Jack Hanson on the lost art of the feuilleton
Indecision is annoying. My balanced and measured temperament means that if I’m in its thrall long enough, options begin to appear less like several of a kind and more like a dark mass of swirling dread, ready to swallow me up the moment I choose the invariably wrong path. And if you’re on the receiving end of this, you’ll likely drag me in a direction before I can take a step, that is, assuming you don’t storm away in frustration. With time, I’ve gotten better about this (I think). I’ve also learned to value what advantages a penchant for suspended judgment might confer.
After all, it is a species of doubt. A sickly species, perhaps, but one that nevertheless bears a resemblance to what we as a culture prize over all other perspectives. But what so often proceeds from that position—philosophy, science, art, etc.—quickly becomes remarkably solid, self-contained, and self-affirming. Don’t get me wrong; these are enviable and inspiring states of being, and when someone creates an object which achieves these happy conditions, chances are she will also partake in them. Probably for a moment only, but in that moment, indecision can be eradicated.
But is there a case to be made for sustaining indecision? As I said, we all know the reasons for sustaining doubt, but they are usually the benefits it can produce once escaped. What about hunkering down and refusing to take shape? What about trying not to talk, but to merely and explicitly think out loud? Can it even be done?
This is, I think, the role of the feuilleton. This literary practice, perfected by fin-de-siecle and Interwar writers like Karl Kraus, Peter Altenberg, Karel Capek, and others, is an amorphous and capacious category. A collection of Altenberg’s feuilletons was called Telegrams of the Soul. Originally printed in French newspapers not on their own page (and those were days of plenty, if only of pulp) but separated by a line and in smaller print, these short, often elliptical essays allowed a writer to engage topics without the constraints of journalistic or scholarly integrity. Subjectivity encouraged, in effect. And so long as humor, thoughtfulness, and irony were engaged and indulged, no clear conclusion need have been reached. It’s indeterminate by design, but when debates become heated and positions become trenches, someone lollygagging in no-man’s land might be enough to turn combatants back into interlocutors.
The feuilleton is not exactly lost. The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section is the most prominent approximation. There was also the “Forsley Feuilleton,” run by the late, lamented PANK, while I, in my own modest way, try to keep the tradition alive here in the “Algonquin.” There are others, but for the most part, what we have are the dreaded “think-pieces.” These are in principle no different from a feuilleton, as they try to present a personal take on an issue of social and moral importance. But so often today, subjectivity is not employed as a disclaimer, a way of implying a subheading that reads, “But really, I don’t know.” To the contrary. More often than not, the role of the subjective is as a bulwark to objections or alternate interpretations. It can give the impression of a raised index finger (or middle, such as the case may be), along with a demand of “Who are you to tell me about me?” And this is perfectly fine. If people feel the need to express themselves in that way, and others are eager to read it, then that strikes me as a healthy cultural exercise.
But a feuilleton isn’t healthy, at least not on its own. It’s a small part of a system of discourse that extends from the highest reaches of scholarship to the sports pages, which, through its dreamy indecision, attempts the impossible task of connecting them all. And it does seem impossible. It requires a supportive, not to say indulgent readership, with time on their hands and empathy to spare. Something tells me these items are not exactly plentiful in today’s culture, or, if they are, people aren’t inclined to give them away. And when writers are given a chance at publication, it may strike them as a waste to use it on some will-o’-the-wisp introspection. But it’s worth the attempt. When you put some space between two objects, they have more room to move, and to grow.
JACK HANSON is a contributing editor to Partisan.
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