Notes From the Edge

The Triumph of the Trivial

August 03, 2014

Multiple Pages
The Triumph of the Trivial

Recently I gave evidence in a tragic case in which a young man died whose life might have been saved if only the doctors had thought of the right diagnosis. It was not an easy case, and the doctors who missed the diagnosis were mortified, though in what proportion by the tragic outcome of the case itself, and in what proportion by wounded professional pride or by fear of subsequent legal action, it is not easy to say. Human emotions are as mixed as human motives, and are seldom as we would have them. In our sorrow for others there is often regard for ourselves.

Certainly it was my painful duty to testify that the doctors had been at fault in not making the diagnosis, though they were obviously not bad people, and there have been, and are daily, many far worse errors committed by doctors (though many of them do not end fatally, and indeed go undetected); moreover, the refrain “There but for the grace of God go I” ran through my mind throughout my evidence. The wisdom of hindsight is easy, that of foresight a little more difficult: if it were not so life would be intolerably dull, though perhaps less full of unpleasant surprises.

“His career had been distinguished, but it had disappeared without trace, at least on the Internet—‘writ in water,’ as it were. It was almost as if he had never been, never lived.”

It was impossible to say what the future of the young man would have been. Most likely it would have been ordinary rather than brilliant, simply because most futures are ordinary rather than brilliant, and he had given no evidence up to the time of his death of extraordinary ability.

After the case was over, I looked up the deceased on the Internet and though, as I have said, he was not in any way remarkable or extraordinary, I found quite a lot about him and by him, most notably a video that he had made about himself and the kind of shoes that he wore. Even here, as far as his taste in shoes was concerned, he was not at all extraordinary: I think he wore the kind of shoes that everyone, or at least everyone of his age like him, wore. The film lasted more than five minutes, and consisted of him putting on and taking off various of his shoes and holding them up to the camera. This was done to a background of rock music, which I muted as quickly as I could.

I suppose that at my age nothing should surprise me, but I confess that I was rather surprised by this. Why should anyone be interested in the shoes he wore? But more important, why should he have thought that anyone might have been interested in the shoes he wore? Everything else about him that I found on the Internet, at least everything about him before his tragic death, was of equal banality.

Perhaps Shakespeare, who seemed able to put himself in the place of every kind of human being, might have been able to fathom and empathize with the man’s impulse, but try as I might I could not. It is the same with celebrity culture, of which I suspect this young man’s video film was a product or a symptom: I try to imagine what it would be like to be interested in the public-private life of famous nonentities, but I never get very far. I do not even begin to succeed.

I suppose that publishing jejune details of one’s day-to-day life gives to that life (in the mind of the publisher, at least) a significance that it would otherwise lack. And since the means to publish such details to the world are now within the reach of almost everyone, and many people avail themselves of these means, the general or average level of self-importance, commonly known as self-esteem, in the population will have risen as a consequence. Some might see this as a good thing, but I can only conceive of it as a force for the narrowing of mental horizons. An age of information is thus perfectly compatible with an age of general ignorance of everything except that which most immediately concerns oneself.

It so happens that about the time of the case and my subsequent search for the deceased on the Internet, a publisher had asked me to write an introduction to two excellent books that he was republishing many years after their first appearance. The author was long dead and the books even longer out of print. They were classics of their kind.

Apart from the fact that he had written these books, and such scanty details as appeared on the flaps of the books’ covers (in those days, publishers provided few personal details about their authors, on the premodern supposition that the work was more important, and more interesting, than its author’s biography), I knew nothing of the author, and looked him up on the Internet.

Other than offers for sale of his books, I found next to nothing about him. His career had been distinguished, but it had disappeared without trace, at least on the Internet—“writ in water,” as it were. It was almost as if he had never been, never lived. There was absolutely nothing about his life, his interests, or his character to be found. And yet, in my estimation, he had written two books so good that I would recommend study of them to any aspiring writer. No doubt I am inclined, as a writer, to overestimate the importance of good writing in the scheme of things, but it seems to me that a man who has written two books worthy to be republished more than half a century after they first saw print is worthy of some commemoration, especially by comparison with the trivia that are now enshrined, presumably forever, in the infosphere.

Knowing next to nothing about an author has its advantages. It means that you assess or respond to his work without prejudice. To know than an author was a swine in life, for example, might erect a barrier between the reader and the excellence of his writing. Yet I cannot help but feel that a medium that contains scanty information about considerable figures of the past but an enormous amount of trivia about the ordinary people of today will hollow out human life and character, at least until such time as the Internet is as old as libraries.  

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