Saturday, March 17, 2012

`His Discordant, Subjective Character'

We meet occasionally for lunch, which gives us an uninterrupted hour to digress and shake our heads, but more often we meet in passing and exchange ideas on the run. On Thursday we intersected briefly in the library. She, an Orthodox Christian, told me one of her favorite people in history is Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian Roman emperor, who reigned from 361 to 363 A.D. I, in turn, suggested she read Michael Oakeshott’s essay “On Being Conservative.” As usual, I can’t reconstruct our two-minute conversation but it revived my uncanny conviction that Oakeshott wrote his essay for and about me, an apolitical man: 

“To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

The essay is the most formless of forms. When I try to formulate a definition, exceptions to the rule dribble away like mercury. Instead, I’m left with the sense that good essayists confide in their readers, or give the impression of confiding, more often than poets and novelists. Perhaps the easy confidence of two friends meeting by chance is the defining quality of the essay. The no-holds-barred formlessness helps suggest intimate conversation. This is not confession, a vulgar contemporary fashion, but trust, however obliquely expressed, imbued with gusto, humor and odd scraps of learning.

A handful of essayists do this for me consistently – Montaigne, of course, and Hazlitt, Lamb, Chesterton, Hubert Butler, A.J. Liebling, Cynthia Ozick and Joseph Epstein. Emerson doesn’t, though I read him for his sentences. Gore Vidal and Joan Didion? Not a chance. Too dull, too sanctimonious, too self-regarding. The Oakeshottian personal touch occurs only rarely, as in Max Beerbohm’s “Laughter” (And Even Now, 1920):    

“Come to me in some grievous difficulty: I will talk to you like a father, even like a lawyer. I’ll be hanged if I haven’t a certain mellow wisdom. But if you are by way of weaving theories on some one who will luminously confirm or powerfully rend them, I must, with a hang-dog air, warn you that I am not your man. I suffer from a strong suspicion that things in general cannot be accounted for through any formula or set of formulae, and that any one philosophy, howsoever new, is no better than any other. This is in itself a sort of philosophy, and I suspect it accordingly; but it has for me the merit of being the only one that I can make head or tail of.” 

And Samuel Johnson, as in The Rambler #134 (1751): 

“There is nothing more common among this torpid generation than murmurs and complaints; murmurs at uneasiness which only vacancy and suspicion expose them to feel, and complaints of distresses which it is in their own power to remove.” 

And best of all, "Finding," an essay by Guy Davenport published in Antaeus in 1978 and collected in The Geography of the Imagination (1981): 

“What lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things—earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem not ever to have been looked at before, a hidden patch of moss with a Dutchman’s Breeches stoutly in its midst, aromatic stands of rabbit tobacco, beggar’s lice, lizards, the inevitable mute snake, always just leaving as you come upon him, hawks, buzzards, abandoned orchards rich in apples, peaches or plums.” 

In its understandably disapproving entry for Julian the Apostate, the Catholic Encyclopedia informs us:

“Although his personal life was unostentatious, he was passionate, arbitrary, vain, and prejudiced, blindly submissive to the rhetoricians and magicians. Some of Julian's many controversial writings, orations, and letters have been preserved, showing his discordant, subjective character.”

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