Saturday, September 26, 2015

`The Secret Handshake'

“To hell with the humanities. The future of literature is in the hands of non-specialists.”

This typically provocative pronouncement, grim and rousing, rises from the well-tended grave of David Myers, whose yahrzeit we observe today. The words come from an email he sent me in January 2014, eight months before his death. I had written to tell him I was reviewing David Middleton’s latest collection, The Fiddler of Driskill Hill, and quoted these lines: “Such moments of eternity-in-time / Confirm the Maker in each maker’s rhyme.” David replied: “Middleton is a mentsh” – high praise from D.G. Myers.

Some people leave without a trace. Others seem to take a piece of you with them. The world felt like a safer, more interesting place with David around. When I say “safer,” I mean that in a very immediate way. David’s analytic and argumentative skills were phenomenal. He was a natural-born critic, an agent provocateur in the guise of an English professor. He deftly defended values and judgments I could only mumble about. While I prefer to ignore stupidity and ad hominem attacks, or laugh at them, David moved in like George Foreman, swinging. (I owe the use of the boxing metaphor to David, who admired the men who practiced the sport.)

Back to the “non-specialists”: David was one of nature’s democrats when it came to books, writers and readers – sometimes to a fault. His appetite for fiction, even contemporary fiction, was goatish, though he also wrote: “It’s a good rule not to read a novel before ten years have passed and the novelty has worn off.” I think he could read anything, a capacity I lost more than forty years ago. Initials after your name meant nothing, and if you expressed a Comintern-approved literary or political sentiment, it painted a bull’s eye on your back. The “professionalization” of literary studies for David marked a turning point in civilization, and not a happy one. In 2009, when we collaborated on a list of the “Best American Fiction, 1968–1998” (entirely David’s idea; I just handed him a list of books he hadn’t already named), it provoked the inevitable shit-storm of protest, occasionally laced with anti-Semitism, from the marginally literate and politically aggrieved. I just sat back, watched David and his opponents in the pit, and waited for the fur to fly.

As his friends know, David could be difficult. He was touchy, hot-headed and easily wounded. It lent his apologies substance. Only at the end was he at a loss for words. He loved quoting Yvor Winters: “Write little; do it well.” The bookish precincts of the blogosphere have never recovered from David’s death. It’s a poorer, less amusing, less learned place. Fewer writers than ever “do it well.” In his own terms, David was a fox. In “The Fox’s Apology,” perhaps my favorite among all of his posts at The Commonplace Blog, he wrote of us, his fellow foxes:
   
“These are writers united not by doctrine or ideological commitment, but by an ambition to copiousness and eloquence—and the secret handshake that passes between those who have spent a life among books. They are proud to be foxes. They don’t avoid hedgehogs; they just don’t want to be one. They are happy knowing many small tricks. Or, rather, such knowledge brings them great happiness.” 

The Shulchan Arukh observes, “One should not grieve too much for the dead, and whoever grieves excessively is really grieving for someone else.” As one of David’s foxes wrote more than three centuries ago: “Farewell, too little and too lately known.”

1 comment:

Virtual Memories said...

Our conversation, 6 months before his death, is one of the best of my life (on- or off-mic): http://chimeraobscura.com/vm/podcast-reading-maketh-a-full-man