Sunday, August 09, 2015

`Things of the Heart and Not the Mind'

“With all her studious nature she had set herself to study love, and study it she would.  She made the most of what the holiday offered and when the exponents were absent she fell back on the textbooks—Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Wuthering Heights at that time.” 

So writes Elizabeth Taylor in her story “Girl Reading” (A Dedicated Man, 1965). The girl in question is Etta Salkeld, just turned sixteen, who lives with her widowed mother in London, in near-poverty. Her best friend is Sarah Lippmann, a seemingly happier girl from a larger, louder and more prosperous family. Taylor packs a remarkable amount of observation – physical, social, psychological -- into twenty pages, without hobbling her story. Etta reminds me of me at her age, despite the obvious differences. She is reading Sense and Sensibility, as I first did around her age. Taylor’s use of “textbooks” in the passage above is what I most admire, for that is how many of us read fiction, and have for generations – as a sort of surrogate instruction in living. Conflict and love, war and peace – these are the themes and lessons novels and stories can teach if we choose to read them that way. This must sound inexplicably quaint to many young people, readers and non-readers alike. Etta’s mother, a sad woman who labors to understand her bookish daughter and thereby give her a happy life, thinks late in the story: 

“She began to wonder if there were things of the heart and not the mind that Etta fastened upon so desperately when she was reading. Or was her desire to be in a different place?” 

That spells out the two classic reasons for reading fiction – call it education (or moral improvement) and “escape,” pure, benign distraction, a refuge from life’s seeming impossibility when you are fifteen and sometimes later. Sarah’s father, the relentlessly hearty sort, is suspicious of too much attention devoted to books, says, without nastiness, to Etta: “`Too much of a bookworm,’ I’m afraid,’ he added and took one of her textbooks which she carried everywhere for safety, lest she should be left on her own for a few moments. `Tess of the D’Urbervilles,’ read out Mr. Lippmann. `Isn’t it deep? Isn’t it on the morbid side?’” Hasn’t every devoted reader, especially when young, heard such things? In “A Literary Education: On Being Well-Versed in Literature” (A Literary Education and Other Essays, 2014), Joseph Epstein reminds us, as the title of his essay suggests, that literature, the novel in particular, teaches essential lessons in life. That may not be its immediate purpose, for such a book might turn appallingly didactic. His own literary education, Epstein says, was “slapdash, wildly uneven, and chiefly autodidactical, but adds that “we are all finally autodidacts, making our way on our own as best we can, with our real teachers being the books we happen to read.” His most valuable class while a student at the University of Chicago was a “badly conceived” and “ill-taught” survey of the novel “from The Princess of Cleves through Ulysses.”  He writes: 

“From it I sensed that, if any inkling about the way the world works and the manner in which human nature is constituted were to be remotely available to me during my stay on the planet, I should have the best chance of discovering it through literature, and perhaps chiefly through the novel. The endless details set out in novels, the thoughts of imaginary characters, the dramatization of large themes through carefully constructed plots, the portrayals of how the world works, really works—these were among the things that literature, carefully attended to, might one day help me to learn.” 

By the final paragraphs of “Girl Reading,” life has taught Etta a lesson in love, but she has already been well tutored by Austen, Hardy and Brontë.

[In the Aug. 7 Wall Street Journal, see John Agresto’s “The Suicide of the Liberal Arts”: “I know I would have learned much by working on the Brooklyn docks. Vinnie the butcher and his brother Angel would have opened my eyes to things I’m still clueless about. The pay and job security might have been better than life in academia and government. And, yes, I might have encountered a modern-day Achilles or Hector or Agamemnon. But I think that, at least for me, it was better to meet them first in the Iliad.”]

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

I noticed that you included Ulysses in your top ten not so long ago. I have just finished reading it in the excellent Alma Classics version with notes by Slote, Turner and Mamigonian. I'd be interested to hear you on the book.