Friday, April 26, 2013

`That Sovereign Mind'

The woman I was interviewing turned the question back on me: “Who are your heroes?” One dreads this sort of thing. To answer honestly invites a sigh of suppressed boredom, but lying about it, giving the glib answer you think your interrogator wants to hear, leaves you nauseous with self-loathing. I asked the question because she, years earlier, had worked for a future Nobel Laureate. Indirectly, I hoped to learn what she thought of this guy (reported to be a world-class egomaniac). Neither of us ended up answering. 

When young, I was too hip to have heroes, or at least to admit having them. Pride extinguishes natural impulses, including admiration. To admit you have a hero is to suggest they possess something you don’t, that you perhaps envy them – an admission intolerable to our swollen sense of self-importance. Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #180: “Envy, curiosity, and a sense of the imperfection of our present state, incline us to estimate the advantages which are in the possession of others above their real value.” With age ought to come some measure of “down-sizing,” accepting one’s self more realistically and acknowledging that we’re pretty much stuck with who we are. Now I have heroes, all writers, all gifted, all flawed, all admired more deeply for their flaws because the essence of heroism, perhaps, is overcoming them: Swift, Dr. Johnson, Henry James, Chekhov, Whittaker Chambers, Yvor Winters, Beckett. 

Besides writing well, all were courageous, all knew occasional rejection and scorn, and all remained indelibly themselves. Those are the qualities I most admire today. I found an epigram by Walter de la Mare titled “Jonathan Swift” (Inward Companion: Poems, 1950): 

“That sovereign mind;
Those bleak, undaunted eyes;
Never to life, or love, resigned—
How strange that he who abhorred cant, humbug, lies,
Should be aggrieved by such simplicities
As age, as ordure, and as size.”

1 comment:

Denkof Zwemmer said...

I think I know what admired flaws you are referring to when it comes to Johnson and Swift, maybe even Henry James. But -- what are the flaws of Chekhov and Beckett, outside of the usual human failings? And if Whittaker Chambers is to be admired, isn't it despite his flaws rather than because of them?