Thursday, April 15, 2010

`My Obligation to Appreciate All That is Good'

“…my obligation to appreciate all that is good, both in my own life and in the world around me.”

This portion of a sentence written by Terry Teachout earlier this week cheers me inordinately, in part because I’m weary of the assumption that intelligent, accomplished people, in order to be intelligent and accomplished, must greet their lives with boredom and frost, as though anhedonia were sophistication. I see this grim affectation in high-school students, coworkers, bloggers and big-name literary critics, among others.

Note that Terry specifies “all that is good” as the object of appreciation, not highly touted crap. A confident sense of what is good is best complimented by a serious distaste for the mediocre, tawdry and fake. The impulse to celebrate is heightened by a capacity for enthusiastic condemnation. The love of the beautiful and sublime implies surrender, which is the opposite of hipness, which is deemed a virtue only by adolescents. I’ve known few enviably happy people – two, to be precise -- who were hip.

In his introduction to The Selected Writings of John Jay Chapman (1957), Jacques Barzun quotes a passage from a letter by Chapman, a reminder of why we read the best that has been written (or listen to the best that has been composed, view the best that has been painted, etc.):

“Literature is for our immediate happiness and for the awakening of more literature; and the life of it lies in the very seed and kernel of the grain.”

Barzun goes on to energetically endorse the sort of writer and critic Chapman represents, singling out for praise his humor and style:

“To this day, and perhaps for all time, the fact that his work gives no earnest of solemnity will stand in the way of his acceptance by some readers: it is so hard, apparently, to believe words that one can readily make out, and so unnecessary to be grateful for thoughts that are given us fully, quickly, and agreeably. Some remnant of savage fear tells us that profundity has no business with the easy and the agreeable, so that in our atavistic moments we do not trust the man who writes as if improvising and who flouts professionalism.”

Be sure to click on Terry’s link to the Errol Garner Trio performing “Where or When” and allow me to suggest you watch and listen to Jimmy Rushing doing “Take Me Back, Baby.”

1 comment:

Matthew Davis said...

A variation on the classicist John W. Mackail's "To have known the best, and to have known it for the best, is success in life"