empty. That’s something I need to learn. But it’s also worth noting that the Emerson Quartet and Shostakovich all had places where they at least felt like they belonged; and anymore, I don’t feel like I belong online, and this realization has dovetailed with the one which says that isolation is probably my real key anyway.
Peter Ackroyd, whose book on London got me going on all of this, also wrote a wonderful biography of William Blake. And the following description of Blake moving away from even considering conventional publishing, sounds like truth to my ears, and contemporary pressures and avenues, could easily be substituted here. And for now, so be it:
His independence meant that he could preserve his vision beyond all taint—and that integrity is an essential aspect of his genius—but it also encouraged him to withdraw from the world of common discourse. Although these consequences were not immediately apparent, over the years his range of reference and allusion became more private and more confined. Out of his isolation he created a great myth, but it was one that was never vouchsafed to his contemporaries and one that, even now, is generally neglected or misunderstood. Blake’s life is in that sense a parable of the artist who avoids the market place, where all others come to buy and sell; he preserved himself inviolate, but his freedom became a form of solitude. He worked for himself, and he listened only to himself; in the process he lost any ability to judge his own work. He had the capacity to become a great public and religious poet but, instead, he turned in upon himself and gained neither influence nor reputation.