Sunday, March 29, 2009

`Hearty, Jovial Aristocrats of the Heart'

“One might compile a select company of such uncompromising artists who will have no illusions about them, who want for paradise nothing but their own good natures; they are not many.”

Downright scarce, I’d say. The sentence is from “Spinoza’s Tulips,” an essay Guy Davenport collected in The Geography of the Imagination, his essential magpie’s nest of an education. In his immediate context, “uncompromising artists” include the titular philosopher, Wallace Stevens, George Santayana, Melville and Thoreau. He calls them “hearty, jovial aristocrats of the heart.” Every seasoned reader can draw up a comparable list. Mine might include the aforementioned Spinoza and Thoreau seated at a table with Montaigne, Matsuo Bashō, Samuel Johnson, Chekhov, Osip Mandelstam, Zbigniew Herbert and our host, Guy Davenport. Imagine a United Nations of the spirit equipped with headphones for instantaneous translations.

Thirty-four years after working there, I still occasionally dream about my dream-like job as a clerk in Kay’s, a cluttered, three-story Cleveland bookstore. I can still draw the floor plan, both public space and stockrooms, and remember where each publisher’s backlist was arranged. I’ve always conceived of it as a vast conversation – Ezra Pound over here in New Directions at last talking to Kafka and Benjamin over there in Schocken. Such fancies grow in quaintness with the unchecked passing of used, rare and antiquarian bookstores. “In Pursuit of the Unknown” is an elegiac essay by Anthony Daniels (Theodore Dalrymple) on the imminent extinction of such shops. It’s also a celebration of minds happy with the gift of bookish serendipity, a pastime that loses its charm in the online world:

“Browsing is a manifestation of multiculturalism in the best possible sense. By browsing, you realise that what you previously did not know existed interests you deeply. The internet, by contrast, is the instrument of monomaniacs.”


Deborah Cook said...

Thanks for the link. I have a bookloving friend in Ireland to whom I was going to forward this link. Just in time though, I remembered he is allergic to dust, so I might have been torturing him.

Anthony Whittaker said...

Hay-on-Wye is the likely reference to North Wales as the best place in Britain for second-hand bookshops. There are thirty in a single town. It is a remarkable place to visit.

Uncle Toby said...

It is no doubt true that the internet is a happy hunting ground for monomaniacs. But the internet also provides plenty of opportunities for the intellectually curious autodidact to indulge himself in bookish serendipity. Because of the internet I have discovered (to take a few random examples from a very large field):
(1) The joys of reading Zbigniew Herbert and Guy Davenport (I bought The Geography of the Imagination after reading one of your earlier posts)
(2) Podcasts of lectures by Herbert Dreyfus on Kierkegaard and Heidegger.