I’m not entirely sure when Hazlitt’s Table Talk was written, but I was reading it over Christmas, at my sister’s house, and discovered, to my horror and astonishment, the best description you could imagine of recreational comment pages. It comes in his essay on Coffee House Politicians which is a bitter denunciation of timewasting gossips by someone who has obviously spent far too long researching the subject.
No one here (generally speaking) has the slightest notion of anything that has happened, that has been said, thought, or done out of his own recollection. We may happily repose on dulness, drift with the tide of nonsense, and gain an agreeable vertigo by lending an ear to endless controversies. The confusion, provided you do not mingle in the fray and try to disentangle it, is amusing and edifying enough. Every species of false wit and spurious argument may be learnt here by potent examples. Whatever observations you hear dropt have been picked up in the same place or in a kindred atmosphere. There is a kind of conversation made up entirely of scraps and hearsay, as there are a kind of books made up entirely of references to other books. This may account for the frequent contradictions which abound in the discourse of persons educated and disciplined wholly in coffee-houses. …
A dearth of general information is almost necessary to the thorough-paced coffee-house politician; in the absence of thought, imagination, sentiment, he is attracted immediately to the nearest common-place, and floats through the chosen regions of noise and empty rumours without difficulty and without distraction.
Isn’t it awe-inspiring to think that all the essential characteristics of internet discourse were in place 190 years ago; and to discover that the essential ingredient wasn’t TCP/IP but – all along – caffeine?
Happy New Year in whatever may be your chosen region of noise and empty rumours! May you float through it without difficulty or distraction.