Monday, September 17, 2012

Stormy Weather

It’s just an anecdotal thing—in contrast to a vast, exhaustive survey—but as I scan expressions of public critique of everything (excepting only certain sacred subjects) I am always reminded of reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a respected German daily back in the 1960s.  Just for the record, the FAZ has also changed; I’m not hoisting up some icon. But my memories are of lengthy analytical articles looking at current events and developments, written with huge care and empty of the emotions, clever flourishes, and ink-on-paper eruptions of outrage that now are pretty much routine.

Got to thinking, looked up the word “jeremiad,” reviewed the career-path of Savanarola (1452-1498), noted with pleasure that he burned objects like mirrors, cosmetics, playing cards, and fine dresses in what came to be known as bonfires of vanity, on which fascinating subject Tom Wolfe (he who also wrote The Right Stuff) fashioned a novel in 1987. Just in time, one might say, honoring the Japanese.

Got to wondering if this whole nexus of public speech ever resulted in appropriate reform? My guess is that it never did—or does. By the time the hell-fire preachers arise, secular or religious, the game is always over. The preaching is a symptom of its times. The preachers, to be sure, always find huge audiences. They’re entertaining. The times, at such times, have the character of vast storms. Huge masses of people are swayed this way, that way. All coherence disappears as baby carriages get magically embedded in the trunks of mighty trees. And above it all is a demonic howl—and that howl is then the public speech.

What helps small minorities of people then—and it is only small minorities that remain unaffected—is the still, small voice of reason, but it must also be publicly audible. It helps remind the members of the minority that they are not entirely alone. The proof that only minute groups retain some sanity is brought by the tiny circulation of a handful of periodicals one opens with pleasure when they arrive and, taking a glad breath, sits down to share with someone near.

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