Monday, February 18, 2013

`Eager to Show Us Over His Little Library'

“He is extravagant, and he relished extravagance in others. Much of what he wrote was unashamed popularization. He is casual, unguarded, unsystematic. He plays with words, and he would rather parody an author than tabulate his faults. He contradicts himself. While he is working out his own ideas he is never afraid to get in the way of his author. In a word, he is a stimulating and at times an inspired critic.” 

I’m no critic but if I were, I would aspire after John Gross’ assessment of G.K. Chesterton in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969). What Gross describes, after all, is a man not a profession, and in most critics we sense the workings not of men but machines. A book is another amusing piece of the world, one to be passed around like a platter of chicken and dumplings. Good critics share the bounty. A critic is not a physician out to diagnose and cure disease. Chesterton writes in Charles Dickens (1906): 

“…the chief fountain in Dickens of what I have called cheerfulness, and some prefer to call optimism, is something deeper than a verbal philosophy. It is, after all, an incomparable hunger and pleasure for the vitality and the variety, for the infinite eccentricity of existence. And this word `eccentricity’ brings us, perhaps, nearer to the matter than any other. It is, perhaps, the strongest mark of the divinity of man that he talks of this world as `a strange world,’ though he has seen no other.”

This is literary criticism as a species of metaphysical wit, a practice that in the wrong hands turns mannered and silly. A surfeit of sensibility is called for to make it work. Gross says in the same paragraph: “He is often content to make his point through a mere phrase, or a joke, or an unexpected adjective.” Count the phrases, jokes and unexpected adjectives in this passage from Chaucer (1932): 

“He is as awakening as a cool wind on a hot day, because he breathes forth something that has fallen into great neglect in our time, something that very seldom stirs the stuffy atmosphere of self-satisfaction or self-worship. And that is gratitude, or the theory of thanks. He was a great poet of gratitude; he was grateful to God; but he was also grateful to Gower. He was grateful to the everlasting Romance of the Rose; he was still more grateful to Ovid and grateful to Virgil and grateful to Petrarch and Boccaccio. He is always eager to show us over his little library and to tell us where all his tales come from. He is prouder of having read the books than of written the poems.” 

Perhaps that is a reader’s or critic’s chief desire and highest attainment – to know gratitude if not for an entire book, for a stanza, or sentence or a precious word.

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