Monday, August 04, 2008
'In the end, I write about personal stuff because I can't write with the same accuracy about anything else.' William Leith in the FT.
This is an interesting - though, in some forms, dangerous - idea. It hinges, first, on what Leith means by 'personal stuff'. If he were to say 'I have a pain', then his accuracy would be unchallengeable by any authority, even though, as Wittgenstein pointed out, the grammar of the sentence is wrong; it should be something like, 'There is a pain in the room.' But if he were to give his side of a row with a friend, then it would probably be no more accurate than his account of the Arab-Israeli conflict; a personal account is just that, a personal account But I can see how he arrived at the idea that it was safest and most honest to stick with what he knows best, his own experience. As I have said before, journalism lures one into an illusion of knowledge which, as the years go by, is increasingly undermined by one's increasing awareness of great ignorance. Most either aren't aware of their ignorance or they just decide to discount it. Others acquire academic envy - 'If only I could spend so much time on one subject.' - or they resort to the first person singular. (Leith, I should say, is the best in the business when it comes to this latter gambit, largely because he is so genuinely self-deprecatory; any criticism I have of the form is not directed at him.) The first person singular works in the market because it is also an editor's gambit. These days, newspapers and magazines love the personal confession. I tend to avoid this - out of embarrassment mainly - though I have been drawn in quite often. On the other hand, this blog is as outrageously personal as I have ever been. One reason for this is I haven't got time to engage in the research and fact-checking involved in my full-blooded journalism. So, whatever I write about, it's just how I see it at that particular moment; it is, therefore, whether I like it or not, about me. (Calling the blog Thought Experiments is, of course, a disclaimer, signalling the semi-detached nature of the ideas.) But I said this is dangerous, and it is. Believing solely in the accuracy of personal reportage amounts to a rejection of the accuracy of public reportage. It may be true that we can never be fully accurate about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to start from the position that accuracy is impossible renders whatever you say or do next dubious. It is necessary to act as if truth is possible. This is a form of faith and, I suspect, the reason the personal has become so fashionable is because people find such faith increasingly hard or unacceptable. The personal, in short, is the secular. Or that's what I think at this moment without making any phone calls or looking anything up. It's just about me - okay?
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:25 am