Sunday, February 05, 2006

Invitation to the Feast

More than 30 years ago, at a state university in Ohio, I briefly shared a dorm room with a French horn player. He confined his reading to two writers – Shelley and Wilde – and I remember him laughing hysterically at a drawing of Mormons that Wilde had scrawled in a letter written during his visit to Salt Lake City. From the university library my roommate borrowed a complete 19th-century edition of Shelley’s works. The volumes were bound in dark green leather and had the heft not of books but building materials. I entered our room one day and found him sitting in the corner, cackling over one of Shelley’s verse dramas and eating confectionary sugar from the box with a long ice tea spoon.

I was already a dedicated reader, but that moment crystallized in me an intense and lasting distaste for literature conceived or consumed in a hothouse, and for any other misuse of books, whether puritanical or hedonistic. I was an earnest, self-righteous young man, certain of my flimsiest convictions, but in this case I still endorse most of my callow self’s reaction. My roommate loved music dearly, but he had a gift for unhappiness and seemed older than his years while remaining essentially childish. Literature ought to infuse us with delight, an effect Nabokov termed “aesthetic bliss.” My roommate used Shelley not as consolation -- Geoffrey Hill has written that a poem ought to be “a sad and angry consolation” -- but as distraction. In effect, he mistook Shelley for sugar.

To Hill add Henry James, Isaac Babel and Samuel Beckett. They form an unlikely and almost random quartet of writers who delight me endlessly, though none could be mistaken for an inspirational, “feel-good” writer. Literature written or read as Camp, propaganda or as a soothing act of narcissism strikes me as repellent. While many of my reading tastes have evolved over the years, and some of my early enthusiasms leave me blushing (Robert Coover? Doris Lessing? William Burroughs?), my contempt for dilettantes and philistines has remained consistent. Since my college days, the abuse of books, literacy and literary tradition has accelerated and mutated into institutional dogma. Despite this, the common reader, who reads with uncommon acumen and devotion, is thriving, in the blogosphere and in contented isolation. I know a woman in Connecticut, now in her 90s and never an academic, who every year rereads Austen, James and Proust, and there’s a newspaper copy editor in upstate New York who owns and rereads most of S.J. Perelman, P.G. Wodehouse and Whitney Balliett. Both read exclusively and without apology for pleasure. A lecture on “the death of the author” or fashionable politics would provoke in them bewilderment followed by laughter.

The name of this web log calls for explanation. Anecdotal evidence – truth bolstered by example -- is humanly persuasive but not objectively verifiable. In law and logic it is anathema, but in life and literature it is the final test of worthiness. I make no pretense of scientific rigor. I can’t prove to you that Toni Morrison is a lousy writer and Cynthia Ozick a great one, and it occurs to me that I have no wish to do so. You’ll find no system here, few axes to grind, no striving after a grand unity, no theory or politics, all of which tend to corrode whatever they touch. Instead, you’ll find an enthusiastic chronicle of delight that has lasted a lifetime.

Let me cite one of the tutelary spirits of this blog, Samuel Johnson: "I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but a few, in comparison of what we might get."

Anecdotal Evidence will never be a “big book.” Its aspirations are humbler and, I’m confident, will find ideal expression in the web log format. Literature is sustenance, best enjoyed meal by meal, in the company of comparably hearty fellow diners. An ornithologist once shared with me his conviction that birds often sing for the sheer arbitrary pleasure it gives them, not merely to defend turf or attract a mate. An aesthetic capacity, he speculated, has evolutionary value. Who can conceive of a life lived without beauty, whether making it or enjoying it? Come, join us at the table.

Commonplace Book

“…we agreed to adjourn to my lodgings to discuss measures with that cordiality which makes old friends like new, and new friends like old, on great occasions. We are cold to others only when we are dull in ourselves, and have neither thoughts nor feelings to impart to them. Give a man a topic in his head, a throb of pleasure in his heart, and he will be glad to share it with the first person he meets.”

William Hazlitt
“The Fight”

4 comments:

Pious Labours said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
William "Papa" Meloney said...

Please excuse this slight subterfuge. This is not a comment on Invitation to the Feast but rather a quiet means of sending a message. As I have not been able to locate an e-mail address for you I am slipping this under the door. Please delete it when you like.

Your blog posts are such that I only read them when I have the luxury of time. I collect them, perhaps a week's worth at a time. Then I savor them. Thank you for sharing.

- William B. Meloney VII

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Over nine years after your initial blog entry, I have (belatedly) joined the table. Almost 40 years later I can testify that the dorm rooms in Ohio are filled with those who confine their reading to comic books and Young Adult series. When I first came across Wallace Stevens, I mistook him for sugar. Perhaps now your erstwhile dorm-mate is a better, stronger reader. I hope so. And I've kept up with Wallace Stevens and now how much I didn't know and will continue not to know, but the pleasure is learning how to live in that state of limbo which can be an impassioned one.

Dave Lull said...

Joseph Epstein on Edmund Wilson:

“A major part of Wilson's modus operandi was his sheer authoritativeness. Since in literature no one can finally prove anything, except perhaps the technical defects of prosody in a poem, criticism lives or dies by the persuasiveness of the critic, a persuasiveness based largely on his confidence and the strength of his assertions. No one was more aware of this than Wilson, who put the case perhaps as well (and as baldly) as it can be put:

"'The implied position of the people who know about literature (as is also the case in every other art) is simply that they know what they know, and that they are determined to impose their opinions by main force of eloquence or assertion on the people who do not know.'”