Thursday, October 29, 2015

`A Sense of Deference'

“At one time or another he tells us nearly everything about himself: his height, his health, his education, funny things he has seen, a ghost-story he has just heard, the fact that he seldom dreams, &c. This gives The Essays an intensely real, vivid, individual style: we hear him talking, more to himself than to us. He begins where he likes, ends where he likes, and is content to come to no conclusion, or several, or half a one.” 

In most cases, the autobiographical impulse, unaccompanied by an interesting sensibility and writing skill, ought to be smothered in the cradle. In the case of Montaigne, he leaves us wanting more anecdotes, more confessions, more recherché allusions to his reading. It makes sense that the inventor and namer of the form – the personal essay -- ought to remain its chief practitioner after four and a half centuries. I thought of the description quoted above, from Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (1949), while reading the travel essays collected in Marius Kociejowski’s Zoroaster’s Children (Biblioasis, 2015).  In particular, Highet’s final sentence suggests Kociejowski’s approach to writing an essay. 

Instead of the obligatory Prague travelogue, he gives us the archly titled “Christmas, with Kafka,” which begins with a manger scene in the Old Town Square. Two of the extras surrounding the Holy Family, a donkey and a llama, start a fight. “There was more laughter from the mocking circle that put me in mind of the lumpish figures in Brueghel’s Christ Falling Beneath the Cross, whose fleetingly warped faces were painted for all time.” What follows is digression within digression – the inevitable news of fighting in Bethlehem at Christmas, abandoning plans to follow “the Kafka trail,” attendance at Leoš Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, an impromptu visit to Kafka’s grave in the New Jewish Cemetery, and difficulty leaving a stone on the plot. In the wrong hands this approach might quickly have turned tedious, the exhibitionism of a flighty mind, but Kociejowski’s touch is light. He isn’t out to impress us with his sensitivity or his devotion to Kafka. For his persona he chooses a bookish schlemiel. 

I want to leave you with a taste of Kociejowski’s prose, hoping you’ll search out Zoroaster’s Children and his other books.  I’m finding it easier to describe his work in the negative, stressing what it is not. When serious, he’s not strident. When learned, he’s not pedantic. When comic, he’s not childish. In his introduction to The Norton Book of Personal Essays (1996), another great essayist, Joseph Epstein writes, “Self-congratulation, or the imputation of virtue to oneself, is one of the great traps of the personal essay.” Again, Kociejowski passes the test. The collection’s final essay, “The Saddest Book I’ll Never Write,” is devoted to Syria, about which he has written several books, in the wake of the ongoing civil war. In part, it is a eulogy for a country, culture and friends Kociejowski loves. He writes: 

“I have been asked why there isn’t more of me in my writings about Syria and the answer, quite simply, is because there would be less of everything else. I believe, too, one’s character is impressed upon what one chooses to write about. One of the most important things with which one must travel is a sense of deference. Only then will there be natural sympathy with one’s subject.” 

Kociejowski’s carefully nuanced tone and my recollection of Montaigne brought to mind another great essayist. In 1983, Guy Davenport wrote the introduction to the North Point Press edition of Montaigne’s Travel Journal, later collected in Every Force Evolves a Form (1987). In it he writes:
“We all lead a moral inner life of the spirit, on which religion, philosophy, and tacit opinion have many claims. To reflect on this inner life rationally is a skill no longer taught, though successful introspection, if it can make us at peace with ourselves, is sanity itself. The surest teachers of such reflection, certainly the wittiest and most forgiving, are Plutarch and Montaigne.”

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