Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Francis Bacon--Or, Of Bloggishness

The standard complaint of writers in the era of the blogging culture is that readers demand brevity and immediacy and no longer have any patience. Writers want readers who pay attention, and rarely get them. But is this entirely a bad thing? A little while ago I went back to Francis Bacon's Essays and what strikes the modern reader is just how bloggy they are. They vary in length from very short (some are just a long paragraph) to, well, short. There is no writer in the English language who expects less patience from his readers. I won't quote the opening sentences, because if you quote one you have to quote them all. Bacon is sure that if he has not grabbed you at the opening, he won't keep you long. Okay, I'll quote one, the beginning of the first essay, Of Truth: "'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer."

That's not a bad epigraph for the whole collection; the special thing about Bacon is that he absolutely doesn't demand or expect that anyone will stay a moment longer than he keeps them entertained. No one reads the Essays straight through, which is why he gets away with repeating himself a bit (virtue is "like a rich stone that is best plain set" while truth is like a pearl "which showeth best by day"). And like a blogger with an eye on the Google results, his titles are simple, announcing in no more than a word or two what the essay will be about. Even in this very short form, Bacon is discursive and bounces around, never really on message. In catering to the reader's impatience, Bacon has nothing to learn from the supposed attention deprived 21st century. What distinguishes him, though, is what there is to be learned from him. What sets Bacon apart is not just how effectively he begins, but that he almost never ends up in the same place he started.