As I was rereading the novel this time round, I was especially struck by the two main currents of where this new, empty world came up against classical references. These also make an interesting contrast against two "currencies" of the internet: "the use of abandoned shells" and the oldie-but-goodie "attention commons" (everyone goes to, ahem clicks on, them).
One assumes that no one wants an illusion covering over not-being-better-off. Before I analyse that deficit, I will present the classical retorts to it, as presented in The Way We Live Now.
The first and most obvious of classical references are the explicit comparisons Trollope makes between the head of the illusory empire, Melmotte, and ancient Rome. Not only did Melmotte's demise involve a toga, but the tragic role this garment was to play was presaged: when the most stable and traditional character of them all, Roger, says: "In Rome they were worshipping just such men as this Melmotte. Do you remember the man who sat upon the seats of the knights and scoured the Via Sacra with his toga, though he had been scourged from pillar to post for his villainies? I always think of that man when I hear Melmotte's name mentioned. Hoc, hoc tribuno militum!" (Citing Horace Epode 4.20: that man?! that man?! for officer!!)
The second is part of my favourite passage of the book, and which happens to include the above presage. It is an exchange between Roger and a Bishop, with the latter saying that from his pulpit-perspective, humanity is not degenerating and that Horace, who took such a view, privileged what he saw in front of him over the bigger picture. Roger argues that Horace lived during the decline of Rome, and the Bishop observes that Christ was soon to be born. Then, Roger censures the Romans and Melmotte (quoted above), and the Bishop asks if Roger is certain his accusations are well founded:
"I think I know that they are deserved."The Bishop's comment reminds me of Emerson's remark in "Gifts": "it is better to leave to others the office of punishing ... I can think of many parts I should prefer playing to that of the Furies".
"That is hardly doing to others as you would be done by. If the man is what you say, he will surely be found out at last, and the day of his punishment will come. Your friend in the ode probably had a bad time of it, in spite of his farms and his horses. The world perhaps is managed more justly than you think, Mr Carbury."
"My Lord, I believe you're a Radical at heart," said Roger, as he took his leave.
But perhaps some readers are confused at my calling this second Trollope excerpt "classical" - here, I draw on the fact that ancient Rome and Greece contributed as much to the history of English literature as Christianity. Take this as you will. But you may also take it with the Emerson. So, returning to the main point, from "classicism" (as I define it), there is both a pessimistic view and a more optimistic one, and - spoiler alert - we find Roger, strangely, despite his 'principles', "happy" at the end of the novel, so the hardline against the mainstream ("everybody's doing it") is softened: the world is perhaps more just, after all, and the decadent, hollow economy can cede gems through decisions to change how we face things.
Speaking of 'hollow' in today's world, we might cite "abandoned shells", a phrase George W.S. Trow coined to describe how people turn to hollowed-out symbols of yesteryear as value symbols, because in the overload of information, markers are needed to select out "winners". The shells are hollow because the public has undermined the role played by editors. I read about it here.
This concept is related to "The tragedy of the Attention Commons", which brings us back to Trollope's ancient Roman portents. The phrase is taken from a Ribbon Farm article by Venkatesh Rao on a solution to this tragedy, "the web of intent". Here's a takeaway phrase that I am sure Roger and the Bishop would approve of: "Information work is still largely manual labor. The Web of Intent is a roll-up-your-sleeves, grungy, grease-stained “fix-it” vision."
Does anyone want to fix the everyone's-doing-it empty shell? She asked, as she wrote her long-form post for her most-miniature corner of the internet.
Brush: Ewansim via DeviantArt; magazine in background Marie Claire Maison.