Friday, January 02, 2015

`A Obvious Enthusiast for the World About Him'

It’s reassuring to follow in the best of our fellows – in writers, especially – their consistency of sensibility. That’s a high-falutin’ way of saying each of us is given a small plot to cultivate and harvest, and it’s best to do it well and with perseverance. I had been reading Theodore Dalrymple for several years by the time he publishedReasons to Be Cheerful” in The Spectator in December 2003, but none of his previous essays or books had moved me to the highest compliment one writer can pay another: “I wish I had written that.” I have probably linked to this column more often than to any other single work except, possibly, Guy Davenport’s “Finding” or Dr. Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes.”  Dalrymple’s combination of wonder, gratitude and common-sensical realism, coupled with a refusal to inflate his own importance, all expressed with learning and clarity, is a model of the writer’s craft. 

Dalrymple’s mention of Zakaria Erzinçlioğlu, the forensic entomologist – “He was so self-deprecatingly humorous and ironic that one felt an immediate affection (and deep respect) for him.” – moved me to read Erzinçlioğlu’s Blowflies (published for the Company of Biologists by the Richmond Pub. Co., 1996) and everything else I could find by and about him. More than that, Dalrymple reminds us that to be alive is a privilege not to be squandered on a self-serving sense of aggrieved entitlement: 

“I try to enthuse my patients with the glory of the world, with indifferent success, I must admit. It is almost as if they wanted the world to be boring, to justify their own lack of interest in it. To be bored and disabused is taken by many people nowadays as a sign of spiritual election or superiority, as if the world does not quite come up to their exacting standards. With the right attitude, though, very small things, such as an inscription in a second-hand book, can kindle enthusiasm and joy.” 

Dalrymple has described himself as an agnostic but his language – “the glory of the world,” “enthusiasm and joy” – might be spoken by the most devout among us. Clearly, Dalrymple has not forgotten Erzinçlioğlu or his moral and scholarly example, and returns to him in “Flying High” in the January issue of New English Review. Like any man of learning, Dalrymple is moved to remember a line from Shakespeare, which he proceeds to mingle with natural and personal history in a meditation on mortality and the fleetingness of life, and the consolations of friends and acquaintances: “I hoped, in fact, that we might become friends, for I had seldom met so attractive a personality, expansive without egotism, an obvious enthusiast for the world about him. It was (I surmised) impossible to be in his company without learning a great deal.” On New Year’s Eve, a reader reminded me of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England” (Geography III, 1977). I reread it and was moved by these lines spoken by Crusoe: 

“Because I didn’t know enough.
Why didn’t I know enough of something?
Greek drama or astronomy? The books
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems – well, I tried
reciting to my iris beds,
`They flash upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss…’ The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
When I got back was look it up.” 

Bishop won’t permit Crusoe to complete Wordsworth’s line: “…of solitude,” and those of us tempted by solitude need reminding that its charms are overrated and that even books are “full of blanks.” When we measure our well-stocked lives against Crusoe’s, we can’t help but know gratitude and, to use Dalrymple’s word, cheerfulness. It’s a word that recalls Boswell’s anecdote about Oliver Edwards, an old school friend of Johnson’s. Boswell and Johnson treat Edwards not rudely but somewhat patronizingly, yet I’ve always thought Edwards, of the three, is the “obvious enthusiast for the world about him.” He says:      

“You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.”

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