Sunday, February 14, 2010

`The Attractions of the Journey Itself'

While writing a longer-than-usual essay about Jonathan Swift and his poetry I’ve been heartened by a passage in Chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria, in which Coleridge alternately demolishes Wordworth’s theories of poetry and lauds the verses of his old friend and poetic comrade-in-arms:

“The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution [ominous phrase]; but by the pleasureable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself. Like the motion of a serpent, which the Egyptians made the emblem of intellectual power; or like the path of sound through the air; at every step he pauses and half recedes, and from the retrogressive movement collects the force which again carries him onward.”

Coleridge is composing an apology for his own exuberantly conversational prose style, rooted in digression and profusion of metaphor. The operative phrase is “the attractions of the journey itself.” Prose and poetry are more than workmanlike delivery systems for information. Try imagining Tristram Shandy or Moby-Dick in such purely utilitarian terms. The journey – lexical deployment, the play of words – is the destination. Narrative is more than a recital of events, a plot-driven slog.

In writing I try to set myself little problems that amuse and challenge me. They’re of no interest to readers, most of whom are unaware of such things, except to the degree that I succeed and the reader is the beneficiary of “the attractions of the journey itself.” Robert D. Richardson, one of our best biographers – Thoreau, Emerson, William James – recently gave an interview to James Barszcz at College Hill Review. He praises recent biographers who “have learned from fiction to tell stories rather than analyze things” and concludes by saying:

“Narrative is the garlic of good writing. You can't use too much and it improves everything.”

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