Friday, 5 August 2011

The Age of Feuilleton?

In Hermann Hesse's Magister Ludi (The Glassbead Game) the ficitional story of Joseph Knecht is introduced by a scholar writing about the history of the mysterious glass bead game. There, the narrator specifies periods in the history of the Game, one of which he calls "the age of feuilleton":

"The beginnings of the intellectual movement whose fruits are, among many others, the establishment of the Order and the Glass Bead Game itself, may be traced back to a period which Plinius Ziegenhalss, the historian of literature, designated as the Age of the Feuilleton, by which name it has been known ever since. Such tags are pretty, but dangerous; they constantly tempt us to a biased view of the era in question. And as a matter of fact the Age of the Feuilleton was by no means uncultured; it was not even intellectually impoverished. But if we may believe Ziegenhalss, that age appears to have had only the dimmest notion of what to do with culture. Or rather, it did not know how to assign culture its proper place within the economy of life and the nation. To be frank, we really are very poorly informed about that era, even though it is the soil out of which almost everything that distinguishes our cultural life today has grown.

History is as it has happened. Whether it was good, whether it would have been better not to have happened, whether we will or will not acknowledge that it has had "meaning" -- all this is irrelevant. Thus those struggles for the "freedom" of the human intellect likewise "happened," and subsequently, in the course of the aforementioned Age of the Feuilleton, men came to enjoy an incredible degree of intellectual freedom, more than they could stand. For while they had overthrown the tutelage of the Church completely, and that of the State partially, they had not succeeded in formulating an authentic law they could respect, a genuinely new authority and legitimacy. Ziegenhalss recounts some truly astonishing examples of the intellect's debasement, venality, and self-betrayal during that period."
Whatever these "astonishing examples" are, Hesse's narrator suggests they are churned out for mass consumption, what he calls "mental pablum" with titles not unlike the fare seen in sophomoric academic papers and in political propaganda of our times - derivatives of derivatives, whose claim to fame clumsily juxtapose seemingly disparate areas of concern as subject matter intended puff up half-baked drivel. A "coalition", then, is no longer just plain, old coalition but a "dangerous" and "reckless" coalition; unmitigated rape and deregulation of national economic safe-guards is affected through "the light touch"; etc. etc.

The Age of Feuilleton is, in other words, an aftermath of a collapse of ancien regimes and a period before conventional wisdom reasserts reason, maturity and proper legitimacy to the discourse. The progenitor and spawn is moral/ethical bankruptcy and corruption of public institutions through which further intolerance and intransigence become the cure for the ideological intolerance and intransigence that caused the toxic environment in the first place.

I don't know how to deal with the corruption and arrogance which seem to have cause the downfall of liberalism across the globe and especially here in Canada where the Liberal Party said of itself as "the natural governing party" for so long all the while wallowing in filth shamelessly, but I know that the shift to the extreme right and social conservativism is not the cure for our ills. Sometimes I wonder if we've traded the devil we know for something worst.


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