Thursday, June 18, 2009

Twittering

Note: Updated version at Huffington Post

My earlier post on twittering was perhaps a little harsh on this much hyped form of communication, the craze of the moment.

Even that bastion of anachronistic "packaged information" journalism, Time Magazine, has "twitter" on its recent cover.

As a child of the Cold War kept awake worrying about a nuclear holocaust and wanting to "understand" our ideological "enemy", I discovered -- through many pleasurable years studying Russia, its language, culture and civilization -- that this complex, often tormented country was far more than superficial communist slogans and one-liner propaganda.

So forgive me for loving lengthy Russian novels with big, moral themes that go far, far beyond 140 characters: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment.

Reading the Russian classics -- and, yes, many of them are tedious, except as a challenge to your knowledge of the ever-challenging Russian language -- did instill in me a suspicion of simplication in the name of brevity.

This "it-takes-time to understand" bias (call it what you will) was reinforced by conversations with my father, a poet and professor of comparative literature with a deep sense of our multilayered (he would disapprove of this jaw-breaking word) our lives are.

Power-point -- reducing communications to a few "key" items with clean little dots on an all-too-neat screen -- still leaves me cold.

2.

But then I'll always remember, in my younger days waiting in the lobby of a NYC movie house for my date, hearing the question of those buying tickets to the screen version of F. M. Dostoevsky's on-steroids detective story:

How long is it, how long is this Crime and Punishment?

So going on and on -- forgive me, moi gluboko uvazhaemiy Fedor Mikhaylovich -- is not always the way to go. Maybe there are less verbose ways to make a point(s). Would not your Raskolnikov, in his perverse way, agree?

3.

So I asked myself today, regarding my above mentioned outburst that classic writers (I mentioned Dickens and Tolstoy) wouldn't be twitterers, the following:

Would not, perhaps, the great aphorists have approved of Twitter?
Well, maybe. I can see La Rouchefoucault, true to the 140-character limit, twittering that:

"Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue."

Or, more dramatically and metaphysically, Pascal typing away on his computer:

"Le silence ├ęternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie…"

And then we have our good old friend "Fred" Nietzche, who no doubt would have approved of the world hearing his syphilitic bachelor's lamentation:

"Thou goest to women? Do not forget thy whip!"

How about Plato via Socrates?

Some of his dialogues -- and how wonderfully open-ended they are -- have very short give-and-takes.

And don't forget Oscar Wilde, whose reputed statement about America I, as a flag-waving American, love to quote:

"America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between."

Emerson, conceivably, would twitter, if he were paid for it to his satisfaction. But not Henry James (do read the wonderful new biography of the dysfunctional James family, House of Wits).

Emily Dickinson? "Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul." Definitely twitterable.

I should not omit Montaigne. But, on second thought, I think he would have been a blogger, not a twitterer.

4.

Meanwhile, the State Department is (at least officially) gung-ho about using Twitter to help ensure that its "public diplomacy" (engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences) can communicate in the 21st century.

Good luck, State guys/gals.

With all due respect to our government servants, there are not too many La Rochefoucaults or Emily Dickinsons walking the halls of Foggy Bottom. As for modern-days Fred Nietzches, well ... we can always count on John Bolton helping out.

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