“It’s a small part of a system of discourse that extends from the highest reaches of scholarship to the sports pages, which, through its dreamy indecision, attempts the impossible task of connecting them all. And it does seem impossible. It requires a supportive, not to say indulgent readership, with time on their hands and empathy to spare. Something tells me these items are not exactly plentiful in today’s culture, or, if they are, people aren’t inclined to give them away. And when writers are given a chance at publication, it may strike them as a waste to use it on some will-o’-the-wisp introspection. But it’s worth the attempt. When you put some space between two objects, they have more room to move, and to grow.”
Feuilleton at first stinks of the dreaded French bent for pretentiousness, but its pedigree is honorable. In fact, Hanson cites one of the masters of the form (really a non-form): Peter Altenberg (1859-1919). A collection of his pieces, originally published in newspapers and periodicals, Telegrams of the Soul (trans. Peter Wortsman, Archipelago Books), came out in the U.S. in 2005. In the first piece in the volume, “Autobiography,” Altenberg writes:
“I’d like to capture an individual in a single sentence, a soul-stirring experience on a single page a landscape in one word! Present arms, artist, aim, bull’s-eye! Basta. And above all: Listen to yourself. Lend an ear to the voices within. Don’t be shy with yourself. Don’t let yourself be scared off by unfamiliar sounds. As long as they’re your own! Have the courage of your own nakedness.”
Altenberg’s voice is an unlikely melding of braggadocio and modesty. In Cultural Amnesia (2007), Clive James crows that Altenberg could craft “a world view in two sentences,” a quality any good writer possesses.