Saturday, September 07, 2013

`The Culture of Ground Naturally Fertle'

“For years a part of himself had identified with those, like Savage, who lived on the fringes of society, just as another part of him identified with the wanderers in those three books of which he never tired—Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Quixote, and Robinson Crusoe. Between a pilgrim, who travels with `settled direction’ or aim, and the `straggler’ at bottom he felt himself to be (`one who rambles without any settled direction’)—the definitions are from the dictionary—there was a middle position, a `rambler,’ which would not be claiming too much but which would also not preclude moving at times into purpose and direction.” 

“The Rambler” is the ideal title for an essay and an essayist. Savage is Dr. Johnson’s dear and dissolute friend, and the subject of his first biography, The Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1744). The title of Savage’s best-known poem is The Wanderer (1729). The passage above, from W. Jackson Bate’s life of Johnson, from the chapter titled “The Middle of the Way: The Moral Pilgrimage,” helps explain Johnson’s choice of title and his intentions. Between 1750 and 1752, he published 208 essays in The Rambler. Here is the Oxford English Dictionary on ramble as a verb: “to contemplate in an unsystematic manner, often without a definite aim; to wander, to digress” and “to wander or travel in a free, unrestrained manner, without a definite aim or direction.” In his own dictionary, Johnson defines to gad (and hints at the titles of two of his three sequences of periodical essays) as “to ramble about without any settled purpose; to rove loosely and idly.” Johnson’s entry betrays a hint of disapproval, but true rambling and gadding always have purpose – pleasure – and are seldom idle occupations. 

The rambler’s GPS is intuition, instinct, even whimsy, and he never engages the cruise control. Movement is neither random nor in lockstep. Surrealists and control freaks need not apply. The best essays resemble good jazz solos, compounded of fierce disciple and of-the-moment improvisation. This is where so many essayist since Montaigne have gone wrong, erring in the direction either of lazy chaos or grim didacticism. Take The Rambler #154, published on this date, Sept. 7, in 1751, also a Saturday. For the person who “hopes to become eminent in any other part of knowledge," Johnson writes, “The first task is to search books, the next to contemplate nature.” Note the order of assignment.  More than 250 years ago, Johnson diagnoses our present crop of literati: 

“The mental disease of the present generation, is impatience of study, contempt of the great masters of ancient wisdom, and a disposition to rely wholly upon unassisted genius and natural sagacity. The wits of these happy days have discovered a way to fame, which the dull caution of our laborious ancestors durst never attempt…” 

On Friday I attended a lecture by an electrical engineer who works with the brains of rats. He is a pioneer in the emerging discipline of neuroengineering, and a pleasant, articulate, funny fellow, excellent company. When he asks, “Can we interface with memories?” I worry. His conjectures sometimes echo the creaky plots of Philip K. Dick. In his lecture, he expressed the hope that someday we will able to archive memories as we do books and periodicals. A computer scientist in the audience asked, “Could libraries become repositories for such data as they stop being museums of books?” I had never thought of a library as a museum, a collection of objects for viewing and, occasionally, study. The phrase was revealing. I was surrounded by engineers, though I know better than to erect a hard humanities/science dichotomy. After all, I was seated next to a Russian-born materials scientist with whom I’d been talking about Isaac Babel’s Benya Krik before the lecture. Dr. Johnson, whose essay is a series of strategic zigzags, might have been eavesdropping:  

“He that neglects the culture of ground naturally fertile, is more shamefully culpable, than he whose field would scarcely recompense his husbandry.”

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