Sunday, May 31, 2015

`From Privation to Reality'

We can think of our reading lives as webs of rhizomes, tangled, subterranean and known only to ourselves. As readers, we make occult connections among writers and books having little to do with influence or chronology. The result is a one-of-a-kind private library with carte blanche lending privileges carried around in one’s head. I discovered the largely forgotten Edward Dahlberg in 1975, when I found eight of his titles on the shelves in the bookstore where I worked. He would die two years later at age seventy-six, though even as a young writer he seemed among the ancient ones, a Jeremiah from Kansas City. He was a great writer who often wrote badly and frequently was wrong, but his outcast status and relentless bookishness were immediately attractive. Dahlberg alerted me to many writers previously unknown or unexplored. Among them was Randolph Bourne (1886-1918) – a name (like Dahlberg’s) I had never heard uttered at my university. In Can These Bones Love (1941), Dahlberg writes: 

“Look at Shakespeare’s true men, Thersites and the Fool in Lear—garbed in such low and base bodies. To these belonged the deformed but inwardly transfigured hunchback, Randolph Bourne. His voice was as raucous to the elders of the day as the fierce and pitchy outburst of the Fool in Lear.” 

Dahlberg calls him a “gnome” who excoriated the “cult of politics,” and goes on to describe Bourne’s meeting with Theodore Dreiser. Saturday was Bourne’s 129th birthday and Frank Wilson marked the occasion with this passage from Bourne’s essay “The Experimental Life”:For we do not do what we want to do, but what is easiest and most natural for us to do, and if it is easy for us to do the wrong thing, it is that that we will do.” Truer than ever, of course. Often we are lazy or blasé even when it is least in our own selfish interest. The Bourne quote triggered several memories, one being the always pertinent Dr. Johnson, who writes in The Rambler #155: 

“The lapse to indolence is soft and imperceptible, because it is only a mere cessation of activity; but the return to diligence is difficult, because it implies a change from rest to motion, from privation to reality.” 

The other is from an essay by Marius Kociejowski that I had reread earlier in the day – “A Meeting with Pan Cogito” (The Pebble Chance: Feuilletons and Other Prose, Biblioasis, 2014). His subject is the great poet Zbigniew Herbert, whom Kociejowski met late in the Pole’s life. Here is how he closes his remembrance: 

“Whatever his faults, and they were many, far too many, one thing to remember is what he told his friend Adam Michnik: “If you have the choice between two paths, an easy one and a difficult one, you must always choose the difficult one.’”

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