Monday, November 04, 2013

`To Distinguish Liking from Agreement'

Tastes in books and authors, and probably in sandwiches and neckties and everything else, are idiosyncratic and most likely inexplicable, even to ourselves. Certainly childhood associations are involved, and our educations in the broadest sense. Once we get past fashion and peer pressure and the desire to be admired for our exquisite taste, what’s left? Why an affinity for some things and not others? What, in the privacy of our skulls, gives us true pleasure and consolation, and keeps us coming back? Here is an author for whom I’ve never acquired a taste, C.S. Lewis, writing about another writer for whom in recent years I’ve developed a deep fondness and respect: 

“Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love. I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. His humour was of the kind I like best--not `jokes’ imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humour which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the `bloom’ on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly. For the critics who think Chesterton frivolous or 'paradoxical' I have to work hard to feel even pity; sympathy is out of the question. Moreover, strange as it may seem, I liked him for his goodness.” 

This is from Lewis’s Surprised By Joy (1955), his autobiography with a title borrowed from Wordsworth but one linked in this reader's memory with the title of Whitney Balliett’s first book, The Sound of Surprise (1959). Lewis makes an important and useful distinction between liking and agreement. For some readers the two are identical. They “like” a writer if he mirrors their thoughts and opinions. They wish to be flattered. Another sort of reader distinguishes between meaning and method, and never reduces a work of literature to the former (or the latter, for that matter). Thoreau repeatedly says silly and self-centered things in his journal (and who wouldn’t, across two million words?), but I judge it among the supreme works of American literature, largely for his observational powers and the precision of his prose at its best. More important than “liking” is understanding and testing against experience. Writers of unflattering thoughts (La Rochefoucauld, Swift, Johnson) earn our trust and admiration over time in a way sycophantic writers (Emerson chief among them) never could. Johnson nicely balances the writer’s obligations with the reader's: 

“The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”

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