Tuesday, August 09, 2011

'They Heal the Stinging Asps in My Heart'

Like many autodidacts, Edward Dahlberg was fond of educating others, whether or not they wanted to be educated. A favorite strategy was devising reading lists and urging them on friends and antagonists (often, thereby, turning the former into the latter, a Dahlberg specialty). To the poet Isabella Gardner he advised:

“Go to school with some master, Ovid, Plutarch, Livy, Tacitus, and you will then find the river back to your own identity.”

This time, the good advice is gently, encouragingly delivered. We discover ourselves by learning what the best minds before us knew. But Dahlberg could be imperious and condescending. In a 1958 letter to Anthony Kerrigan, the poet and future translator of Borges and Unamuno, he writes:

“I am your friend, and the friend of your fate, but I have been writing, and making infernal mistakes for eighteen years longer than you have, and you must heed me, and READ. I want you to read Macrobius, Pausanias, Herodian, Suetonius, Clement of Alexandria, Josephus, the Moralia of Plutarch, the Elizabethans, the writers of the Comedy of the Restoration, Livy, Thucydides, Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Dryden’s Essays, Ruskin’s Praeterita, Herzen, Saint-Simon, Pliny, Strabo, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and sundry other authors and savants.”

Again, no surprises, all good suggestions, but who wants to be told “you must heed me,” regardless of the list-maker’s wisdom? If I admire a writer (or reader) I naturally want to know what he has read, but I don’t want him to plot my reading life. A more effective way to encourage the reading of essential books is to share enthusiasm without proselytizing -- the modus operandi of Anecdotal Evidence.

I first read Samuel Johnson after an English professor off-handedly mentioned how much she loved him, before moving on to another subject. In contrast, an American novelist whose work I value published a new book several years ago, and a swarm of readers told me I had to read it. I bought the book but thus far have refused to open it.

In a 1958 letter to the novelist Josephine Herbst, Dahlberg names some of the volumes that soothe his spirits, and a good reader wants to join him:

“The finger is still inflamed. I have not one utensil in this apartment. My despondency has been too great for me to go out and buy these commodities. I sit here, however, with the Memoirs of Saint-Simon, Herzen, the letters of Coleridge, some remarkable passages from AE, and a good deal of John Ruskin. In the evenings I pore over the Confessions of St. Augustine, and they heal the stinging asps in my heart. The City of God, too, has been a great ecstasy for me. I am religious, but altogether profane and unchurchly. Coleridge dropped to his knees twice a day, and Samuel Johnson said that he could as lief kneel on Fleet Street with Kit Smart as not. But I too know what Ruskin meant when he said that gneiss in the Alps no longer moved him as it once did.”

[All quotes are from Epitaphs of Our Time: The Letters of Edward Dahlberg (1967). Fanny Howe reports another Dahlberg book list here.]

1 comment:

George said...

Several years ago, Jonathan Williams, since deceased, brought out a book of his photographs of writers. I expected Dahlberg, on the form of Because I Was Flesh, to look like Joe Blfstk, but in fact he looked dapper and cheerful. I was heartened to see this.

In one of the essays collected in The Leafless American he writes of ordering an aspiring writer to leave the room and not return until he had become "an exuberant bibliomane", and only realizing when the other stared at him that he had ordered the man out of his own room.