Tuesday, October 07, 2008

`A World View in Two Sentences'

I mostly ignored blogs before starting Anecdotal Evidence more than two and a half years ago, though some of my original models appear on the blogroll to the left. The technology seemed to possess immense potential, a writer’s fantasy realized – immediacy, independence, ease of production. With Internet access and minimal knowhow the world’s writers, freed from the shackles of editors and market demand, could share their gifts with a global readership. Now such hopes sound ridiculously utopian. There isn’t a lot out there worth reading and blog hubris is pandemic.

A harmlessly offhand post I wrote last summer about my indifference to the sub-literary genres of fantasy and science fiction garnered more comments – a few too vile to post -- than anything else I’ve written. The only comparable reaction has been to posts some angry readers interpreted as relating to politics, a tedious subject I usually ignore. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as politics is a sub-species of fantasy and both appeal to adolescents of all ages.

Not wishing to give up on pockets of hope, I’ve remained alert for blog cognates and precursors, writers who might have blogged successfully had they possessed the technology, and from whom we might learn something. Among others I’ve identified Montaigne, Lamb, Hazlitt, Thoreau, Ruskin, Karl Kraus and Mencken. Another, less well known, is Peter Altenberg (1859-1919), the Viennese miniaturist championed by Kraus. In 2005, Archipelago Books published Telegrams of the Soul, a selection of his prose translated by Peter Wortsman. Clive James says Altenberg could craft “a world view in two sentences,” and his pieces are always brief, a mélange of essay, fiction, aphorism and feuilleton. I know of nothing quite like them in English. Here’s one of his elusive exercises in self-definition from “Autobiography”:

“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, a coffee-house denizen, a lifelong Viennese without a home, a dirty old and young man, revels in clownish irony. His prose is slippery and never solemn. In “Autobiography” he writes “that which you `wisely withhold’ is more artistic than that which you `blurt out.’ Isn’t that so?! Indeed, I love the `abbreviated deal,’ the telegram style of the soul!”

In his afterword, Wortsman likens Altenberg to his close contemporary Lewis Carroll. Both idealized children to the point of flirting (Platonically, so far as we know) with pedophilia. Altenberg, with his excitement and sense of wonder, sounds like an articulate child. This is from “Retrospective Introduction to my Book Märchen des Lebens":

“Everything is remarkable if our perception of it is remarkable! And every little local incident written up in the daily newspaper can sound the depths of life, revealing all the tragic and the comic, the same as Shakespeare’s tragedies! We all do life an injustice in surrendering poetry as the exclusive province of the poet’s heart, since every one of us has the capacity to mine the poetic in the quarry of the mundane! The poet’s heart will forfeit this privilege through the intrinsic culture of the common human heart!”

The best writing is always rooted in the local, particular and mundane. Straining after grand thoughts is often futile and always tiresome, especially among us dime-a-dozen bloggers. In “Little Things,” Altenberg writes:

“Little things kill! Fulfillment can always be defeated, but never anticipation! Therefore I hold fast to the little things in life, to neckties, umbrella handles, walking stick handles, stray remarks, neglected gems, pearls of the soul that roll under the table and are picked up by no one! The significant things in life have absolutely no importance.”


Levi Stahl said...

Telegrams of the Soul sounds well worth checking out. It reminds me a bit of Jules Renard, whom I discovered mere days ago via the blog A Journey Around My Skull; his Journal is full of aphoristic thoughts and brief, impressionistic descriptions of the countryside. I'm not sure he's as ecstatic as the lines you quote suggest Altenberg to be, but he does take a similar joy in the mundane.

Robert Walser also comes to mind, perhaps because of the sense the writing gives of an utterly unique sensibility, seemingly free from external influence or desire to do anything but write it all down.

Anonymous said...

Byron - check out his letters - full of great moments.

i actually like Fantasy literature, as long as it isn't utterly dire, but i wouldn't expect many other readers to share the taste and am unsurprised when people find Tolkien et al. childish. i'm attuned to something which isn't to do with literature so much as a vision of life, that it should be exciting, dangerous, and preferably end in death on the battlefield. Hence i like Fantasy books.

i suspect most abusive commentators are 12-year old kids high on Tizer and chocolate.

Sarvi said...

I apologize if a previous comment of mine (about film school) was one of the ones that distressed you. It was written more out of desperation than as an attack. Blogs are sometimes the only source I have for the particular qualities of discussion rather than feel-good reassurances, so I do thank you for sharing your ideas, and find them to be of value.

Anonymous said...

I think it is a bit unfair to suggest Science Fiction and Fantasy are for "adolescents." There is plenty of good science fiction. It often doesn't show up in the sci-fi/fantasy section of the bookstore. Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind. Also, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Some of H.G. Wells is pretty good literature as well. There is more good sci-fi than you think.

Anonymous said...

Well, once again I have had to link to your blog. Your idea of who would have had a blog mirrors exactly a blog post I wrote two years ago, and I'm pleased to say my list also includes Lamb - of course.

It's a silly bit of fun, but I think it also serves a serious point, which is to remind anyone who thinks blogs are the Death of Culture etc that people once said that about cheap print the proliferation of pamphleteering and broadsheets. Those guys used to shift really serious amounts, too!

So I've resuscitated my old post with invitations for more ideas. Hurrah!