Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Johnson and Addison on blogging

In lieu of inspiration I’ve been reading a few precursors to bloggers to try and get the creative juices flowing.

As such, pertinent find from Dr Johnson’s Rambler (No.3, June 5th 1750):

It is… quickly discoverable, that consultation and compliance can conduce little to the perfection of any literary performance; for whoever is so doubtful of his own abilities as to encourage the remarks of others, will find himself every day embarrassed with new difficulties, and will harass his mind, in vain, with the hopeless labour of uniting heterogeneous ideas, digesting independent hints, and collecting into one point the several rays of borrowed light, emitted often with contrary directions.

Of all authors, those who retail their labours in periodical sheets would be most unhappy, if they were much to regard the censures or admonitions of their readers : for… it is always imagined, by those who think themselves qualified to give instructions, that they may yet redeem their former failings by hearkening to better judges, and supply the deficiencies of their plan, by the help of the criticisms which are so liberally afforded…

Of the great force of preconceived opinions I had many proofs, when I first entered upon this weekly labour. My readers having, from the performances of my predecessors, established an idea of unconnected essays, to which they believed all future authors under a necessity of conforming, were impatient of the least deviation from their system, and numerous remonstrances were accordingly made by each, as he found his favourite subject omitted or delayed. Some were angry that the Rambler did not, like the Spectator, introduce himself to the acquaintance of the publick, by an account of his own birth and studies, an enumeration of his adventures, and a description of his physiognomy. Others soon began to remark that he was a solemn, serious, dictatorial writer, without sprightliness or gaiety, and called out with vehemence for mirth and humour. Another admonished him to have a special eye upon the various clubs of this great city, and informed him that much of the Spectator’s vivacity was laid out upon such assemblies. He has been censured for not imitating the politeness of his predecessors, having hitherto neglected to take the ladies under his protection, and give them rules for the just opposition of colours, and the proper dimensions of ruffles and pinners. He has been required by one to fix a particular censure upon those matrons who play at cards with spectacles: and another is very much offended whenever he meets with a speculation in which naked precepts are comprised without the illustration of examples and characters.

I make not the least question that all these monitors intend the promotion of my design, and the instruction of my readers; but they do not know, or do not reflect, that an author has a rule of choice peculiar to himself; and selects those subjects which he is best qualified to treat, by the course of his studies, or the accidents of his life; that some topicks of amusement have been already treated with too much success to invite a competition; and that he who endeavours to gain many readers must try; various arts of invitation, essay every avenue of pleasure, and make frequent changes in his methods of approach.

I cannot but consider myself, amidst this tumult of criticism, as a ship in a poetical tempest, impelled at the same time by opposite winds, and dashed by the waves from every quarter, but held upright by the contrariety of the assailants, and secured in some measure by multiplicity of distress. Had the opinion of my censurers been unanimous, it might perhaps have overset my resolution; but since I find them at variance with each other, I can, without scruple, neglect them, and endeavour to gain the favour of the publick by following the direction of my own reason, and indulging the sallies of my own imagination.

Much of familiarity there to any blogger – especially to those, like me, who try to avoid petty partisanship – shot by both sides, as the title of a much-missed old blog would have it, a blog destroyed through the petty vindictiveness of a reader who utterly misunderstood the point.

Writing about the EU, the point is almost always misunderstood – the preconception is that to write about the European Union you must either be a europhile or a eurosceptic, whereas I am neither. Add to that the fact that the whole thing is so vast and complex (especially when you chuck in the internal and international politics of all 27 member states) that I doubt if any one person can fully understand and be aware of all its workings, so we’re also all discussing it from a position of greater or lesser ignorance. (This being one of the principle current concerns that has led to my current semi-hiatus…)

And then, to one of the undisputed masters, Joseph Addison in The Spectator (No.476, 5th September 1712) – whose advice on writing with “Method” I should probably heed in future, being of the tendency of rattling off the first thing that comes into my head, and hoping an argument and structure will form as I write…:

Among my Daily-Papers which I bestow on the Publick, there are some which are written with Regularity and Method, and others that run out into the Wildness of those Compositions which go by the Names of Essays. As for the first, I have the whole Scheme of the Discourse in my Mind before I set Pen to Paper. In the other kind of Writing, it is sufficient that I have several Thoughts on a Subject, without troubling my self to range them in such order, that they may seem to grow out of one another, and be disposed under the proper Heads. Seneca and Montaigne are Patterns for Writing in this last kind, as Tully and Aristotle excel in the other. When I read an Author of Genius who writes without Method, I fancy myself in a Wood that abounds with a great many noble Objects, rising among one another in the greatest Confusion and Disorder. When I read a methodical Discourse, I am in a regular Plantation, and can place my self in its several Centres, so as to take a view of all the Lines and Walks that are struck from them. You may ramble in the one a whole Day together, and every Moment discover something or other that is new to you; but when you have done, you will have but a confused imperfect Notion of the Place: In the other, your Eye commands the whole Prospect, and gives you such an Idea of it, as is not easily worn out of the Memory.

Irregularity and want of Method are only supportable in Men of great Learning or Genius, who are often too full to be exact, and therefore chuse to throw down their Pearls in Heaps before the Reader, rather than be at the Pains of stringing them.

Addison then continues with a perfect description of the two principle kinds of blogger:

Tom Puzzle is one of the most Eminent Immethodical Disputants of any that has fallen under my Observation. Tom has read enough to make him very Impertinent; his Knowledge is sufficient to raise Doubts, but not to clear them. It is pity that he has so much Learning, or that he has not a great deal more. With these Qualifications Tom sets up for a Free-thinker, finds a great many things to blame in the Constitution of his Country… He has got about half a dozen common-place Topicks, into which he never fails to turn the Conversation, whatever was the Occasion of it… This makes Mr. Puzzle the Admiration of all those who have less Sense than himself, and the Contempt of those who have more. There is none in Town whom Tom dreads so much as my Friend Will Dry. Will, who is acquainted with Tom‘s Logick, when he finds him running off the Question, cuts him short with a What then? We allow all this to be true, but what is it to our present Purpose? I have known Tom eloquent half an hour together, and triumphing, as he thought, in the Superiority of the Argument, when he has been non-plus’d on a sudden by Mr. Dry‘s deSir ing him to tell the Company what it was that he endeavoured to prove. In short, Dry is a Man of a clear methodical Head, but few Words, and gains the same Advantage over Puzzle, that a small Body of regular Troops would gain over a numberless undisciplined Militia.

The fact that Tom Puzzles vastly outnumber Will Drys in blogland is another cause for depression…