Thursday, November 01, 2012

`In the Bosom of Common Things'

On my birthday a reader reminded me of Joseph Epstein’s 1997 essay about turning sixty, “Will You Still Feed Me?” (Narcissus Leaves the Pool, 1999), and this week I reread it with renewed interest. Epstein writes of still reading fiction by young writers, something I seldom do, and explains: 

“I read these writers partly because much of my education has been through fiction, partly because I still love the novel and short story above all other literary forms, and partly because I hope they will tell me things I do not know about the way we live now. I find I do learn some of these things, though I am not sure I am getting a healthy return on my investment. But, then, I may have reached the age when nothing seems quite new and everything begins to remind me of everything else. I may be coming to a time when only amusing children and acts of inexplicable goodness are capable of astonishing me.” 

As is customary with his essays, Epstein accomplishes something difficult and makes it looks casual and effortless. In a tone almost breezy, he mingles the personal and critical without compromising either. Consider the first sentence in the passage quoted above. Fiction-as-education will strike young readers as quaint. Their education probably taught them that novels and stories are: 1.) escapist entertainment; 2.) agit-prop; 3.) a dreary alternative to YouTube. Epstein’s love of fiction, which must at least on occasion remain unrequited, is touching. That he values it above other literary forms, even the essay, reminds us of the excellence of his own stories (collected in The Goldin Boys: Stories, 1991; Fabulous Small Jews, 2003; The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories, 2010) and their likely importance to him as a writer. The Trollope allusion recalls Henry James’ reference to the Victorian’s “complete appreciation of the usual.” 

Where would our moral education be without James, Proust and Cather? Stunted, surely, and even more backwardly self-centered. Stories teach us to pay attention to each other; to monitor the impact we have on family, friends and strangers; to weigh the unexpected hurts and consolations of daily living. Stories charge the commonplace with significance. James writes in “The Art of Fiction” (1884): 

“Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions, and some of the most interesting experiments of which it is capable are hidden in the bosom of common things.” 

One of the reasons I read most anything by Epstein is the elegant attentiveness he lavishes on “common things.” His stories and essays, and his books on de Tocqueville and Fred Astaire, aren’t gussied-up and don’t strain after momentousness. He knows how to enjoy himself and how to share his enjoyment with readers. Near the end of “Will You Still Feed Me?” he writes: 

“I wish to minimize my stupidity, maximize my intelligence. `For those who are not angry at things they should be angry at are fools,’ wrote Aristotle, and yet, I sense, to be angry is, somehow, to be wrong. I want to limit to amused contempt my response to life’s irritations. I realize that I cannot stand in the way of regress. I wish to live with a respect for the complexity of life without unduly complicating my own life.” 

For this post-sixty reader, no longer euphemistically “late-middle-aged,” Epstein’s words are soothing. Anger is so exciting to those who wield it and so tiresome for the rest of us. Sustained anger suggests selfishness, crippled emotions and failure of imagination. It's better to know gratitude and recognize “acts of inexplicable goodness.”

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