Friday, March 24, 2017

`Culture Is Continuity with the Past'

The cover story in the March 20 issue of The Weekly Standard is “The Cultured Life,” in which Joseph Epstein writes:

“Does all this talk of high culture have a ring of snobbery? If so, I have badly misrepresented it. There is nothing snobbish about seeking out the best that has been thought and said. What it is, as noted earlier, is elitist, a word in our egalitarian age in even worse odor, perhaps, than snobbery.”

With predictable regularity I receive comments and emails in which readers deploy one or both of the damning adjectives cited by Epstein – snobbish and elitist. As Epstein makes clear, the words are not synonyms. All of us are snobs, pro or con, about something, whether spaghetti carbonara or Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. Pure democrats of taste are unicorns. Elitist cultural values today are rare and best kept prudently unexpressed. Culture makes demands of time and cognitive effort, and fewer than ever are up to the task. But it never occurs to some of us to bemoan the odious labor of reading, gazing and listening. The works of high culture call us to attention, and their strictures can be difficult, flattering and sweet. Recently, an anonymous reader wanted to know how I could “endure” the prose and verse of Yvor Winters. With great pleasure, I said. What others choose to read is none of my business. A big part of my job is sharing my pleasures.   

Those who haven’t read Tennyson or Proust but are intimidated by the prospect of doing so (public schools get most of the credit for this dereliction) are another story. I empathize with some of them. In my job as science writer for the engineering school of a university, I speak daily with engineers, scientists and mathematicians. I’m always out of my league. I have a B.A. in English (earned when I was fifty), a degree that has become the ready-made punchline of a joke, but I don’t accuse the STEM-types of snobbery or elitism. I read what I can about their research and ask a lot of humbling questions. It’s called continuing education. Epstein continues:  

“Cultural elitists, as do connoisseurs generally, like only the best and seek it out. But how do they determine what is best? From tradition, from the tastes of their culturally elitist forebears, from their own refined aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities. Along with Longinus, they identify as high culture those works of art and intellect that elevate the soul, stay in the memory, and appeal across different cultures. Elitist the cultural ideal certainly is, but with the difference, as noted by Matthew Arnold, that it is open to anyone who wishes to make the effort to attain that ideal.”

No one willing to do the mandatory work is excluded. In this sense, nothing is so democratic as high culture. (I watch a lot of crap movies but never fool myself about their worth. Innocent escape is perfectly acceptable but not as an exclusive diet.) As usual, Epstein makes numerous, seemingly self-evident observations that would never have occurred to me. Please read all of “The Cultured Life,” but here is a sampler:

“Culture is continuity with the past: A cultureless person knows only about, and lives exclusively in, the present. Few things are as pleasing—thrilling, really—as reading a classical author and discovering that he has had thoughts and emotions akin to your own. So I have felt, at times, reading Horace, Montaigne, William Hazlitt, and others who departed the planet centuries before my entrance upon it.”

“My candidate for the most cultured American novelist of the past century is Willa Cather.”

“Poetry, once central to high culture, has become degraded to an intramural sport. Although the audience for poetry in America was never large, today even that audience has diminished, and the only people who seem to read contemporary poetry are those who write it or write about it.”

“High culture, even though it often traveled under the banner of the avant-garde, was always about tradition. A cultured person has a standard, a recollection, through literature and history and philosophy—if not necessarily through personal experience—of greatness. Without such a recollection, rising above mediocrity is difficult, if not impossible.”

Thursday, March 23, 2017

`With Bigger Windows'

As some readers get older, the attraction of minor writers grows on them. We know the majors and return to some with undiminished pleasure, but do I really want to read Kafka, Camus, Hemingway or Dostoevsky again? (All four have an adolescent appeal. None is quite adult.) Minor writers, previously unknown or unfairly ignored, are a gift to seasoned readers. And who’s to say they’re minor? Melville once was minor. Who would give up on Max Beerbohm because he’s not John Galsworthy?

I first learned of Logan Pearsall Smith (1865-1946) some years ago in the letters of Henry James. He seemed somehow insubstantial, an impression reinforced by my now-jettisoned prejudice that a writer had to produce a novel, preferably several, to be taken seriously. An American who lived most of his life in England, Smith seemed to know everybody, including Henry James, George Santayana and Bernard Berenson, and I had the impression he was a dabbler, an annoying wannabe like George Plimpton. Much later I read All Trivia (1933), Smith’s compendium of four earlier collections of anecdotes, aphorisms and one-liners, and was charmed. These are from the fourth, Last Words:

“The old know what they want; the young are sad and bewildered.”

“When elderly invalids meet with fellow-victims of their own ailments, then at least real conversation begins, and life is delicious.”

“What with its crude awakenings can youth know of the rich returns of awareness to elderly people from their afternoon naps; of their ironic thoughts and long retrospections, and the sweetness they taste of not being dead?”

Now I’m reading Reperusals and Re-Collections, a gathering of essays Smith published in 1937, loosely unified by the theme of rereading favorite writers. Among Smith’s reacquaintances are Jane Austen, Proust, Jeremy Taylor, Walter Pater, Donne and Madame de Sévigné. In the first essay, “Montaigne,” he writes:

“There are readers and I am one of them whose reading is rather like a series of intoxications. We fall in love with a book; it is our book, we feel, for life; we shall not need another. We cram-throat our friends with it in the cruellest fashion; make it a Gospel, which we preach in a spirit of propaganda and indignation, putting a woe on the world for a neglect of which last week we were equally guilty.”

Long-time serious readers will recognize the sentiment, a close analog of certain romantic attachments. When young, I felt compelled to proselytize for my “intoxications.” I’ve given that up as futile and often irritating. Today, I’m likelier to mention the book or author, and then leave it to the readers. The adventurous, driven ones are rare. Smith identifies the continuities in our reading loyalties, increasingly precious as we grow older:  

“There is something reassuring, too (at least, I find it so), in these renewals of former admirations. We all endeavour, as Spinoza says, to persist in our own being; and that endeavour is, he adds, the very essence of our existence. When, therefore, we find that what delighted us once can still delight us: that though the objects of our admiration may be intermittent, yet they move in fixed orbits, and their return is certain, these reappearances will suggest that we have after all maintained something of our own integrity; that a sort of system lies beneath the apparent variability of our interests; that there is, so to speak, a continuity within ourselves, a core of meaning which has not disintegrated with the years.”

Smith suggests there is self-knowledge to be found in an examination of our reading histories. A lovely speculation follows:

“And if we find, when we read again one of our classics -- say Virgil for instance -- that we like it better than ever, the experience may suggest an even more pleasing conjecture. Psychologists tell us that fullness of life is the goal of everything that lives, that the impulse towards completeness, towards ripeness and self-realization, is the most compelling of all motives. These discoveries in old books of new beauties and aspects of interest may persuade us, therefore, that we are not only still ourselves, but more ourselves than ever : that our spirit has not only persisted in its being, but has become more lucid in the process ; that the observatory or palace it has edified for its habitation, though always falling out of repair in places, one wing collapsing after another, is yet being always rebuilt on a more consistent plan, and with bigger windows.”

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

`Do Not Differ About Trifles'

“Opposites often attract each other but the attraction seldom lasts if the full extent of the opposition is ignored. It is as neighbours, full of ineradicable prejudices, that we must love each other, not as fortuitously `separated brethren.’”

Hubert Butler’s “Divided Loyalties” (Independent Spirit: Essays, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996) is characteristically pithy and commonsensical. Utopians with little experience of human nature will fault it as cynical, a dark slander on humanity. The rest of us hope its optimism is justified. Butler is writing in 1984, deep in the Irish quagmire, and I was reading him on Tuesday when I learned of Martin McGuinness’ death.

Ignoring differences proves as delusory and dangerous as exaggerating them, so Butler’s choice of “neighbours” is shrewd. He might have said “family” or “friends,” but was never naïve. Think of your neighbors, the ones you like and trust, who collect your mail when you’re out of town; the ones you cordially detest, who are loud or dirty; and those about whom your feelings are neutral because you’re hardly aware of their existence. By nature, neighbors are heterogeneous, even when they share an economic niche. Neighbors make demographics seem trivial. Even the most solitary among us make arrangements with neighbors.

The Rev. John Taylor was Dr. Johnson’s friend from childhood, outlived him and read the service at Johnson’s funeral. He was also known to be disputatious. In a letter dated July 31, 1756, Johnson congratulates him for resolving differences with a neighbor, and tells him:

“. . . to have one’s neighbour one’s enemy is uncomfortable in the country where good neighbourhood is all the pleasure that is to be had. Therefore now you are on good terms with your Neighbours do not differ about trifles.”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

`Young People Should Be Careful in Their Reading'

“The most common form of diversion is reading. In that vast and varied field millions find their mental comfort. Nothing makes a man more reverent than a library.”

Ah, the good old days, when we sat around perusing Proust and amusing our fellows with choice couplets from The Dunciad. Pardon the cynicism. The author quoted above is Winston Churchill (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1953), and I endorse the spirit of his observation if not the historical specifics. Thanks to Terry Teachout I discovered the source of this passage, Painting as a Pastime (1950), originally published as an essay in Amid These Storms (1932; the English edition is blandly titled Thoughts and Adventures). In a 2009 column for the Wall Street Journal, Terry called the slender volume “one of his wittiest and most insightful pieces of writing.” In it, Churchill stresses the importance of a “public man” cultivating “a hobby and new forms of interest.” The object is “the avoidance of worry and mental overstrain.” For Churchill this primarily meant painting, a pursuit he began at age forty. In the book he devotes a three-page digression to the virtues of reading:

“`What shall I do with all my books?’ was the question; and the answer, `Read them,’ sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another.”

That was more my style when young. There was a romance about books, a sentimental liking for their look and smell – and surely for the impression book-“fondling” left on the opposite sex: “He’s so sensitive.” Churchill warns us against “read[ing] too many good books when quite young”:

“It is a great pity to read a book too soon in life. The first impression is the one that counts; and if it is a slight one, it may be all that can be hoped for. A later and second perusal may recoil from a surface already hardened by premature contact. Young people should be careful in their reading, as old people in eating their food.”

Advice I never followed. The food analogy is apt: I was an omnivore. How else does one learn to winnow out lousy books. A better metaphor: inoculation. One must ingest a few bad books in order to develop immunity. Churchill gives another caution:

“But reading and book-love in all their forms suffer from one serious defect: they are too nearly akin to the ordinary daily round of the brain-worker to give that element of change and contrast essential to real relief. To restore psychic equilibrium we should call into use those parts of the mind which direct both eye and hand. Many men have found great advantage in practicing a handicraft for pleasure. Joinery, chemistry, book-binding, even brick-laying—if one were interested in them and skilful at them—would give a real relief to the over-tired brain.”

No brick-laying for this reader. Churchill gets perilously close to the crackpot idea of reading (or any hobby) as therapy. Reading is an end in itself, pure pleasure, solace, communion. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

`A Hunter Without a Blank in His Magazine'

“I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive. I shall be sorry to die, but the notion of seeing life celebrated from day to day is so wonderful that I can’t see the point of believing anything else.”

Any guesses as to the identity of the speaker? A rare character, surely. No gender or nationality clues apparent. Kvetching, not celebrating, is all the fashion, and only two sorts of writers speak or write this way: Those who work for greeting-card companies and those who are strong, gifted and confident. In this case, the latter, and spoken by a man in his mid-eighties. V.S. Pritchett loved being a writer, and often reminds us that we too should love the privilege.

On my shelves are five Pritchett volumes. Three are modest in bulk: His best novel, Mr. Beluncle (1951); The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev, (1977); Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free (1988). The other two are behemoths of industriousness: Complete Collected Stories (1990) and Complete Collected Essays (1991) – more than 2,500 pages of a life’s work. Among English writers, only Kipling wrote a greater number of great stories, though not by many. Of Kipling, Pritchett writes self-revealingly:

“Kipling is not one of those short-story writers who settle on a mere aspect of a subject, a mood, an emotion or a life. He takes the whole subject and reduces it, in form, to the dramatic skeleton.”

Pritchett is especially good on writers of short stories, a species distinct in most cases from novelists, closer to poets. Read his essays on Leskov, Kipling, Chekhov, Babel, Sholom Aleichem and Flannery O’Connor. Here he is on Maupassant, another prolific writer who, I suspect, goes largely unread today:

“When, as a young man, Maupassant sat in the talkative company of writers and was asked why he was silent, he used to say, `I am learning my trade’; and that is what the hostile criticism of his work comes down to in the end. That he learned, and some better writers never have. He is one of the dead-sure geniuses, a hunter without a blank in his magazine.”

His prose is vivid and flecked with unexpected metaphors and word choices, but without the exhibitionism of lesser, more pretentious writers. In his fiction, he is the anti-Updike. He makes the throwaway memorable, without tarting it up. This is from a 1967 story, “A Debt of Honor”: “He had been a bland little dark-haired pastry-fed fellow from the North when they had first gone off together, her fur coat sticking to the frost inside the window of the night train. What a winter that was!”

Has any writer in the history of the language ever described a character as “pastry-fed”? And don’t we know precisely what Pritchett means?

 V.S. Pritchett died twenty years ago today, on March 20, 1997, at the age of ninety-six.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

`Of Uncertain Etymology and Meaning'

More than ever I encounter unfamiliar words I’m unable to decrypt from context or etymology. Perhaps it means I’m reading more, or I’m finally accepting the depths of my ignorance, and it does give me the opportunity to revisit the dictionary. I’m not alone in finding “alamite” a mystery, according to The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2016) by Peter Gilliver. Even Sir James Augustus Henry Murray, the dictionary’s first editor, judged the word’s meaning “entirely unknown,” but included it anyway because it was found in a 1458 will left by Sir Thomas Chaworth of Nottinghamshire. In a description of cushions he was leaving to his offspring, Chaworth writes: “Hengyng for ye halle and parlor of tapisserwerk, and alle the kuchyns of tappisserwerk with alamitez.”

It looks like a passage pulled at random from Finnegans Wake but Gilliver tells us “tappisserwerk” means tapestry, though my spell-check software helpfully suggests “patisserie,” which served to make me hungry. The OED entry, with no definition, part of speech, etymology or suggested pronunciation, is a marvel of epistemological legerdemains: “Origin unknown. From the context, apparently denoting something connected with a cushion.” The entry adds “Obs. rare.” Gilliver seems to admire Murray’s completism. I’m reminded of Borges’“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Gilliver writes:

“Other such entries followed, including aquile, battleage, capoche, and many more. (In later entries it became more usual to be explicit, with a note such as `Of uncertain etymology and meaning.’) Some of these words are well-known cruxes in the interpretation of Shakespeare and other writers; in other cases the original source is little-known.”

The entry for “aquile” is even sparser than alamite’s. As to meaning: “Derivation and meaning unknown. Dr. Morris suggests: To demand, ask, or obtain?” At least the source, Pearl, from the late fourteenth century, is well-known: “Of þe lombe I haue þe aquylde For a syȝt þer of þurȝ gret fauor.”

“Battleage”: suggests a martial meaning, but the OED is refreshingly honest: “Of uncertain etymology and meaning.” It’s a noun, and the dictionary offers a 1526 citation: “Grindeing of Wheate, Messurage, Carridge, and Battleage of Wheat, Bread, and Meale.” Again, Im hungry.

When I saw “capoche,” I envisioned the unholy union of Al Capone, the author of In Cold Blood and poché. After the boilerplate “Obs. Rare” and “meaning uncertain,” the OED adds: “Johnson suggests ‘perhaps to strip off the hood,’ and refers us to capouch (“a hood or cowl”) and “a sportive use of caboche,” which means “to cut off the head of (a deer) close behind the horns.” I’m no longer hungry.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

`The Type That Is Droll and Endearing'

Call it groundless sentimentality. I do, even as I embrace it. It’s like the knitted shamrock my mother pinned to my shirt each St. Patrick’s Day. When I reached a certain age I would take it off it before hitting the sidewalk. By then I sensed it was a demeaningly empty gesture, like lowering your head and remaining silent while everyone else in the room is praying, and I was a stiff-necked prig. For years, each St. Patrick’s Day, I have read something by or about an Irishman. It used to be Yeats, Joyce or Beckett. And then Swift, Hubert Butler or Flann O’Brien (thank you, Jay). Now I range about, breaking the pattern while maintaining it.

This year it was Dublin: A Portrait (Harper & Row, 1967), an oversize album of photos by Evelyn Hofer, with text by V.S. Pritchett. Earlier they had collaborated on London Perceived (1962) and New York Proclaimed (1965). Hilton Kramer observed that Hofer practiced a “very classic art -- flawless in its eye for form, tireless in its ability to `become saturated,’ as Pasternak said, in its subjects.” Hofer remains, as photographers should, out of her pictures. Her interest is the real, not the self. My favorite photo in Dublin is probably “Gravediggers, Glasnevin.” On a related theme, Hofer will also show you Joyce’s death mask.

In most such books, the text is an afterthought, filler, but Pritchett’s prose rivals Hofer’s photos for memorability. Here he welcomes you to the book:

“Dublin as it is; Dublin as it was. I must declare my interest. It is very personal. If I were to write an account of my education the city of Dublin would have to appear as one of my schoolmasters, a shabby, taunting, careless, half-laughing, reactionary.”

Pritchett is master of the modulated adjective array. He strings them like a necklace of different colored stones. He recalls Dickens’ vividness of language and characterization, without the cartoonish bent. See how he backs into a description of Oliver Goldsmith:

“Goldsmith’s case is even more interesting, if far less dramatic and effective, than Swift’s, in what it reveals of the Anglo-Irish mind of the time. `There he is, the poor fellow,’ the old fraud of a guide used to say, donkeys’ years ago, his eyes watering and his testy voice going soft, when taking one to look at the array of busts in Trinity College Library. He would stop for half a tear before Goldsmith’s innocent and comic face. A disastrous undergraduate, ugly, with a pointed nose—loving to dress up in gaudy clothes, incoherent in talk, over-fond of cards, reckless with money, but good at playing the flute, a sweet singer of Irish ballads and a wit when he wrote. Goldsmith is the type of all that is droll and endearing.”

Reading Pritchett, one often stops and says: I wish I had written that. Late in the book he writes: “Dubliners are still shocked by the wickedness of England and go there for a holiday from virtue.”