A young man of my acquaintance recently ended his intimate relationship with a girl that had lasted some years, and announced the fact to the world on Facebook, together with some rather disobliging commentary on his former lover’s character. This mania for making public what ought to remain private is, if not entirely new (for, as the Bible tells us, there is no new thing under the sun), at least of such greatly increased intensity that it might as well be regarded as new. The possibility of publicity brings forth the desire for publicity.
Most men, observed Thoreau, live lives of quiet desperation; or perhaps one should say, once lived lives of quiet desperation. What has changed is not the desperation, but the quietness with which men now live it. The ability to give public voice to dissatisfaction in all its myriad manifestations has increased out of all proportion to the reasons for it, thus giving the impression that we live in the worst of times. But even the idea that we live in the worst of times has its consolations, for man is a natural seeker after superlatives and does not want to experience the merely average.
I suppose that the mania for giving publicity to one’s own life arises from the feeling that what is only private cannot be of any importance, a feeling that is promoted by the publicity given to the supposedly intimate details of the lives of celebrities. I remember that buses in Nigeria used to have little mottos painted on them that gave advice to the public, for example Let them say—in other words, take no notice of the malice of evil-sayers. Another such motto asked Why die in silence? I haven’t been to Nigeria recently, but a motto more in keeping with contemporary mores would be Why live in silence? It is as if our lives are real only insofar as other people know about them, as many as possible.
But, of course, in reality we don’t want everything to be known about us: We want only those things about us to be known that we want to be known about us. We want our cake and to eat it, or as the French put it, the butter and the money for the butter. This desire is impossible to fulfill, but it is profoundly human. Which is one of the reasons, among no doubt many others, that human life will never be perfect or entirely satisfactory. We want six impossible things before breakfast.