Saturday, February 12, 2011

I Celebrate Myself, and Blog Myself

Ian Brunskill:

The superficial similarities are certainly striking. His avowed interest in every aspect of his own life and character and their frank revelation in prose of sometimes improvisatory immediacy have (to Bakewell and others) suggested affinities with the world of blogs and social media today. It would be wrong, however, to push this too far. Montaigne’s literal self-centeredness has more in common with the self-portraits of the Renaissance painters who created the form (one element in an evolving complex of ideas about Man and his place in the universe), than with the compulsive exhibitionism of today’s Facebook or Twitter users. For Montaigne it’s a matter not of self-display to the world, but of self-discovery in the world and through engagement with it. Writing in the way he does is essential to that process, as he quietly contemplates the workings of his own mind. He has none of the blogger’s fear of silence or the desperate modern need to connect and communicate.

...The happiness he pursued was not the personal pleasure of utilitarian thought, let alone the “quick boosts” and easy (if esoteric) gratifications of modern self-help. His goal, as Bakewell reminds us, was the eudaimonia of Greek philosophy, an altogether fuller conception of human flourishing and joy. And he attained it by not seeking it. He focused, to borrow Minogue’s phrase, not on happiness itself but on concrete particulars, bringing to their contemplation what Bakewell describes as another “little trick” taken from the Greeks: ataraxia, which might be rendered equanimity or imperturbability. The result could be described in Montaigne’s case as a productively detached kind of engagement with life.

...There may be a lesson, nonetheless. At the very least, Montaigne’s example offers a valuable counterpoint to a media-driven, mediated modern culture that blurs the distinctions between public and private spaces, and public and private selves, and in which constant communication seems sometimes to mean no more than unceasing noise. Montaigne was happy in a way that no blogger ever could be. There is, in the end, something to be said for the little room behind the shop.

Emphases mine. I had been thinking about this myself as I read Bakewell's book, the difference between the sort of (literally) self-centered writing Montaigne did, and the more self-absorbed type of attention-seeking communication in social media. (I would also point out, though, that Brunskill is too quick to conflate blogs with Facebook and Twitter; some very good writing by almost any standard is being published on Blogspot and Wordpress.)

Personally, I think it's a bit of a silly conceit to act as if one can approach a topic from a purely neutral, objective view, or at least to act as if removing all explicit elements of a first-person narrative confers greater objectivity. I realize that a lot of what I'm doing here is "self-discovery in the world", a "detached engagement" with it, but I certainly hope it doesn't read like someone wallowing in his own thoughts out of narcissistic delight in what a unique snowflake he thinks he is. I aim to engage with ideas and events by grounding them in my own perspective, partially because I don't have the pedigree to write as a disinterested scholar anyway. I write about whatever interests me to a group of strangers on the Internet who don't know anything about me as an everyday person, and under a pseudonym at that, because the larger topics are really what matter here. I like to think I'm expressing the parts of myself that are most worth knowing, but in the hope that they'll resonate in other people's lives and reflect something else back.

1 comment:

noel said...

"Inscrutable snowflake" would be another good name for a blog.