One often hears that the Weblog, situated in that universal public square called the blogosphere--is a great leveler. While reading Jonathan Swifts’s little tale The Battle of the Books recently, I could not help but wonder what the good dean would have thought of it. My guess is he would have stayed away altogether, finding its leveling quality especially uncongenial, recognizing in it a great surplus of something with which he was already perfectly familiar:
Meanwhile, Momus [the god of mockery], fearing the worst, and calling to mind an ancient prophecy which bore no very good face to his children the Moderns, bent his flight to the region of a malignant deity called Criticism. She dwelt on the top of a snowy mountain in Nova Zembla. There Momus found her extended in her den upon the spoils of numberless volumes half-devoured. At her right hand sat Ignorance, her father and husband, blind with age, at her left, Pride, her mother, dressing her up in the scraps of paper she had torn. There was Opinion, her sister, light of foot, hoodwinked and headstrong, yet giddy, and perpetually turning. About her played her children, Noise and Impudence, Dullness and Vanity, Positiveness, Pedantry, and Ill-Manners.
The goddess herself had claws like a cat. Her head and ears and voice resembled that of an ass, her teeth fallen out before, her eyes turned inward, as if she looked only upon herself. Her diet was the overflowing of her own gall, her spleen [the seat of anger] was so large as to stand prominent like a dug of the first rate, nor wanted excrescences in form of teats, at which a crew of ugly monsters were greedily sucking. And, what is wonderful to conceive, the bulk of the spleen increased faster than the sucking could diminish it.
“Goddess,” said Momus, “Can you sit idly here while our dear worshippers, the Moderns, are this minute entering into a cruel battle, and perhaps now lying under the swords of their enemies? Who then hereafter will ever sacrifice or build altars to our divinities? Haste therefore to the British Isle, and if possible, prevent their destruction, while I make factions among the gods and gain them over to our party.”
Momus having thus delivered himself, stayed not for an answer, but left the goddess to her own resentment. Up she rose in a rage, and as it is the form upon such occasions, began a soliloquy:
“ ‘Tis I (said she) who give wisdom to infants and idiots. By me children grow wiser than their parents. By me beaux become politicians and schoolboys judges of philosophy. By me sophisters debate and conclude upon the depths of knowledge, and coffeehouse wits, instinct by me, can correct an author’s style and display his minutest errors without understanding a syllable of his manner or his language.”
“By me striplings spend their judgment, as they do their estate, before it comes into their hands. 'Tis I who have deposed wit and knowledge from their empire over poetry and advanced myself in their stead. And shall a few upstart ancients dare to oppose me? But come, my aged parents, and you, my children dear, and thou my beauteous sister. Let us ascend my chariot and haste to our devout moderns, who are now sacrificing us a hecatomb, as I perceive by that grateful smell, which from thence reaches my nostrils.”
Swift, of course, was not speaking of criticism received from the superior--the very idea of which is hated in a world mad with the egalitarian rabies--originating in the love of parents, carried on in the ministrations of good teachers, and found in the world among all lovers of truth. His reference was to another kind, which makes that sort of person reluctant to visit an unpoliced public square where every invidious rascal, ignoramus, sophist, and clever-dick is free to pelt him with dung at no cost and at very little risk to himself.