Sunday, August 24, 2014

`The First Passion and the Last'

The dullest people I’ve known, from infants to ancients, are the incurious, those indifferent to the wealth of interesting things that surround them. We’re born in wonder, free of charge, and we have everything to learn, with brains engineered to that end. A parent’s principal job, after security and sustenance, is imbuing a child with curiosity. The world is ours to reject or enjoy. Those who reject it or take it for granted, waiting for something better to come along, are fated for unhappiness. Over-sophistication proves as fatal to curiosity as its opposite.

The most unapologetically curious person I have ever known (in the flesh, I mean; no one could be more curious than Montaigne) was Guy Davenport, who once spent fifteen minutes in my company contemplating the color of Franz Kafka’s eyes (blue). In his essay “The Scholar as Critic” (Every Force Evolves a Form, 1987), Davenport writes: “Scholarship begins as a critical act of loving eyes: curiosity is passion.” He spoke of Samuel Johnson, with Plutarch and Montaigne, as one of his most influential teachers. On this date, Aug. 24, in 1751, Johnson published The Rambler #150. Enjoy the stately advance of Johnson’s prose and thought:

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last; and perhaps always predominates in proportion to the strength of the contemplative faculties. He who easily comprehends all that is before him, and soon exhausts any single subject, is always eager for new inquiries; and, in proportion as the intellectual eye takes in a wider prospect, it must be gratified with variety by more rapid flights, and bolder excursions; nor perhaps can there be proposed to those who have been accustomed to the pleasures of thought, a more powerful incitement to any undertaking, than the hope of filling their fancy with new images, of clearing their doubts, and enlightening their reason.”

It’s of some relevance to this writer that Davenport chose as the epigraph to Every Force Evolves a Form a passage from The Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides, in which Boswell quotes Johnson. It is among the guiding precepts of Anecdotal Evidence:

 "I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but a few, in comparison of what we might get."

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