The Australian correspondence

Apropos of nothing in particular today, I started thinking about Max Beerbohm’s story “A.V. Laider”, from his collection SEVEN MEN (1919). That story contains a reference to a phenomenon called “the Australian correspondence” that I have always found true and amusing.

Beerbohm is talking here about an editorial correspondence in a magazine — an exchange of letters among readers that has spanned several issues. He goes on:

“This correspondence had now reached its fourth and penultimate stage — its Australian stage. It is hard to see why these correspondences spring up; one only knows that they do spring up, suddenly, like street crowds. There comes, it would seem, a moment when the whole English-speaking race is unconsciously bursting to have its say about some one thing — the split infinitive, or the habits of migratory birds, or faith and reason, or what-not. Whatever weekly review happens at such a moment to contain a reference, however remote, to the theme in question reaps the storm. Gusts of letters come in from all corners of the British Isles. These are presently reinforced by Canada in full blast. A few weeks later the Anglo-Indians weigh in. In due course we have the help of our Australian cousins. By that time, however, we of the mother country have got our second wind, and so determined are we to make the most of it that at last even the editor suddenly loses patience and says, “This correspondence must now cease. — Ed.” and wonders why on earth he ever allowed anything so tedious and idiotic to begin.”

As I said, this was put in my mind today by nothing in particular. Or, at least, nothing more particular than the mere existence of social media and the Internet.

In fact, this is far from the first time I’ve thought of this passage. It comes to me regularly whenever I see my Twitter stream beginning to contract around a particular topic, filling up with responses and re-responses and so on.

I don’t have any gripe with this system, mind you. I think it’s great that almost anyone (at least among those with a reliable Internet connection) can participate in these exchanges. And I think it’s often useful when conversation constellates around a particular topic for a while, reinforcing ideas and challenging assumptions. And, of course, it’s wonderful that technology allows us to move through the stages more quickly and then to more easily archive the conversation for those who missed it the first time.

(Not everything is ideal about the way social media and the Internet are used, of course. But in general, tools that make communication easier and more accessible are going in the right direction in my opinion.)

And in the end, I think that’s really what I like about this quotation. Beerbohm’s tone is facetious and perhaps, toward the end of the paragraph, somewhat weary. But I also sometimes feel temporarily weary after some of these conversations have run their course. (That’s a loaded term — “run their course”. Run their course… for whom? For a disinterested observer, as I usually am.)

So when I feel that weariness, I say to myself: “We’ve reached the Australian stage.” And that reminds me that it’s not the Internet, it’s not social media, it’s not Twitter… It’s human beings, doing what they have done for as long as they’ve had access to public (or public-ish) forums. And now more people than ever have access to those forums. So of course we might start to feel a little weary sometimes… But that doesn’t mean that things are getting worse.

Perhaps you won’t take as much comfort as I do in the idea that the things which exasperate us today were exasperating our forebears a hundred years ago. (Or a thousand, or more!) But I believe we have made progress in that time. Sometimes slowly and tediously, sometimes violently and suddenly. And the expression of so many differing and disparate voices didn’t lead to the breakdown of society or the permanent cessation of progress a hundred years ago — so I have every hope that it won’t do so now either.


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