Monday, August 24, 2015

`His Psychological Weather'

“Sensibility” has been showing up a lot lately. This probably has something to do with getting older. Young people have no sensibility, or rather they try on multiple sensibilities, like Halloween costumes, until they find one that fits pretty well and spend the rest of their lives having it tailored. Sensibility is one’s stance before the world. It’s not a single capacity but a mingling of many; most obviously, the emotional and intellectual. Some of us are by nature observers or spectators; others, participants seldom content merely to watch. Some of us filter experience through multiple lenses of books, friends and experience; others proceed as though each event were unprecedented, always novel. None of these alternatives is necessarily right or wrong, and few of us possess such qualities in their undiluted form. Sensibility is never static and no one is ever entirely himself. Our natures are contradictory, and most of us get along just fine with that reality. On Sunday the poet Norm Sibum wrote to me:                                                   

“I was thinking that what I got from [Gilbert] Highet wasn’t literary knowledge so much as sensibility, or a temper of mind that knows what or what not to do with knowledge. There are plenty of people out there who `know’ stuff, but there isn’t much sensibility, and I don’t mean sensibility in some stuffy, silly ass guise. Sometimes I wonder if sensibility is something one is born with rather than taught. Having said that, I’m a self-proclaimed barbarian inasmuch as I'm very wary of the literary and literariness.” 

I value and enjoy literary knowledge, but it’s never an end in itself. I too am wary of literariness when it’s just another costume, not a way of trying to understand the world. I like people who know things and like to share them, not as a form of braggadocio but as a collection of shiny things brought back to the nest. Norm may be right. Perhaps our sensibility, or at least its schematic diagram, is with us from birth. It is our daimon. Guy Davenport says in his introduction to Herakleitos and Diogenes (1979): 

“In Fragment 69 [in Heraclitus] I have departed from literalness and accepted the elegant paraphrase of Novalis, `Character is fate.’ The Greek says that ethos is man’s daimon: the moral climate of a man’s cultural complex (strictly, his psychological weather) is what we mean when we say daimon, or guardian angel. As the daimons inspire and guide, character is the cooperation between psyche and daimon. The daimon has foresight, the psyche is blind and timebound. A thousand things happen to us daily which we sidestep or do not even notice. We follow the events which we are characteristically predisposed to cooperate with, designing what happens to us: character is fate.” 

[Today is a happy one for literature. Born on Aug. 24 are Robert Herrick, 1591; Max Beerbohm, 1872; and Jorge Luis Borges, 1899. Imagine a sensibility informed by their work and lives.]

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