Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Superstition of Those Afraid of the Water

When I think of Leon Wieseltier, I usually picture him with Brian Leiter's spitballs dotting the side of his face and neck, and though his relationship with Isaiah Berlin makes me wish I could be favorably disposed toward him, this sort of thing makes it tough:

I don’t call myself a journalist and I can’t call myself a professor, so the only professional term to which I answer happily is “intellectual.” And I think it is a very honourable term and I am happy with it. The Springsteen thing was written against a kind of journalistic complaisance. And to be wicked. I think that it is very important to give people an example of irreverence. We live in a culture of worthless praise.

It seems that in an age of blogging and online journalism everything is either solipsistic back-patting or pure vitriol.

Or it’s talk radio. And I have to say that there is not one blog, out of the eight million that must exist, that I read. The thing about blogging is that it is either someone’s first thoughts—which we know by definition are never their best thoughts—so that’s not interesting, or as time goes by they simply repeat themselves. Moreover there isn’t a lot you can say about anything consequential in 300 words. I write the back page of the magazine and I always wish it was three times as long as it is.

"I don't read any of those modern-day penny dreadfuls. Now stand back as I proceed to tell you all about them." Snort. For a fellow who's so concerned about scientism infringing on the humanities' jurisdiction, he doesn't seem to have any problem dictating the form "serious" writing must take to meet his standards. However, as I'm sure he's consolingly heard a few times in his life, length isn't everything.

(Hey, didn't you hear him say it's important to give people an example of irreverence? I mean, if he's already got all these haughty preconceptions about blogging, I might as well play to type.)

Personally, I prefer as with poetry, so too with prose: study your subject silently, choose your angle carefully, and then illuminate it with a flash of insight, a striking turn of phrase. Or, as a fellow who knew a thing or two about expressing profound thoughts in aphoristic form put it:

For I approach deep problems like cold baths: quickly into them and quickly out again. That one does not get to the depths that way, not deep enough down, is the superstition of those afraid of the water, the enemies of cold water; they speak without experience. The freezing cold makes one swift.

And to ask this incidentally: does a matter necessarily remain misunderstood and unfathomed merely because it has been touched only in flight, glanced at, in a flash? Is it absolutely imperative that one settles down on it? That one has brooded over it as over an egg? Diu noctuque incubando, as Newton said of himself? At least there are truths that are singularly shy and ticklish and cannot be caught except suddenly — that must be surprised or left alone.

There certainly are plenty of blogs that are nothing but tribal vitriol and status competition, but unlike Twitter, there are no inherent constraints on the form a blog takes. It can be anything from an online diary to a space for long-form essays, and like the essay, its adaptable, mongrel nature likely bodes well for its longevity.