It is an odd thing, this culture of blogging. I am still not fully at home with it.
The very word blog makes me wince. It is an ungainly term, ugly to look at on the page and even uglier to hear spoken. Gelatinous. The word comes dangerously close to blob. If I had to pick a visual correlative for the term, it could only be this:
Somewhere in the pudding of phonetic associations, is blah and blab. Worse, frog—as Emily Dickinson used the word:
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Or, just as likely, a disapproving bog. Either way, a blog croaks on in public, dressed for the podium but bereft of any governing rules regarding the requisite ratio between formality and ease. Is the frog served raw or cooked? Unlike essay writing, a blog post conveys, ideally, a certain unpremeditated spontaneity. As if it were generated on the fly. A blogger is expected to think out loud and in public. Time to consider—reconsider, reword, cover your tracks—is limited.
All well and good if the blog is housed on one’s own website. But when it is a tenant on the site of a stately publication, the crankshaft changes. Suddenly there is a clutch, maybe even a manual choke, where before all was automatic. Postings are supposed to be tuned to concert level for readers accustomed to scrolling through yards of seemingly effortless fluency. Metaphors get mixed.
Impromptu virtuosity is developed in front of a live audience: on the stump, at the lectern, in class or court rooms, in pulpits, bars, or improv clubs like Caroline’s on Broadway. But artists are most themselves alone in their studios. One measure of a good day is how few words were needed.
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Alan Jacobs’ calls his weblog “an online commonplace book.” It is a lovely phrase. It suggests a scrapbook of sorts, a medley of things seen, read, recorded, and responded to. In no particular order. A commonplace book opens onto a pressed bouquet of quotes, homilettes, memories and reflections on everything from cabbages to kings. Pictures, too, just for the joy of them. Personal sensibilities remain on trial, but the dock is cushioned by brevity and variety.
I like that.
If Michel de Montaigne were alive today, his tower library would doubtless be wired. But would he blog or would gallic stubbornness commit him to print? Would he permit himself to be followed by the rank and file down the crooked alleys of Twitter? There might be a clue in his essay “On Books”:
When I meet with difficulties in my reading, I do not bite my nails over them; after making one or two attempts I give them up. If I were to sit down with them, I should be wasting myself and my time; my mind works at the first leap. What I do not see immediately, I see even less by persisting. Without lightness, I achieve nothing; application and over-serious effort confuse, depress, and weary my brain. . . . If one book bores me, I take up another.
That suggests Montaigne would at least read blogs even if he held back from writing them. Blogees, after all, can cruise along their RSS feed at the pace of their attention span. But wait. The man admits to not taking easily to the moderns. Yet he is one himself. And, notwithstanding a disarming assertion of modesty, Montaigne is not shy about adding his own voice to the chorus of history:
I freely state my opinion about all things, even those which perhaps fall outside my capacity, and of which I do not for a moment suppose myself to be a judge. What I say about them, therefore, is meant to reveal the extent of my own vision, not the measure of the things themselves.
It is unlikely that the first writer to use the word essai—trial—as a literary term would shun fresh ways to test his discernment before a public jury. Today the scale of Montaigne’s reading audience would far exceed what was available to him in 1580. At the same time, he would hardly recognize it. Four hundred plus years of material advance has eased the burdens of living. We are grown careless now, shallow in our distractions, and less adept at making the distinctions on which moral judgments are made. We are less responsive to the claims of history and scholarship, particularly the classical pedagogy that Montaigne carried so lightly.
Is there an app for the Annals of Tacitus? How many would put their iPhone down long enough to cheer Seneca’s counsel against “the vice of leisure”? Can we still sympathize with ancient warnings against credulity, tolerate talk of virtue or the “privilege” of being able to think? In brief, we are a complacent public, heedless of Montaigne’s plea that learning be “wedded to the mind,” not simply pocketed as a credential.
Could he write today and still be Montaigne?