Monday, November 19, 2012

Morbus publicus

In the comments section of a Hugh Fitzgerald post on Jihad Watch on a Thanksgiving Day many a moon ere—one of his non-Islamic musical “Interludes”—he grumbled now and again in somewhat pricklier and curmudgeonlier manner even than usual (perhaps the biliously postprandial aftermath of excess turkey, along with ruminations on Turkey). Aside from waspishly scolding one or another cringing commenter for their improper participation in the festivities, he took the occasion of one reader’s remark to improvise spontaneously, as was his waxing wont (alas, a wont he no longer wants to indulge, it seems).

The remark:

“I’m afraid I lack the competitive drive to try to impress judges of any kind. (If I had that, I would be a writer, rather than a reader.)”

And Hugh’s riff:

For god’s sake, this country is crawling with so-called “writers.” Hundreds of thousands of them. What it lacks is good readers. Nowadays, it’s a rarer skill, and a harder task.

And the same comment goes for the hundreds of thousands of “artists”—the sheer number of which so often prevents the good ones from being winnowed from the chaff of all the others, and properly discovered and encouraged, and appreciated, and collected, in time to make a difference. How many connoisseurs and intelligent collectors or encourages of painting and drawing do you know? And how many people have you heard of, real-estate tycoons, hedge-fund operators, the lot, have you heard of spending vast sums of money on celebrated crap that they have been told by some cunning art dealer playing to their ignorance and sharing, perhaps, the same execrable taste or no-taste-at-all, that this or that “artist”—preferably “cutting-edge” and preferably doing something involving video or photographs or performances or anything at all or perhaps they merely read it in Time, or ArtForum—produces work is “really significant” and besides, “it's a great investment.”

Wade through the swamp with me. Surely we can find some higher ground. There’s a spot—Barzun Hill. Let’s climb it.

And a little later on, clarifying in his characteristically peevish tone for yet another reader who fails to grasp Hugh’s finer nuances:

My point was that “numbers marreth man.” Too many people clamoring for intention, too many people convinced that they deserve attention, and often the wrong ones getting it, and the sheer numbers getting in the way of the right ones. It’s a bit like job applications. If there are five resumes for the job, you might have a chance of selecting the right candidate. But if you have 500, as you so often do, it’s impossible. In all the gallery hype of the businessmen (read The New Criterion contributors on the art racket), and the businessmen-collectors, among all the Tracey Emins and Jeff Koonses, do those of merit get noticed?

We’ve been on this route before. Sonnet 66. “And captive good attending captain ill.” But it’s worse now.

To which I wanted to say, had Messrs. Fitzgerald and Spencer not banned me from Jihad Watch during that Holiday season (and that not being the nonce, nor the twice, but thrice), that they would have benefited from a nugget I would have posted there, of a rather exquisitely apposite historical reference to ice the nice slice of cake Hugh had ad-libbed.

To wit: the pricelessly trenchant coin of Petrarch (1304-1374) in his reaction to the thriving proliferation of writing in that hectic 14th century, which he diagnosed as a morbus publicus (literally, a “social disease”), flourishing during the Renaissance. And his diagnosis anticipated the advent, less than a hundred years later, of the Internet of his erai.e., the Gutenberg printing press and its spectacular, tentacular transformation of society in its augmentation of multitudes of writers and poetasters and commentators and demagogues.

In his De scriptorum fama dialogus, XLCV, then, Petrarch wrote of a morbus publicus contagiosus insanabilis—a “social disease that is unhealthy and contagious”a sociocultural phenomenon burgeoning all around him:

“Everyone,” so went Petrarch on his trecentistic rant, “usurps for himself the job of writing, even though it [rightfully] belongs to the few. In this problem, there is one fault: The many, in the name of imitating and emulating another’s labor, are polluting the atmosphere, and as time goes by, this fault spreads in a multitude of ills while at the same time the force of the illness deepens. The more people write every day, the worse the writing gets, since it is easier to follow than to be followed. 

Nevertheless, as men pursue their goals, the limitations of reality persist, which will tend to confound the rashness of mortals; and those who know and who are able, will write, and others will read, or listen. As few souls indeed understand that pleasure, unless they rush headlong into putting pen to paper—that is, whoever understands one particle of a book, or he thinks he does—we are obliged to ask: Has he thus absorbed books sufficiently to write them properly? 

One dictum of the Cicero of our memory, penned in his Tusculan study, ought not to be left in its dusty shade, but should rather be put forth out into the bright and open light of our day: It is all too possible that someone can rightly grasp a sentiment, yet be unable to eloquently express it. Then, to go further and entrust one’s thoughts to writers who have neither the ability to articulate them, nor to illustrate them, nor with some expression to attract the reader, is a waste of the reader so intemperately abused, and of the writer.”

And speaking of Barzun Hill, Petrarch also wrote of a little epiphany he had upon climbing a small mountain, to the effect that he was the first person to do so for the sheer pleasure of it—“because it’s there”, as George Leigh Mallory said of Mt. Everest—unlike those benighted Medievals who were so stunted in imagination that such a vertical jaunt for its own sake had never occurred to them; and so height-challenged in cultural stature that they would have to stand on the shoulders of Ancients to see into the newly dawning Modernity the Renaissance was auguring. 

It is a little ironic that Petrarch was the Godfather, so to speak, of the denigration of the Middle Ages in favor of a new age whose deference to the Classics soon turned into a feeling of indefinitely trajectorial Progress towards a future incipiently, inchoately, yet inevitably cut adrift from its Judaeo-Christian eschaton (not to mention, more and more, its Graeco-Roman philosophy); while, at the same time, in our quotation above, this proto-Modern laments the loss of the good old days that modernity was felt to be causing, and which has been causing, repetitively, for the past 700 years to our own present. This ambivalence is still alive in a Hugh Fitzgerald who tried to rule his corner of the Internet like a 19th century salon, even as he bristled at and begrudged the inescapable insouciance that rides on the world-washing, internationally inundating waves of that same Internet.  At the same time, however, this distemper of his seems to have been conducive to his greatness as an essayist.  At his subsequent Internook, where he has remained since moving on from Jihad Watch, hes since mellowed out considerably, due more to his circumstance of being Jihad-Watchless, one dares say, than any lapse in temperment; which is, or would be, a shamefor even Jihad-Watchless, his ever timely pieces linked for posterity at Jihad Watch remain timeless.  That leave-taking, after years of writing there, seems to have taken the wind out of his sails for launching the magnificently voluminous and reconditely erudite treatises for which he became known.

At any rate, if Petrarch thought the morbus publicus was bad in his day, he must be now—in Purgatory or in Paradisespinning at 78 r.p.m. at what the Internet is wreaking, with all its Cacophony of the Blogospheres amid cobwebs of sites old and new, links replacing the inks of old horns, and for all the teeming, multiplying cookies and mouses aclick, precious little esca in muscipula for our edible edification.  

At least I recalled that incisive diamond needle to put to his revolutions to wax, which would have provided an apposite bookend, so to say, to Hugh’s Internet Interlude interjection.  Oh well, if Jihad Watch’s loss wasn’t Blogalism’s gain for the one, it was for the other: one of the benefits of the fevered flush of our saeculum’s social disease which, like most things in life, ain’t all bad.

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