Could Man Be Drunk Forever

A poem by A.E. Housman:

Could man be drunk for ever
With liquor, love, or fights,
Lief should I rouse at morning
And lief lie down of nights.

But men at whiles are sober
And think by fits and starts,
And if they think, they fasten
Their hands upon their hearts.

I found this poem today shortly after reading this article about the history of newspapers. The author makes the argument that newspapers took a long time to develop—not because of gaps in technology, but because people didn’t trust the printed word. If you couldn’t be there to answer questions or argue your case, then your story was seen as suspect. Over time, however, people began to accept newspapers as a substitute for troubadours—but only because of the advent of the pamphlet, which looked like a small newspaper, but instead of having snippets in round-up fashion, had a coherent and compelling story. To this day, people trust and can better understand narratives than a barrage of seemingly unrelated updates. The Internet is great at supplying these updates 24/7, but is bad at weaving a comprehensive narrative.

The author also argues that the medieval mind was much more concerned with seasons, crops, and cyclical catastrophes than with which member of the nobility dined (or slept) with whom. Pamphlets were popular because they only came along at times of crisis: usually impending revolutions. In other words, the news contained in them was actually news, i.e. new information of great importance (cf. twitter).

In between these times of crisis, no news was good news:

This is not to deny that details of new laws and taxes, armies and their movements, or who was in or out of favour at court were eagerly sought. Travellers were closely questioned as to the news they brought. But it would have been perfectly normal and acceptable to say, as a BBC announcer did on Good Friday 1930 (to much subsequent mockery), “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no news tonight, so here is some music.”

Hence the connection to the Housman poem. To think too much is to become depressed, but it is necessary. I happen to think that newspapers are still very useful, because people can read them without announcing their identity, like logging on to a website, and people can read them on the bus.


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