Sunday, October 07, 2012

`This Reading Could Be Called the First Time'

Elberry shares a familiar occurrence in a dedicated reader’s life:
“Proust somewhere writes about the experience of returning to a hitherto incomprehensible work, with new ease & understanding. He says that, in a sense, this reading could be called the first time, since we jettison the preparatory stages.” 

This happens often, especially with poetry. When young, I could make little of Ben Jonson, Wallace Stevens and Yvor Winters, but fell hard for and repeatedly reread poets who were roughly their counterparts -- Shakespeare, Eliot and Edgar Bowers, respectively. Across decades, Jonson and Winters have entered the personal pantheon, and Stevens, as I told a reader last week, remains a poet I admire more than I enjoy. At some point, with some writers, we admit the failure is ours and acknowledge we may never overcome it. This has nothing to do with difficulty or literary fashion. It has to do with bedrock incompatibility, as in dubious marriage or friendship.
Of comparable interest is the reverse of the phenomenon described by Elberry – early enthusiasms that wane slowly or all at once. In this group I put Whitman, Rimbaud and a writer placed in the opposite category by Elberry – Hart Crane. All are poets likely to appeal to young readers for non-literary reasons – anti-bourgeois rebelliousness, outsider status, quasi-religious visionary pretensions. All, at least on occasion, skirt intelligibility, making them ripe for cult status. No one in my close experience – namely, the young me -- is so insufferably snobbish as a literary aesthete of paltry life experience. 

We can account for some of this slippage of interest by the fact that we’re still unformed and malleable when young. We’re likelier to bend to fashion, prevailing tastes, proselytizing professors, advertising and peer pressure. We’re focused less on the book and writer, and more on whether anyone has noticed. I wasn’t immune to such self-display, but found it useful when young to trust my instincts as a literary omnivore. My family was not bookish so I approached literature with fewer prejudices. I trusted my tastes. I still do, though they have grown more stringent with time. 

More remarkable than either of the reading experiences described is the rarest and most precious gift of all – writers and works we encountered as literary novices, fell in love with and have remained faithful to ever since. On my devoted list are Shakespeare, Johnson, Henry James, Chekhov, Joyce, Nabokov and Bellow. They are unchanged yet never stop surprising me, as in a sturdy marriage or friendship.

1 comment:

Joe (New York) said...


After reading your essay, I was reminded of this lecture,
"Another Sort of Learning: How to Get an Education Even
While in College"
by Father Schall: