Hence that typical sequence of the nineteenth-century novel, where the protagonist, more or less willingly, betrays his closest friends (and if this is not so for Stendhal’s heroes, it is only because they do not have any friends).
—Franco Moretti, The Way of the World: the Bildungsroman in European Culture
I finished a trek through Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and some associated criticism right around the time that, by coincidence, Ray posted some Bildung of his own; and because I’m the sort of mockingbird who makes every song about himself, all that potential and actualization, all those schemes and misfires, encounters at crossroads, deferred recognitions and disguised influences have summed up to leave me with a weird, achy nostalgia for, let’s say, right around 2005.
Why then? The world can’t have been much better off. I certainly had far less leverage on it. I had no presentiment of the vocational dumb luck that would end up buying me a box seat in the American theatre of cruelty; nor had I figured out how to write novels, and if I had it to do over again, making different mistakes, it would have been easy to miss that mark as well.
And yet. I was enjoying school the only way I ever enjoyed institutions, by keeping one foot on the outside, and where that other foot was planted was the 2005 internet, and without that decade’s internet there would have been nothing at all. I had hit one sort of bottom a couple of years before; now I was waking up, learning to think, constantly discovering new islands, and always in such good company.
Then, bit by bit, came the darkening. And that feeling of doors closing, halls standing empty, FOR RENT signs going up in well-loved windows must be what anyone feels at the end of youth; but it can’t be only an artifact of who I was then, because I know so many people who did the same things around the same time—chose career paths just as dull as mine, gave themselves to the very same normative family structure—and yet did not drop off the internet, in fact came alive on the new internet as never before. I’ve tried to follow, many times, but every single sally into “social” media has taken the same quick trajectory into shame and silence. The mask doesn’t work; it fits the wrong parts of the face too well. Even around here, in recent years, I’ve become a very occasional guest in my own home.
That’s Stendhal for you, arrived just in time for the end of the party. Young Julien, born too late to fight for Napoleon, is old Stendhal (about 25 years older than his protagonist), who did fight for Napoleon but still feels life has passed him by. The presiding spirits who assign Wilhelm Meister his worldly place can do nothing for Julien. But if Julien goes to the scaffold, at least he stays young, that’s some rhetoric….
To go back to 2005. To try more doors, find a passage you missed the first time. The absurdly imagined Noah’s Ark scene that follows, bringing everyone after you.
If I could write novels, I wouldn't write on the internet either.
Your implicit ranking of genres is flattering enough that I’m now properly embarrassed to have vaunted what I’ve brought to print. But that aside, what then is up with all those novelists who do write on the internet, and are good and fluent at it? J. has told me more than once that just dropping it might be preferable to all the agonizing; but I never did make a clean break, and I’m not the only one. Isn’t there some vitamin still here with no other dietary source, that we can’t synthesize on our own?