Thursday, March 31, 2016

`Relieving the Soul of Incoherence'

When it’s not mindless rote, the robotic sweet talk of grade-school teachers, encouragement is always welcome: “The testimony of the accurate word is perhaps the last great mystery to which we can make ourselves accessible, to which we can still subscribe.” That’s Shirley Hazzard in her title essay in We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays (Columbia University Press, 2016). To young readers and writers, Hazzard must sound like the reincarnation of George Eliot, assuming they recognize the name of the great English novelist. Hazzard stands up for a simple virtue – “the testimony of the accurate word” – that once could be assumed among most serious writers. Accuracy implies the hard work of attentiveness to the world and its articulation in words. Hazzard honors us by assuming we are up to the task. She continues:

“Articulation is central to human survival and self-determination, not only in its commemorative and descriptive functions but in relieving the soul of incoherence. Insofar as expression has been matched to sensation and perception, human nature has seemed to retain consciousness. A sense of deliverance plays its part in the pleasure we feel in all the arts and perhaps most of all in literature.”

A writer’s job is to make sense of the world and accurately convey it to others. That job is subverted by laziness, incompetence, dishonesty and subservience to the orthodoxies of the day. We no longer have to worry about governmental censorship. Writers happily censor themselves. Of course, readers are willing collaborators, contentedly dwelling in the provincial backwater of the present. Reading good books, keeping the tradition alive, has dwindled to a minority taste, a hobby. Seldom is a collision of literary values so publically dramatized as in 2003, when Hazzard won the National Book Award for her novel The Great Fire. At the same ceremony, Stephen King was given a “lifetime achievement” prize. In his acceptance speech, King spoke combatively in defense of trash:

“You can’t sit back, give a self-satisfied sigh and say, `Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we’ll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists.’ It's not good enough. Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they’ve never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.”

In her speech (collected in We Need Silence . . .), which measures about one-sixth the length of King’s, Hazzard was gracious but unmoved: “I want to say in response to Stephen King that I do not - as I think he a little bit seems to do - I don’t regard literature (which he spoke of perhaps in a slightly pejorative way) I don’t regard the novel, poetry, language as written, I don’t regard it as a competition.”

No, literature is not marketing. Hazzard expresses her gratitude to readers and writers, and says: “We should do our best by the language. We mustn’t torture it [clearly a swipe at King], we mustn’t diminish it. We have to love it, nurture it and enjoy it.”

[I’ve only just started reading her new essay collection, but Hazzard includes pieces on such promising subjects as Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Leopardi, Proust and “Virgil and Montale.” I recommend her novels The Bay of Noon (1970) and The Transit of Venus (1980).]

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