Saturday, May 31, 2014

`Life Crammed with Purpose Is Surely the Best'

“I am, and have ever been, a great reader -- and have read almost everything -- a library-cormorant -- I am deep in all out of the way books.” 

This is Coleridge, as braggadocious and approximately factual as ever, in a Nov. 19, 1796, letter to John Thelwall. With comparable justice, the words apply to the English critic F.L. Lucas, another library-cormorant, who wrote that Coleridge was “as clever a man as Johnson” (Style, 1955), but goes on to describe a passage in a letter from the poet-critic to Byron as “fulsome twaddle.” Dave Lull has sent me a copy of a tribute to Lucas written by the American philosopher Brand Blanshard (go here and here for more on Blanshard) and published in the Yale Review in 1968. Lucas had died the previous year, on June 1 (the day The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – how’s that for a symbolic changing of the guard?), and Blanshard says: “It was a bad day for all who love good criticism and good writing.” After noting that Eliot, Leavis and Edmund Wilson were better known, Blanshard observes that Lucas had “three gifts in a more balanced abundance than any of them”: learning, “the practical sense and the down-to-earth judgment of the man of the world” and style. Blanshard writes of the critic: 

“He must have had a Macaulayan memory. Sometimes, like that human torrent, he can hardly get on with his argument because of the mass of historic analogies that come flooding to his aid.” 

And yet the ship seldom risks capsizing under the burden of all that cargo. (Can one be said to ferry a burden gracefully, even elegantly? Lucas does.) Take page 58, the one following the Coleridge reference cited above, in Style (3rd ed., Cassell & Co. Ltd., April 1956). First, the conclusion of a sentence from the previous page, featuring Coleridge on Byron, with a footnote to STC’s marginalia in his edition of Pepys, referring to Wordsworth, Byron and Scott. Then a Dickens reference (“Heep and Pecksniff.”), followed by a brief and amusing return to Johnson: “A good deal of difference between these two Samuels. No need to dwell on it -- `look and pass.’” This too is footnoted, to a letter from Leconte de Lisle to Napoleon III, quoted in French. The two footnotes take up two-thirds of the page. Before we reach page 59, there is mention in passing of Virgil, Horace, Catullus and Ovid. It may be difficult to believe, but none of this comes off pedantically. It’s more like the enthusiastic conversation of a book-besotted man who very much wants you to read and enjoy what he has read and enjoyed. To understand the interdependence of books and life in Lucas’ sensibility, listen to Blanshard: 

“Life for him was a high adventure that had to be crowded into too short a time; our business was to live it well; and for literature that does not help us to do that, he had no patience. He knew – none better – that good writing had been done by spotted characters, by Villon, Rousseau, Byron, Baudelaire; but he detested rottenness wherever he found it, and all the more because it was contagious. He liked his authors healthy of mind. He preferred Montaigne to Bacon, Hardy to Wilde and Shaw, because of their greater honesty, Tennyson and Arnold to Browning and Meredith because as personalities they were more sensitive and self-controlled. That meant that he had small sympathy with much in contemporary literature, indeed with the whole vast volume of it that wallows in the morbid and the abnormal.” 

What could be less fashionable than the title Lucas gives the second chapter of Style?: “The Foundation of Style – Character.” He goes on to list the “human qualities” valued by people across the centuries, those “especially valued, whether consciously or not, in writers or speakers”: “I mean such things as good manners and courtesy toward readers, like Goldsmith’s; good humour and gaiety, like Sterne’s; good health and vitality, like Macaulay’s; good sense and sincerity, like Johnson’s.” 

For Lucas, the most important of these qualities is courtesy. As Blanshard points out, it is the “root of clarity,” and he quotes Lucas to that effect: “it is usually the pretentious and egoistic who are obscure.” That says all we need to know about most of today’s academic writing, particularly that undertaken in our Departments of English. Aesthetic questions, it seems, are not merely aesthetic. They also are moral. Blanshard lays on the irony, one of Lucas’ favorite tools: 

“Throughout a period when Cambridge colleagues were exalting D.H. Lawrence, and the best-educated nation in Europe were trooping like `silly sheep’ after Hitler, and Frenchmen were making a hero of Sartre, and Sartre was making a saint out of Genet, and Americans were trying to galvanize Kierkegaard into life again, Lucas gave a steady testimony for the classic and the rational. His admiration was for minds like Hume and Franklin—reflective, self-controlled, kindly, sensible, and gay.” 

The reference to Hitler makes this worth noting in Blanshard’s tribute: Lucas, born in 1894, served his country in both world wars: 

“Laying aside his books at twenty, he went to France, was wounded in 1916, gassed in 1917, mentioned in despatches, and endowed with `a year and a half in hospitals, a deaf ear and a damaged lung.’ `Twenty years of books; then on 3-9-39 a naval uniform knocked at my gate and asked how long I needed to pack, and so began another bookless interval—six years this time.’ He was given hard work in the Foreign Office, buckled down to it in soldierly fashion, and came to like it. `Books with a purpose may often suffer; but life crammed with purpose is surely the best.’”

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