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On the online life

Possibly I’m misremembering, but somewhere tucked into the small corpus of published writing by the late JD Salinger is the line ‘The wise man lives without reputation.’ Like a lot of Salinger’s work, this exudes a certain perfumed mysticism, pungent but never quite attributable, befitting an author who devoted himself to kriya yoga, gurus and reading the Bhagavad Gita. Very much of his time – though often, it seemed, desperate to live outside of it – Salinger was by no means the only New York intellectual to take up the study of ancient Eastern texts (and their emphasis on self-effacement) during the 1950s: see also John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Motherwell and Clement Greenberg.

Salinger, of course, was a man of towering reputation, a reputation built on trying to refute one. In his obsessive pursuit of privacy, he found, as is painfully clear from the various reports that leaked out during his lifetime, very little peace of mind. He was, and is, a bestselling author, whose consistent refusal to publish any new work after 1965 built a lasting rumour-mill which turned upon that refusal. Why wouldn’t he publish? What was he writing? Was he writing at all? It remains to be seen whether any of that unpublished material – if it exists – will find its way into print. Nevertheless, Salinger cynics and even some Salinger fans (I’m certainly in the latter camp) have long suggested that, for a man whose dearest wish was apparently to be left alone, he went about it in a very high-profile way.

On the other hand, there is no overriding reason to believe that Salinger’s philosophy was insincere, for though he was already famous when he went into seclusion, he was surely within his rights to give up celebrity and its accompanying demands that daily life be subject to the constant perusal of strangers. I don’t advocate Salinger as a role model. Nevertheless, the challenge posed by his life and more particularly by his fiction – to live with genuine contentment as a nobody, rather than as a somebody (a big shot, a loudmouth, the centre of attention) – is one that often comes into mind as worthy of serious consideration.

The internet is many things, none of them wholly good or bad, but its defining mode at present is a constant invitation to create a display model of ourselves for the world. I’ve never joined Facebook, and quit my (locked) Twitter feed some months back, so over time my very absence has made my bias against those platforms clearly visible – rather a paradox, but one faced by anybody who chooses against self-publicity when choosing for it becomes ubiquitous.

For writers, the lure of social networking and blogging is particularly strong: you can write all the time, every day, and someone will read it! As the gurus of a meticulously attended-to iLife are forever pointing out, we are all writers (and filmmakers, and musicians, and ‘curators’ of vintage T-shirt collections) now.

Unlike some denizens of print, I don’t accept the notion that widespread internet self-publishing has led to a deleterious lowering of standards. Another paradox: as newspapers cut staff and costs, and publish an ever-increasing amount of ‘life and style’ rubbish in a bid to compete with the blogosphere, most of the really interesting, daring and sophisticated reportage and commentary is coming from bloggers, not print journalists. But the temptation to blog several thousand words on Lady Gaga, or to tweet your opinion on the Assange case, just because you can (and I admit to succumbing on both counts, and later being glad that the option to delete one’s online musings from the public eye, if not from a remote server database, still exists) needs to be tempered, I think, with a bit of self-questioning.

The first question: is my contribution necessary?

In some contexts the answer is clearly ‘yes’, which is why I wouldn’t dare argue for the merits of shutting up to a protester on the streets of Syria, for instance, or to a union member publicising a workplace dispute.

The option of silence is many ways a luxury, and I’m privileged enough to desire it, but the act of speaking out or speaking up for collective struggle is not the same as tweeting one’s grocery list. The active participation of every person becomes necessary – imperative – in situations of direct democracy. But the internet is not an analogue of direct democracy. Everybody talking about themselves at once, and over the top of one another, is not actually liberating. Too often we confuse self-publicity with self-actualisation; we seek to become more ourselves, precisely by making ourselves over to constant visibility and commentary. To steal from another New Yorker as notorious for chasing the spotlight as Salinger was for avoiding it, we of the future are not so much famous for fifteen minutes as famous in fifteen-second micro-intervals, forever refreshable. Even this column is a bid for attention as much as an argument against it.

And here I’ll leave you.

Anwyn Crawford is a regular contributor to Overland.
© Anwyn Crawford
Overland 204-spring 2011, p. 124

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Anwen Crawford is a Sydney writer. She is the music critic for the Monthly, and her essays have appeared in publications including Frieze, Meanjin, and the New Yorker. Her book, Live Through This, is published by Bloomsbury.

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