Saturday, April 24, 2010

`To Be Present in All Ages'

Almost forty years ago my professor of eighteenth-century English literature, the most lastingly influential of my teachers, observed casually that most of her students seemed unable to read anything written before Hemingway’s short stories. Already I had heard classmates whining about having to read Swift, Sterne, Johnson and Boswell, models of transparency if not always in Papa’s manner. With what writer would my professor date the outermost chronological limit of today’s students, I wonder. Vonnegut? Rick Moody? I remembered her sad jeremiad while rereading portions of Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation and coming upon this sentence:

“Men do mightily wrong themselves when they refuse to be present in all ages and neglect to see the beauty of all kingdoms.”

A gently apt turn of phrase: “present in all ages.” Judging by most blogs and book-related web sites, the cult of diversity has been adopted only by a minority of readers when it comes to pre-contemporary writers. Most remain present only in the impoverished present. Temporal parochialism reigns – an odd prejudice considering the ephemerality of this literary age. To limit one’s reading in time seems a graver foolishness than to do so in space (that is, by the language or nationality of authors). I feel the impulse to ask such time-blinkered readers: “When did you last read `Gusev?’ Religio Medici? `Apology for Raymond Sebond?’”

Ours may be remembered, if at all, as the Age of Geoffrey Hill. Speaking of Traherne, how many writerly echoes from how many centuries (besides Traherne’s) can you hear in Section CXXI of Hill’s The Triumph of Love (1998)?

"So what is faith if it is not
inescapable endurance? Unrevisited, the ferns
are breast-high, head-high, the days
lustrous, with their hinterlands of thunder.
Light is this instant, far-seeing
into itself, its own
signature on things that recognize
salvation. I
am an old man, a child, the horizon
is Traherne’s country."


Dave Lull said...


"There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms" and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire."

From his "Introduction" to Athanasius: On the Incarnation: De Incarnatione Verbi Dei

Amateur Reader said...

I feel the impulse to ask such time-blinkered readers: “When did you last read `Gusev?’ Religio Medici? `Apology for Raymond Sebond?’"

My answer:

The Chekhov story: 8 to 10 years ago.
Browne: 7 years ago.
Montaigne: 8 years ago.

Now, what's the right answer?

Anonymous said...

C.S. Lewis wrote this in his Introduction to a translation of Athanasias' 'On the Incarnation':

"Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it."


Dave Lull said...

From Nassim Nicholas Taleb's "Opacity 128 - Plato, a Treasure Trove":

"The philosopher (popularizer of philosophy) Bryan Magee, in his memoirs discusses how he is often surprised, reading an author, how his perception of the author conflicts with that of the prevailing trends in commentary (his Wittgenstein was not that of his contemporaries). Simply, academics cluster into a research tradition, with a standard interpretation; such interpretation is unstable as they may all cluster to a new focus, etc. They may collectively miss on a central idea of the author --something the fresh reader may get.

"After a half a lifetime of reading commentary on Plato, I've embarked on my own re-reading of the complete works, and have been quite shocked at what I saw, in relation to my specialty of probability & randomness: topics brought up in the mouth of Socrates that were rarely discussed in the commentaries, or, at best, treated marginally. Now, granted much of the commentary comes from classical writers; still it remains that the commentators are not looking at Plato with our eyes & concerns."

For examples of what he found see here: