Wednesday, December 09, 2009

`Better Minds Speak to One Another'

Pleasure at having one’s tastes confirmed by a writer one has long respected is approximately the moral opposite of Schadenfreude, a misdemeanor of the self. William H. Gass turned 85 this year, which means I’ve been reading him for almost half of his life and for far more than half of mine. He’s a writer who should not be judged by his most vociferous admirers, cheerleaders for the avant-garde. I’ve come to think of him as an old bookman, the avatar of a wayward scholar from the 17th century – our Burton or Browne. Thanks to Dave Lull for alerting me to a new essay by Gass in which he writes:

“I miss the leisure that let me read just for fun, not to critique, or pronounce, or even to put on a list, but simply to savor. I do, from time to time, pick up old friends who never disappoint but will promise me a page or two of pleasure between art and ordinary life, like Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins.”

Macaulay was only a name to me some 20 years ago when I found Pleasure of Ruins appropriately misshelved in the Classical Studies section of Lyrical Ballad Books in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Originally published in 1953, this was a 1984 Thames and Hudson paperback with a cracked spine and blurbs from Anthony Powell and Eric Newby. The book looks older than it could possibly be. The typeface is crabbed and the illustrations murky, but Macaulay’s text, to quote a terrible poem, turns Pleasure of Ruins into “a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” It represents an undefined genre I have a weakness for – discursive rambles unified only by their loosely defined subject and the writer’s learning and sensibility. As Guy Davenport writes of Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare:

“It is a book that belongs to that scarce genre which we can only call a book, like Boswell’s Johnson, Burton’s incredible Anatomy, Walton’s Compleat Angler.”

Pleasure of Ruins is almost qualified to enter that company. Three years ago I recommended Macaulay’s book, among others, to Brad Bigelow at The Neglected Books Page. For some readers, 466 pages devoted to dilapidation can only be a joke that overstays its welcome but Macaulay’s subject is not merely the physical remains of crumbling buildings but our enduring fascination with them. She takes her epigraph from Henry James’ Italian Hours -- “To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows a note of perversity” – and admits she almost titled her book A Heartless Pastime. What redeems the book, even for those who profess no interest in ruins, is the prose:

“Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings: in the objects that we see before us, we get to agree with St. Thomas Aquinas, that quae enim diminutae sunt, hoc ipso turpia sunt [“things that are lacking something are for this reason ugly”], and to feel that, in beauty, wholeness is all.

“But such wholesome hankerings are, it seems likely, merely a phase of our fearful and fragmented age.”

These are the dolefully witty closing words of Pleasure of Ruins. She turns Aquinas on his head. Savor the echo of “wholeness” in “wholesome hankerings,” and permit “phase,” “fearful” and “fragmented” to fade away. Gass writes:

“In this book the best minds speak to the best minds. Sorry. In this book better minds speak to one another. I overhear them, as I listen in to all the books I love. They have the secret (it is probably for a cookie) and I mean to pry it out of them. [I already know what it is. It is the music.]”

2 comments:

Gaw said...

Have you come across 'In Ruins' by Christopher Woodward?

`a digressive and enthralling meditation on the evocative power of incompleteness and decay...' according to the LRB. I enjoyed it.

Buce said...

Cf. also:

http://snipurl.com/tmhu2 [underbelly-buce_blogspot_com]

Not Gass, but hey.