The Chronicle Review
January 15, 2012
When we try to hold the Internet in a single thought, we reach for an image of exhilaration, of liberation, of flight: "the Information Superhighway"; "surfing the Web"; data zipping through candy-colored cables straight into our homes. This is the Internet as it, in theory, ought to be: the world's information and entertainment instantly accessible, and we at our screens, poised, enthralled, and weightless.
I want to suggest another image, one that comes closer to the Internet in practice: a great groaning table, creaking under bottomless platters of food and pitchers of drink, and we in our chairs, too exhausted to stand, mouths too numb to taste much, but with just enough energy to reach for more.
Few of those who identify with this image of information numbness are Luddites—in fact, they're often the most immersed. A recent college graduate likened life online to "being demoted from the category of thinking, caring human to a sort of rat that doesn't know why he needs to tap that button, just that he does." An information-management expert advises her overwhelmed clients to stop "passively ingesting the flow." A Newsweek report on the Internet and decision-making warns that "trying to drink from a fire hose of information has harmful cognitive effects."
It's no coincidence that these are all images of ingestion, of a feast that has gone far past the point of pleasure. For those of us left numb by the Internet, it might help to consider the ways in which gorging on information parallels (and has, for many of us, replaced) gorging on sensual pleasures. And if we want to take that comparison seriously, there is no better guide than the pioneering Roman novelist of decadence, Gaius Petronius Arbiter. Few have ever described—or lived—the attractions and exhaustions of overindulgence more vividly.
In the court of the Emperor Nero—his friend, partner in excess, and the man ultimately responsible for his death—Petronius was employed as the official "arbiter of elegance." In short, he was a style consultant to the Roman elite. The historian Tacitus describes him as an expert "in the science of pleasure." Unmatched in his day as a trendsetter, Petronius is best known in ours as the probable author of one of the earliest surviving novels, the Satyricon . And out of this picaresque story, which has come down to us in fragments, the most outrageous figure by far is Trimalchio: the nouveau-riche ex-slave whose wildly gluttonous banquet forms the Satyricon 's centerpiece. "Trimalchio's Feast" became such a byword for decadence that F. Scott Fitzgerald very nearly gave The Great Gatsby a different title: "Trimalchio in West Egg."
Trimalchio—if only he would stop shooting dice, or loudly discussing his constipation problem—could be a master entertainer. He is a man of abundant means and an almost-pitiful eagerness to please, but his party turns into a feast of steadily diminishing returns. Good food isn't enough for Trimalchio's table: Nothing can be served if it isn't in disguise. Visual jokes were a fashion among Roman chefs, but in Trimalchio's household they are taken to absurd heights: olives disguised as rocks; sausages "roasting" over pomegranate seeds disguised as coals; pastry eggs hiding roast songbirds; a pig prestuffed with sausages; fruit filled with saffron perfume; more pastry birds, and fruit stuck with thorns to resemble sea-urchins; goose, fish, and game all made out of a pig; oysters in the water pitchers; a whole roast boar surrounded by suckling sweetmeat "piglets," stuffed with live birds, complete with droppings that turn out to be fresh dates. The boar is also wearing a hat.
One of these courses might have been a surprise; two or three or four might have been marvelous. But after our narrator is bludgeoned by hours of course after dressed-up course, all of which have to be applauded and swallowed, his only thought is for the exit—which he can no longer find.
Is the host, at least, enjoying himself? It's hard to see any real pleasure in a man who announces how many pounds of jewelry he's wearing and then demands a scale to prove it—a host who tops off the evening's entertainment by ordering the guests to "make believe I'm dead" and who then ends up weeping as they act out his funeral.
If Petronius had been a Christian moralist—an ancient John Bunyan, maybe—Trimalchio's feast might have been marshaled against the sin of gluttony. But Petronius doesn't criticize the monster he's created from a standpoint of better morals. He criticizes Trimalchio from a standpoint of better taste: Petronius' attitude to Trimalchio is equal parts fascination and snobbery. The author was every bit as decadent as his character—he was simply, effortlessly, better at it.
Petronius, if the historical record is any guide, had every reason to be a snob. In a court full of decadents, he was the most refined of all. This is how Tacitus paints him: "He spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, that by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and that he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary [ erudito luxu ]."
It's the two most incongruous words in that passage that point us toward Petronius' chief insight into pleasure and abundance: "accomplished voluptuary." How can anyone be accomplished at taking pleasure? Isn't that something anyone can do? Yes, under most circumstances. But under decadent circumstances, such as Trimalchio's feast or Nero's court, pleasure becomes cheap. It must, at first, be exhilarating to find exquisite versions of the things we most want—food, sleep, sex—right at hand. But then comes the revelation that even with unlimited means, our capacity to take pleasure is itself limited. The usual enjoyments become repetitious and dull, until we can barely taste them at all, or remember how they once tasted. And it's at that point that Trimalchio and Petronius part ways: One flails to enjoy himself while the other becomes a scientist of pleasure. Under decadent circumstances, Petronius devises ever-more-original varieties of hedonism.
And there's the key to understanding the often anesthetic effect of the Internet. Decadence doesn't demand great wealth: Decadence is a useful way to understand any situation in which an existing pleasure becomes cheap, and it takes the ingenuity of a Petronius to fight off the boredom. That is now the case with information—the small burst of satisfaction that comes from a refilled inbox or a new text, from connecting with friends, or sharing the meme of the day. Millions of us are now richer in these pleasures than our parents' generation could ever imagine. But our capacity for enjoyment is still finite: We've built up a tolerance to the pleasures of information, just as Trimalchio built up a tolerance to the pleasures of food. Those who experience our constant connectivity as dulling should be able to identify closely with his guests.
In the midst of this excess, a very few of us can be "accomplished voluptuaries." They are the ones most at home online, who experience no disquiet in blogging about life and talking about the Internet interchangeably. I also suspect that they are disproportionate among our own "arbiters of taste," the ones who ensure that the Internet can give us something new and enjoyable and forgettable every day: hungover owls, outrageous hipsters, creative Auto-Tuning, endlessly looping GIF's of Oprah unleashing bees on her studio audience, and on and on. But the talent of taking pleasure in excess, and inventing new pleasures out of excess, is still a rare one: For every Petronius, there are many more Trimalchios who end up bloated, exhausted, wearing a false face of enjoyment.
Trimalchio's feast is finally put to a stop by the fire brigade, attracted by the trumpeting and wailing of the mock funeral; the narrator and his friends flee in the confusion, "as if we were escaping from a real conflagration." But if forcing ourselves to run away from the feast is too radical a solution, we can at least look more critically on the idea that information is different from other pleasures—on the Internet's implicit promise that limitless information can be limitlessly enjoyable.
Can Petronius' science of pleasure be learned, or taught? Petronius himself evidently never raised that question. But that doesn't have to stop us.
Petronius can be a symbol of the possibilities of the Internet not simply because he was the original novelist of abundance, but because he seems so charming, even lovable. Petronius was not the man to come to in a personal crisis, but for a light evening's conversation he must have been unbeatable. In the same way, a critique of the Internet's pleasures ought to begin with the understanding that they are pleasures. Petronius stands for decadence at its best, and it would be dishonest to deny his, or the Internet's, appeal.
But even if we want to visit with Petronius, do we really want to be him, or more like him? To put the question another way: If we could have his kind of lightness carrying us through life, even the worst of it, would we want it?
In AD 66, an envious fellow courtier accused Petronius of treason to Nero. Rather than wait for the inevitable, Petronius chose death—and his suicide was impeccable, a pitch-perfect parody of the Roman elite's vogue for heroic endings. Here is Tacitus:
He did not fling away his life with precipitate haste, but having made an incision in his veins and then, according to his humor, bound them up, he again opened them, while he conversed with his friends, but not in a serious strain or on topics that might win for him the glory of courage. And he listened to them as they repeated, not thoughts on the immortality of the soul or on the theories of philosophers, but light poetry and playful verses. To some of his slaves he gave liberal presents, a flogging to others. He dined and indulged himself in sleep, that death, though forced on him, might have a natural appearance.
If this fearlessness was not "the glory of courage," it was at least the coolness of a man who refused to take anything seriously, up to and including his own death—a man for whom suicide was one last entertainment. I'm reminded of Oscar Wilde's deathbed quip that the "wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go." I'm even afraid that, had Petronius been my contemporary, he would have tweeted the whole thing, and I would have laughed despite myself.
I love his fearlessness, but I also wonder how much it cost. I would have preferred a Petronius who cried, or shook, or hesitated, as commonplace as that would have been, because some things are worth our fear and our sincerity. Yet those things were exactly the cost of Petronius' accomplishment in pleasure, a science that can only keep abreast of the flood of excess by constant novelty. Sometimes novelty is not enough.