Sunday, November 23, 2014

`Turning Them Out of My Doors'

A sure sign of intellectual independence is a skeptical refusal of the pigeonhole urge. It’s usefully human to categorize pieces of the world and stow them in labeled bins. The alternative is, as Hume put it, “perpetual flux and movement.” The trouble begins when the bins are labeled with indelible ink, locked in a vault and jealously guarded. That’s when a faith of iron replaces reason and questioning, and understanding comes to an end. So too do curiosity, a capacity for wonder and the gift for learning from our mistakes. When you think you understand the world, it’s no longer alive and you’ve embalmed it. Guy Davenport’s most important and lasting legacy to me, thanks to his books, letters and our single meeting, is a bent toward non-alignment, a commitment to Bartleby-esque abstention. Not that he was “broad-minded” in J.V. Cunningham’s satirical sense. He was as principled as anyone I’ve known. He simply refused to join any herd, literary or political, even the most fashionable and no matter how temptingly lucrative it might have proven. 

Some readers remain offended that Davenport for eleven years reviewed books for the National Review. He violates the Law of the Pigeonhole: “How can he be a [fill in the approved adjective: avant-garde, postmodern, etc.] and write for Bill Buckley, that horrible man?” Or, later, for The New Criterion? In A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968 (Green Shade, 2004), his correspondence with Jonathan Williams, Davenport is writing for Buckley while Williams is serving as poet-in-residence at the trendy Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. In 1967, after Williams mails him a brochure outlining the programs at the Institute, Davenport lets go with an amusing rant: 

“Aha, so you have been put upon by the Liberals? I began years ago turning them out of my doors. Had to, to have some peace…Sensitivity is simply the enfranchisement to mooch…Bishop Pike! Norman Cousins! The two silliest one-worlders ever to kiss the hammer-and-sickle. Pike gets about a million dollars per annum of American tax money to pray nightly to Chairman Mao…You are, my friend, enrolled in a Communist Sunday School—ironically of the Liberal Variety, which will be the first to be put in the gas chambers when the Revolution comes. 

“Fortunately, there is no known record of a real artist being taken in by the tears and panty-waist Socialism of the Left.” 

If Pike and Cousins are unfamiliar names, substitute Jesse Jackson and Bill Moyers. Davenport’s point is that, even more than Hollywood stars, writers are comically, dangerously ignorant when it comes to politics. Politics was not central to Davenport’s life or writing. Joseph Epstein has made a useful distinction between being right-wing, whatever that means, and being anti-Left. The nuance is lost on many. In the best of his essays, “Finding” (Davenport favored the present participle – he would never title an essay “Found”), collected in The Geography of the Imagination (1981), he formulates his moral and aesthetic credo: “Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.” 

Davenport was born on this date, Nov. 23, in 1927 in Anderson, S.C., and died on Jan. 4, 2005, in Lexington, Ky.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

`Read Some Pleasant Author Till He Be Asleep'

Andrew Rickard has introduced me to a bookish stranger, Samuel McChord Crothers (1857-1927), the author of The Gentle Reader, who makes for pleasant company despite his shortcomings (and mine). We’ve come a long way since 1903, and we’re all sophisticated readers, but I like Crothers’ notion of reading as “a kind of conversation.” There’s easy and relaxed conversation, as with old friends, but a chat with newcomers, people whose assumptions might differ wildly from one’s own, even Unitarians, can be surprisingly gratifying if sometimes rancorous. 

The copy of The Gentle Reader I borrowed from my university library last circulated in 1958 and is inscribed (I think – the signature is faint and stylized almost into illegibility) “N.J. Sutter 1910.” The copyright page reads “Published October, 1903. Fourteenth Impression.” At the front is a list of other Crothers titles also published by Houghton Mifflin, including Miss Muffet’s Christmas Party (“Postpaid $1.08”) and The Pardoner’s Wallet. We’re in the company of an old-fashioned bibliophile, a genteel Victorian who, like Emerson, was a Unitarian minister living near the epicenter of Unitarianism. In 1921, Crothers would publish Ralph Waldo Emerson: How to Know Him. One page after the passage excerpted by Andrew we find this: 

“Wise old Burton, in the Anatomy of Melancholy, advises the restless person to `read some pleasant author till he be asleep.' Many persons find the Anatomy of Melancholy to answer this purpose; though Dr. Johnson declares that it was the only book that took him out of bed two hours before he wished to rise. It is hard to draw the line between stimulants and narcotics.” 

Crothers is not without humor. He’s like the minister who, in his sermon on Proverbs 10:9, jokes about his golf game. In The Gentle Reader he even includes an essay titled “The Mission of Humor” in which he composes this baffling sentence: “If the Universe had a place for everything and everything was in its place, there would be little demand for humor.” On the contrary, in such a Universe humor might save your life. His literary touchstones for humor are the usual suspects – Falstaff, Fielding, Dr. Johnson, Lamb, Thackeray, but no Swift or Sterne.

This gentle reader wishes Crothers would get pissed off about something or tell a dirty joke. If he has a fault, it’s niceness, an overweening urge to see everyone and everything as fundamentally benign and probably, especially the unpleasant stuff, misunderstood. In his discussion of humor he lauds “an overflowing friendliness, which brings a laughter that is without scorn.” But scorn is the very pith of humor. Niceness isn’t funny. You don’t gently josh your enemy. You mock him unmercifully and kick him when he’s down.

Friday, November 21, 2014

`Among the Anfractuosities of the Human Mind'

“It is probably a mistake to think of Johnson as specially fond of long words; certainly a mistake to think you can parody Johnson by using a lot of long words. He wrote at a period when long words were used; what is probably the best sentence in his Journey to the Western Islands [of Scotland] is written, I think, entirely in monosyllables.” 

In “Dr. Johnson” (Literary Distractions, 1958), Monsignor Ronald Knox defends the lexicographer against the customary slurs, including gratuitous sesquipedalianism, an offense I’ve never associated with him. Some writers and speakers use long or exotic-sounding words to appear intelligent or to obscure the emptiness of what they are pretending to say, but that was never Johnson’s way. He remained ever on guard for cant and pomposity, linguistic and otherwise. Perhaps the accusation comes from increasingly unlettered readers and critics who prefer their prose with Dick-and-Jane plainness. Teasingly, Knox does not specify the sentence of monosyllables deployed by Johnson in Journey (1775), an account of his visit to Scotland with Boswell in 1773, but his casual aside moved me to look for likely candidates. 

One quickly finds passages dense with one-syllable words and longer words that are nevertheless familiar. This is from the chapter titled “Coriatachan in Sky”: “The weather was next day too violent for the continuation of our journey; but we had no reason to complain of the interruption.  We saw in every place, what we chiefly desired to know, the manners of the people.  We had company, and, if we had chosen retirement, we might have had books.” 

Some of Johnson’s sentences meet Knox’s criterion but hardly seem among his best: “The sea was smooth.” “The oats that are not parched must be dried in a kiln.” Here is a sentence (from “Mull”) with three common polysyllables, the rest all words of one syllable: “He that pines with hunger, is in little care how others shall be fed.” This sentence also possesses the virtue of being identifiably Johnsonian, even out of context. His compassionate realism shines through. This next sentence is all monosyllables but for two words: “The bed stood upon the bare earth, which a long course of rain had softened to a puddle.” 

I have been unable to find the sentence Knox describes. Perhaps he was merely being provocative, hoping some fool would reread Journey with his observation in mind. But the search was not fruitless. I established that word length alone is indeterminate of prose quality, even in the hands of a master. A terse, nugget-like sentence is not necessarily good prose, nor is a behemoth of polysyllables necessarily bombast. Most of Johnson’s sentences are pre-Hemingway in length and complexity (even more so in his periodical essays and Live of the Poets than in his travel book). They defy today’s style manuals, making it even less likely that he would able to write them exclusively with multisyllabic words. Eighteenth-century clarity shares little with the twenty-first-century version. 

On the page after the passage quoted at the top, Knox quotes this Johnsonian prodigy: “Among the anfractuosities of the human mind, I know not if it may be one, that there is a superstitious reluctance to sit for a picture.” Unsurprisingly, the OED cites Johnson’s usage, taken from Boswell’s Life, in its entry for anfractuosity.  It means “involution, intricacy, obliquity” – an apt description of both the mind and the brain – from the Latin for “winding, roundabout.” In other words, we ought to laud Johnson for precision, not fault him for polysyllabic exhibitionism. The world is anfractuous, and so are we.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

`He Who Suggests More Than He Expresses'

“The true reader clings to the text he reads like a shipwrecked man to a floating plank.” 

From this, we remember this: “The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? Because one did survive the wreck.” Ishmael, of course, but the author of the first aphorism is Nicolás Gómez Dávila – Don Colacho – and he too is a survivor, doubly so. He endured the wreckage of Western Culture and wrote amidst the rubble, and now, slowly, thanks to readers and writers working like medieval monks in splendid isolation, his work is rediscovered, translated and newly appreciated. The latest to celebrate the great Colombian miniaturist is Matthew Walther in First Things: 

“If Gómez-Dávila is ever declared a saint, admittedly a very remote possibility, he should be taken up as the patron of nihilists—which is to say, of most of us on our worst days. His work is a complement to, if not a substitute for, gin, tobacco, and constant prayer.”

This is intentionally provocative, laced with something to offend all sides, though I like his novel definition of nihilist. Even the best of us carry around a nihilist chromosome, just waiting to mutate into barbarism. Note Walther’s observation on Gómez-Dávila: “It is one of the only books I have read that has made me laugh on almost every page.” Helen Pinkerton wrote to me after my recent post devoted to Don Colacho: 

“Ever since you furnished a link to his work… I have been reading him. Not every day, but from time to time, when my mind needs refreshment, stimulation, reassurance.  He is, I believe, one of the great thinkers… of our time. When I read him steadily for a good portion of time, I begin to realize again that I am not wrong in being a fundamental conservative. Each aphorism, time after time, hits home with my own thinking, always, of course, phrased in the conceptual language of which he is master. He states the fundamental assumptions, principles, and purposes of conservative, Christian thought, so succinctly, exactly, and clearly that, as one reads, one just cannot dispute what he says. At least, few, if any thinkers I have read could refute his observations. And he constantly considers, defines and exposes the errors--practical and philosophical--of the thinkers who have dominated our intellectual life and culture throughout the 20th century.” 

Don Colacho reminds us of Pascal, and not merely in his aphoristic form of expression. In Pascal: The Life of Genius (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1936), Morris Bishop says of the austere philosopher/mathematician: “Truth was to him a physical force, demanding to do its work. He assumed without question that his discovery of truth required him to publish it.” One senses a similar moral urgency in Don Colacho. Bishop writes of the author of Les Pensées: 

“He jotted down his thoughts as they came to him, on odd bits of paper, backs of bills, now in illegible invalid’s scribble, now in a clear, confident hand. When too weak to write, he would dictate the scheme of an idea, or a few happy phrases, to his nephew Étienne or a servant. Still able to walk, he would return from a little round of nearby churches with the suggestion of a pensée scratched on his fingernails with a pin.” 

With Helen Pinkerton I frequently reread Don Colacho’s aphorisms for “refreshment, stimulation, reassurance,” and find endorsement of the practice among them: 

“Only he who suggests more than what he expresses can be reread.”

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

`Subtraction of Interchangeables'

Dead friends leave us an unforeseen bequest, an almost inexhaustible trust fund of memories and associations. If the friend was bookish, his spirit may dwell in any book we open. If his sensibility was sufficiently large and elastic, almost anything releases remembrance. Charles Lamb writes in a letter to William Wordsworth on March 20, 1822: 

“Two or three have died within this last two twelvemths., and so many parts of me have been numbed. One sees a picture, reads an anecdote, starts a casual fancy, and thinks to tell of it to this person in preference to every other—the person is gone whom it would have peculiarly suited. It won’t do for another. Every departure destroys a class of sympathies.” 

True, but every departure likewise activates an endless spool of private home movies, a process replicated the longer we live. I conjured David Myers a dozen times this week -- while reading Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers and R.L. Barth, listening to Jimmy Rushing and watching the film of The Day of the Jackal. The little spark says: “David would get kick out of this,” followed by the dull thump of reality. Louis MacNeice writes in “Tam Cari Capitis” (the title is borrowed from Horace): 

“That the world will never be quite—what a cliché—the same again
Is what we only learn by the event
When a friend dies out on us and is not there
To share the periphery of a remembered scent

“Or leave his thumb-print on a shared ideal.” 

MacNeice’s choice of scent is shrewd, a nod to the memory-provoking potency of the olfactory. Memory, at least when vivid and new, is specific, not generic. I don’t remember “David-ness.” I remember the time we realized Jackal was a movie both of us liked immensely. Lamb continues in his letter to Wordsworth: 

“There’s Capt. Burney gone!—what fun has whist now? what matters it what you lead, if you can no longer fancy him looking over you? One never hears any thing, but the image of the particular person occurs with whom alone almost you would care to share the intelligence. Thus one distributes oneself about—and now for so many parts of me I have lost the market. Common natures do not suffice me. Good people, as they are called, won’t serve. I want individuals. I am made up of queer points and I want so many answering needles. The going away of friends does not make the remainder more precious. It takes so much from them as there was a common link. A. B. and C. make a party. A. dies. B. not only loses A. but all A.’s part in C. C. loses A.’s part in B., and so the alphabet sickens by subtraction of interchangeables.” 

And that’s why we have an obligation to remember. Forgetting is an ungrateful slur.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

`The Beautiful Obliquities'

“When you entered his little book-clad room, he welcomed you with an affectionate greeting, set you down to something, and made you at home at once.” 

Charles Lamb met John Foster (1812-1876), the author of these words, in 1831, when the former was fifty-six and the latter nineteen. Lamb was dead three years later but during their brief friendship he helped the aspiring writer by setting him up with friends at the Englishman’s Magazine and enabling him to become editor of the short-lived Reflector. 

“His richest feasts, however, were those he served up from his ragged-looking books, his ungainly and dirty folios, his cobbled-up Quartos, his squadrons of mean and squalid-looking duodecimos. `So much the rather thou, celestial Light, / Shine inward.’ [Paradise Lost, Book II, lines 51-52] How he would stutter forth their praises!” 

Forster went on to befriend Leigh Hunt, Bulwer-Lytton, Carlyle, Browning, Tennyson and, most importantly, Charles Dickens, who named Forster his literary executor. Forster published biographies of Swift and Landor, and made his reputation with a three-volume Life of Charles Dickens, published between 1871 and 1874. It remained the standard biography for some eighty years. Dickens based the pompous John Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend on Forster. 

“What fine things had he to say about the beautiful obliquities of the Religio Medici, about Burton, and Fuller, and Smollett, and Fielding, and Richardson, and Marvell, and Drayton, and fifty others, ending with the thrice noble, chaste, and virtuous, but again somewhat fantastical and original-brained Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle!” 

Not to mention Montaigne, Cervantes, Fulke Greville, Sterne, Cowper and at least fifty others. Lamb’s bookish tastes were not typical of his time or any other. The customary tag is “antiquarian,” and Lamb himself claimed “I write for antiquity,” but Lamb also read with enthusiasm the work of his friends – Coleridge, Hazlitt, Wordsworth and Clare, among others. Literature for Lamb was an intimate matter, not a scholarly pursuit, and closely resembled a species of friendship. 

“What delightful reminiscences he had of the actors, how he used to talk of them, and how he has written them down! How he would startle his friends by intruding on them lists of persons one would wish to have seen,--such odd alliances as Pontius Pilate and Doctor Faustus, Guy Faux and Judas Iscariot!” 

The passage quoted above is taken from articles Forster published in the New Monthly Magazine after Lamb’s death in 1834. A century later, Edmund Blunden included it in Charles Lamb: His Life Recorded by His Contemporaries (Hogarth Press). Forster later combined the two articles and used them as the introduction to a collection of Lamb’s prose published in Paris by the Librairie Galignani in 1835. Lamb would be pleased to know that the Galignani, founded in 1801, is the oldest English-language bookstore in Europe outside of England, and that it remains open for business.

Monday, November 17, 2014

`A Secret Radical Worth'

A healthy, timely reminder, especially for those of us looking for someone to blame (that is, most of us): 

“Nothing therefore is more unjust than to judge of man by too short an acquaintance, and too slight inspection; for it often happens, that in the loose, and thoughtless, and dissipated, there is a secret radical worth, which may shoot out by proper cultivation; that the spark of heaven, though dimmed and obstructed, is yet not extinguished, but may, by the breath of counsel and exhortation, be kindled into flame.” 

Rancorous fault-finding, like cancer, metastasizes. If I’m already irked, but without redress, I’m likelier to grandfather my irksomeness on someone who has done nothing to earn it. It feels good. We seek resolution,  moral symmetry. The better, infinitesimal part of me chooses to disregard or even look for that elusively “secret radical worth.” I take “radical” in its etymological sense of rootedness, an assumption consistent with the subsequent reference to “cultivation.” Samuel Johnson’s observation might serve as a ready pep talk for parents, teachers and others who must focus on the present while never disregarding the future. Keeping the faith in others is an unending moral challenge, one I fail on a semi-regular basis. Three years later, Johnson writes: 

“It is, indeed, with this as with other frailties inherent in our nature; the desire of deferring to another time, what cannot be done without endurance of some pain, or forbearance of some pleasure, will, perhaps, never be totally overcome or suppressed; there will always be something that we shall wish to have finished, and be nevertheless unwilling to begin: but against this unwillingness it is our duty to struggle, and every conquest over our passions will make way for an easier conquest: custom is equally forcible to bad and good; nature will always be at variance with reason, but will rebel more feebly as she is oftener subdued.”  

Both passages were published on this date, Nov. 17; the first in The Rambler #70 in 1750; the second in The Adventurer #108 in 1753.