Sunday, October 10, 2010

`The Primary Object of a Student of Literature'

In 1949, Lord Dave Cecil delivered his inaugural lecture as Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, and eight years later included it in The Fine Art of Reading. In the title essay he writes:

“Art is not like mathematics or philosophy. It is a subjective, sensual, and highly personal activity in which facts and ideas are the servants of fancy and feeling; and the artist’s first aim is not truth but delight. Even when, like Spenser, he wishes to instruct, he seeks to do so by delighting. It follows that the primary object of a student of literature is to be delighted.”

Sixty years ago, Cecil’s words would have sounded unexceptional, even a little bland: Of course writers hope to delight readers, and of course readers and students of literature hope to be delighted. That’s what the artistic enterprise, the implicit collaboration of writer and reader, is all about. Today, Cecil’s words sound revolutionary and I remembered them when reading David Myers’ Shavian meditation on being a “reactionary”:

“I want to return to a time when writers were judged by their style, their success in bringing artistic coherence out of actuality’s confusion, their distinctiveness and distinction, even their interpretation of the human experience.”

I don’t know any other ways to usefully judge a writer. David’s tone is pugnacious, as we’ve come to expect, but also elegiac, almost nostalgic. He cares as much about books and writers as anyone I’ve known, but the critics – bloggers, reviewers, readers-without-portfolio -- making the biggest noises these days appear not to care much at all. There’s little evidence of pleasure in all the blather. They serve other masters and delight is not among them. David writes:

“I miss talking about books in terms of something other than their meaning. I would kind of like to go back to discussing authors as if they had intentions, just like their critics, which could not be happily dismissed in an effort to squeeze a more ingenious message out of them. I wish critics still had a conscience.”

And a sense of humor, and a delight in prose. For a blogger to dismiss Mario Vargas Llosa as “a committed counter-revolutionary” without mentioning Conversation in the Cathedral or any other title is delightfully funny, but that's not the same as having a sense of humor. I’d be delighted to know what such a reader makes of Tristram Shandy, Charles Lamb’s essays, Max Beerbohm's stories, Marianne Moore’s poems, A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals, Whitney Balliett’s jazz writing and the novels of Charles Portis. Too counter-revolutionary, I suppose, and too bursting with delight.

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