Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Gigantic Consumption of Empty Whimsies

Below, a future historian looks back on the popular culture of (presumably) the early-mid twentieth century. (From The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse, first published 1943)

We must confess that we cannot provide an unequivocal definition of those products from which the age takes its name, the feuilletons. They seem to have formed an uncommonly popular section of the daily newspapers, were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pabulum for the reader in want of culture. They reported on, or rather “chatted” about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge. It would seem, moreover, that the cleverer among the writers of them poked fun at their own work. Ziegenhalss, at any rate, contends that many such pieces are so incomprehensible that they can only be viewed as self-persiflage on the part of the authors. Quite possibly those manufactured articles do indeed contain a quantity of irony and self-mockery which cannot be understood until the key is found again. The producers of these trivia were in some cases attached to the staffs of the newspapers; in other cases they were free-lance scriveners. Frequently they enjoyed the high-sounding title of “writer,” but a great many of them seemed to have belonged to the scholar class. Quite a few were celebrated university professors.
Among the favorite subjects of such essays were anecdotes taken from the lives or correspondence of famous men and women. They bore titles such as “Friedrich Nietzsche and Women’s Fashion of 1870,” or “the Composer Rossini’s Favourite Dishes,” or “the Role of the Lapdog in the Lives of the Great Courtisans,” and so on. Another popular type of article was the historical background piece on what was currently being talked about among the well-to-do, such as “The Dream of Casting Gold Through the Centuries,” or “Physico-chemical Experiments in Influencing the Weather,” and hundreds of similar subjects. When we look at the titles that Ziegenhalss cites, we feel surprise that there should have been such people who devoured such chit-chat for their daily reading; but what astonishes us far more is that authors of repute and decent education should have helped to “service” this gigantic consumption of empty whimsies. Significantly, “service” was the expression used; it was also the word donating the relationship of man to the machine at that time.

I wonder what Herman Hesse would have thought of blogging.

Interestingly, the titles quoted in the passage look a lot like the articles published by the scholarly elite of the historian’s time (which is supposedly a apex of intellectual skill and purity). Eg. “The Pronunciation of Latin in the Universities of southern Italy toward the End of the Twelfth Century”.