Monday, September 21, 2015

`Let Such Naiveté Be Praised'

Beware the reader (or writer) you have never heard from before who, in his first sentence, announces his academic pedigree and in his second tells you what’s wrong with what you have been reading, how you write about it and how he can remedy the situation. Exhibit A: the avant-garde devotee. To his credit, he has mastered the rudiments of subject-verb-object. His sentences, while not stylish or memorable, are coherent and rather earnest, so I got the message: Don’t read Proust. Don’t read Henry James. Don’t read Virginia Woolf (not a problem). Read Kathy Acker, Joseph McElroy and some Frenchman I have never heard of before (the usual suspects), among others. Sorry, but my tolerance for unreadable twaddle evaporated decades ago, not long after the last time I tried reading Acker. Pleasure and wisdom are my reading mantra. On this date, Sept. 21, in 1751, in The Rambler #154, Dr. Johnson offers this advice to writers who wish to be read, not studied, worshipped or held in stupefied awe: 

“He that reveals too much, or promises too little; he that never irritates the intellectual appetite, or that immediately satiates it, equally defeats his own purpose. It is necessary to the pleasure of the reader, that the events should not be anticipated, and how then can his attention be invited, but by grandeur of expression?” 

“Grandeur” might be a little overstated for our purposes. Johnson is suggesting a writer not pander to readers, either through willful obscurity or patronizing predictability. The cult of pretentiousness is alive and well. If a writer can be readily understood, if he has no interest in mystifying his readers, he must be a philistine, a soft-headed bourgeois. My favorite among Zbigniew Herbert’s essays is “The Price of Art” in Still Life with a Bridle (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, 1991). After considering Painter in His Workshop by Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685), Herbert writes: 

“The old masters – all of them without exception – could repeat after Racine, `We work to please the public.’ Which means they believed in the purposefulness of their work and the possibility of interhuman communication. They affirmed visible reality with an inspired scrupulousness and childish seriousness, as if the order of the world and the revolution of the stars, the permanence of the firmament, depended on it.”
“Let such naiveté be praised.”

1 comment:

James said...

The essay by Zbigniew Herbert sounds great! Give me Proust, James, and Woolf any day. In fact I'm quite happy with great story-tellers like Maugham or Frank Conroy. There is something to be said for writers who are neither pretentious nor pandering.