Life today, as always, is filled with odd juxtapositions and taunting ironies generated by the eternal vanity and reflexive meanness of human beings.
Yet for some reason — perhaps to flatter ourselves that the hardships we face are even harder by pretending they are novel — we like to think our challenges are something new, unique in the history of the world, when they’re really the same old hardships in new wrappings. A few details are different, but whether you are being attacked with a sword or a bullet, or your character maligned on parchment or an iPad, the result is the same.
I was standing at the old Daily News Plaza at the end of a long day, finishing a cigar, brooding over this, using my new phone to delete unread emails from known nutbags — a difficult thing to do, because curiosity gets the better of me, and it seems uncivil, even when I know what’s going to be in the email because it’s all that person ever says.
So I was standing, deleting, puffing, thinking of how unusual a world we dwell in, with all this anonymous electronic venom to be washed away everywhere you go, and how previous generations, bathed in civility and manners and string quartets didn’t have to worry about this sort of thing.
As it happens, I was reading Hester Lynch Piozzi’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson. Johnson is the great man of Georgian era British letters, famous for his colossal dictionary. Piozzi was his … well, it’s complicated. The wife of his friend, brewer Henry Thrale. Later his hostess, confessor, tea pourer, rumored dominatrix.
Whatever she was, she wrote a highly enjoyable book about him, and no sooner did I grimly reflect on the storm of electronic malice that any writer who says anything has to endure nowadays, than minutes later, on the train, I happened upon this passage regarding “slight insults from newspaper abuse.”
“They sting one,” Johnson says. “But as a fly stings a horse.” The horse may twitch, but it never goes after the source of its affliction. “The eagle will not catch flies,” Johnson concludes, mixing metaphors and species. (Here I thought it was Mike Royko who first said that).
But not everyone could be so detached. Piozzi mourns several friends of Johnson’s, one who “fell a sacrifice to their insults, having declared on his death-bed to Dr. Johnson, that the pain of an anonymous letter, written in some of the common prints of the day, fastened on his heart, and threw him into the slow fever of which he died.”
That still happens. Not to hardened columnists, of course. But how often do we see poor young people kill themselves over some anonymous electronic abuse? And while we adults are made of stronger stuff, in theory, we do have to teach our children and remind ourselves to not let such nastiness fasten on our hearts, nor to indulge in pointless counterpunching.
Another Johnson friend, Piozzi writes, was Hawkesworth, “the pious, the virtuous, and the wise,” who “for want of that fortitude which casts a shield” against attack “fell a lamented sacrifice to wanton malice and cruelty.”
That isn’t why I write this. It’s the next line that I just have to share:
“All in turn feel the lash of censure, in a country where, as every baby is allowed to carry a whip, no person can escape.”
Every Baby is Allowed to Carry a Whip. Now that’s a new sentiment. I’d like a T-shirt with that line on it.
Amazingly, she concludes — as we all must — that such anonymous verbal cruelty serves a purpose and should be tolerated:
“The undistinguishing severity of newspaper abuse may in some measure diminish the diffusion of vice and folly in Great Britain. And though sensibility often sinks under the roughness of their prescription, it would be no good policy to take away their license.”
So wrote Hester Lynch Piozzi in 1784. As true today as it was then. Or, to flip open our Bibles and quote Ecclesiastes.
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
To put that thought another way — the phone may be new, and the phone may be smart, but we who use the phone, alas, are all too often neither new nor smart, and we rarely have thoughts anywhere near as advanced or marvelous as the technology that conveys them.
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