Saturday, 17 January 2015


“Of making many blogs there is no end,” the author of Ecclesiastes might have written, if the Iron Age had been online. Wikipedia says there are 150 million of them. Here’s one more. Sorry. An apologia for something few people are likely to read seems hardly worth making, but a systematic rationalization to myself—and blogs are nothing if not forums (or maybe only echo-chambers) of the “self”—is more apropos. Throw in Samuel Johnson’s centuries-old sneer at amateur scribblers, which never fails to deflate me, and it’s even more so. Here goes.


The earliest known blog was of course G.K. Chesterton’s wife (pictured). Just kidding. But, yes, that hideous neologism was, is, first a surname. Pity the possessor thereof, unless it’s a Tolkien character coiled in a crevasse in Mordor. (With Mrs Chesterton it was a case, notes biographer Ian Kerr, of   “[t]he original Huguenot French surname ‘de Blogue’ ha[ving] been unfortunately anglicized into ‘Blogg’.”) To me ‘blogger’ as job-description suggests something rank, a cesspit drainer or sewer mender in nineteenth-century London, an ugly word for a filthy trade—but does the connotation suggested by the sound of the term actually fit? Conceive of the blogosphere as a city and it’s clear the blogopolis has districts of intelligence and useful information as well as slums of virtriol, vanity and trivia. ‘Blogger’ doesn’t always or even usually mean ‘windbag,’ “bore,” “crackpot,” “narcissist,” “poseur,” “pedant” or “hack” but it does often enough that I think something of the cesspit, a faint reputational reek from all the awful others out there, does adhere to anyone publishing on a personal website. The taint of the utterly irrelevant, the unofficial, the unvetted and so potentially fifth-rate, hangs over everything you write without a publisher’s imprimatur. The preconception is hard to shake that the average blog resembles a ramshackle kiosk in a street crowded with hundreds like it, all offering doubtful wares, or even a pile of roadside junk hung with a cardboard FREE! sign. While much interesting writing certainly coexists with the logorrhoeic kooks and pointless online Pepys’s, it’s hard to find. The Internet offers the world’s first forum of the totally unmediated Individual, uncensored but also unsolicited, an ocean of Johnsonian amateurs: “take it or leave it, hit or miss, here I am,” could be a collective tag-line for the whole blogosphere. Caveat lector never seemed a fitter proviso for the prospective blog-reader. But for the prospective blogger? Maybe Mark Twain: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”


Then again, maybe Norman Mailer’s a better guide in this matter. Because if ever a book resembled a blog in spirit and style, it is Advertisements for Myself (1960). Notorious at the time, now more of a curiosity for American literature students, it’s a miscellany-cum-memoir of musings, manifestoes, half-finished novels, excerpts of scripts and stories, appalling poetry, execrable juvenilia, grandiose pronouncements on sundry (no longer) topical matters, angry rambles at enemies, unoriginal insights presented as brilliant new discoveries, and much else in a similarly deranged vein. It’s risible and bathetic as often as it’s stylistically sublime, and I highly recommend it, but my point is that it’s like a large percentage of the blogosphere or social media in general. It’s not that it’s unpolished or uniformly poor—Mailer was a fine novelist and his reputation as such stands—it’s that it’s so willfully unseemly, it’s so blatantly, unapologetically bad-mannered and makeshift: again, like online writing. Mailer boasts about (and prints parts of) books he hasn’t finished—actually, hardly started—and which never do get written, he explains at length why the bad books he wrote weren’t entirely his fault (and then reprints long passages). In the essays he is often polemicising for positions he hasn’t fully worked out, because his ideas are still in progress but he’s damn well publishing them anyway—better to send a half-baked idea to the printer in the white-hot, existential instant of inspiration, than to wait and let effete second thoughts and revisions spoil his style. Style—or the search for one in a time and place he feels has none—is the essence of the book. The horrors of the Second World War (which informed The Naked and the Dead, one of the works on which his reputation rests) and the atomic anxieties that follow it have made 1950s America a colourless, spiritless place, where “one could hardly maintain the courage to be an individual, to speak with one’s own voice…. No wonder then that these have been the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve. The only courage, with rare exceptions, that we have been witness to, has been the isolated courage of isolated people.” Mailer determines to be one such brave solitary, and to speak with his own voice, even if it’s found by endless crowing. Better that than conformist silence.


He speaks loudest and clearest in “The White Negro,” an essay likely to be left off many a university syllabus for years to come because, like much of the book, it fails the test of political correctness—as it was meant to. The political correctness of Mailer’s time, less finetuned and multifaceted than ours, was the stark Us-Them thinking of the Cold War, and Mailer was on the side of neither corporate capitalism nor socialism: both bred totalitarianism, he argued, and the American form of it was no better than the Soviet, only harder to spot, dressed in veils of patriotism and Red-scare paranoia. His advertisements are ironic anti-advertisements which deliberately set out to do the opposite of what ads normally do, namely flatter and entertain while insinuating their subtext into our unconscious. Mailer is blunt, rude, ridiculous, and bottomlessly self-regarding to a purpose. He wants to shock a generation out of its thrall to the pleasing messages of its own propaganda. He presents himself, the Self set free, ugly and unreconstructed, as the example to be followed by the brave few, the bands of hipsters who will balk at the values of military-industrial America and bring rebellion to the land of the formerly free. He offers, in all seriousness, the anarchic possibilities of the “nihilism of Hip,” a (dangerous, totally implausible) ethos of moral unrestraint, in place of the dull, killing stasis of mass conformity. His advertisements, his posturing and pontificating, are to be the poetry the spirit of the new age models itself on, like Whitman’s verses in a simpler time. As unbuttoned and full of gusto as Whitman, he replaces the poet’s optimism and fellow-feeling with a rousing, risky appeal to the id as the last answer to the despair of the millions of chronically repressed and alienated:


[T]he nihilism of Hip proposes as its final tendency that every social restraint and category be removed, and the affirmation implicit in the proposal is that man would then prove to be more creative than murderous and so would not destroy himself. Which is exactly what separates Hip from the authoritarian philosophies which now appeal to the conservative and liberal temper—what haunts the middle of the twentieth century is that faith in man has been lost, and the appeal of authority has been that it would restrain us from ourselves. Hip, which would return us to ourselves, at no matter what price in individual violence, is the affirmation of the barbarian, for it requires a primitive passion about human nature to believe that individual acts of violence are always to be preferred to the collective violence of the State; it takes literal faith in the creative possibilities of the human being to envisage acts of violence as the catharsis which prepares growth.


What would bring a bright writer living in middle-class comfort to make this kind of lunatic appeal to anarchy and “barbarism”? Mailer claims (as Herbert Marcuse would more systematically in “Repressive Tolerance” (1965) and One-Dimensional Man (1964)), that industrialized society limits the possibilities for human freedom and confines the heart in such a narrow preordained compass that the slavery under which the Negro suffered for centuries can be said to have overtaken the rest of society—even if the chains now are merely psychological. As a result, one must turn to the Negro to locate the resources that will keep one’s spirit from being crushed by the State. These turn out to be jazz, sex, violence, and a certain style of language—all of a specifically “Hip” variety, defined in detail in the text, and characterized by an anti-social swagger and menace. Hipsters, leaving the “Square” majority, join the ranks of the outlaws, the traditionally despised and suspected blacks, and drink in the raw uncorrupted vigour of the underclass, adopting the law of the street and making it their own, thereby becoming “White Negroes.” The soul of the contemporary intellectual is thus saved (though he may wind up dead or in jail in the attempt), and the lies of the Squares are exposed and civilization is revitalized. It seems silly if not insane sixty years on, but the malaise Mailer identifies so exactly was very real at the time, as was the influence of this book on the counter-cultures of the next decade, not to mention on Mailer’s own rich if irregular subsequent oeuvre. The Armies of the Night, Why are We in Vietnam? and The Prisoner of Sex, for example, owe their bold style and ideas to the directions his thought took in his Advertisements period.


So if you’re online thinking you might find something really interesting to say, if you just keep talking long enough, Mailer is probably your man, not Twain. Twain lacked the nerve to publish his “War Poem” and other pieces excoriating America’s imperialist takeover of the Philippines, c. 1900, which surely makes him, posthumously, the bigger fool, and Mailer the stout foe of aggressive American foreign policy, for all his irresponsible railery, well-advised in retrospect to have risked appearing an ass in order to go with his instincts and speak his mind.


So there. I’ve convinced myself. I shall blog, and Johnson take the hindmost. I shall be doubly, deliberately a blockhead—a very bloghead. Down with Künstlerschuld! Down with prevaricating, pusillanimous common sense and a plain style! I dare “the lash of the old Legislator, the Vulgar”(Cervantes)! I defy “the ill-placed cavils of the sour, the envious, the stupid, and the tasteless”(Swift)! I ignore the fact that, though I’m a scribbler named Martin, Martinus Scriblerus is one of the greatest satirical butts in English literature! Quod scripsi, scripsi shall be my cry.


More will follow in this space, mostly on books, because what else do I know? In the spirit of Mailer, I announce now these not-yet-even-started projects: a review of Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon; an essay on some of Rudyard Kipling’s late stories; and an essay on a certain species of character in the novels of Anthony Burgess.


Until next time (if you ever return), caveat lector.



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