Monday, April 25, 2005

Retrofitting Style for the Net

Some styles of writing are more suitable for the Net than others. Which prose stylists of the past might serve as models of writing for the Net?

Men and women of letters in the age of Enlightenment: Pierre Bayle, Denis Diderot, Voltaire, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu among others. Their voice was personal, their vision encyclopedic, and their spirit comparative and egalitarian (rather than historicist and hierarchical in the dominant fashion of the nineteenth century).

Socialist modernists of the twentieth century. Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, above all. (Theodor Adorno, on the strength of Minima Moralia, ought to be included, except that, had he lived in the era of the Net, he would have refused to blog, on the grounds that the word "blog" is unbearably ugly.)

Sei Shonagon, who wrote Makura no Soshi [The Pillow Book], a list of lists of things that she, a woman of ready wits and peremptory judgements, loved and hated, interspersed with her observations on court intrigues* and natural wonders. No other woman had a higher opinion of herself than Sei Shonagon in the history of world literature. She is the Ur-blogger.

* "The house of an official who receives no promotion in the New Year lists. Assuming that this would be the year, all of his friends and acquaintances, some even who have been posted to remote areas, gather at his house, crowding the courtyard with their carriage harnesses, coming and going, eating and drinking and making merry. But, even at dawn, there has still not been the knock at the gate announcing the promotion. Everyone pricks up his ears, listening for a signal, until finally one hears the voices of the runners announcing that the senior officials have left the palace with their announcements. One of the poor fellows sent out the previous evening to be the first to hear, returns to the house, shaking with the cold and obviously dejected. No one dares to ask. And when an outsider does ask what has transpired, the house answers simply that he has been named the Governor of so-and-so Province. Those who were counting on this promotion for their own ends are quite chagrined. And so morning comes, and quietly, one by one, the entourage slips away. Those bosom friends who can not make their exit as easily as this, count on their fingers the number of Provincial appointments that will come up for grabs in the following year’s lists, ambling listlessly about. All of this is so sad and depressing!" -- Sei Shonagon, Makura no Soshi

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