Thursday, May 26, 2016

`What Answers to an Old Desire'

“I have also been reading Paul Valéry’s collection of aphorisms, Analects: many of them are sublime. From so much brilliance however it is difficult to retain much. Malraux’s art criticism is like that.”

Analects was the first book by Paul Valéry I read, in 1970 or 1971, during my freshman year in college. The timing was perfect. The fifteen-volume Collected Works of Paul Valéry was then being published incrementally, having started in 1956 and concluding in 1975, by Pantheon/Princeton University Press. Analects was Vol. XIV in the series and contains aphorisms and other brief bits of prose, many taken from the notebooks Valéry kept throughout his life, and an introduction by W.H. Auden.

The passage quoted at the top is from a letter the late Thomas Berger wrote to his friend and fellow novelist Zulfikar Ghose in October 1974. Of all the novelists at work during my lifetime, Berger is the one who most inspired my loyalty, starting when I read his third novel, Little Big Man (1964), while in high school, then read retroactively back to his first, Crazy in Berlin (1958), and forward as subsequent books appeared, beginning with Vital Parts in 1970 and concluding with Adventures of the Artificial Woman in 2004.

Berger is correct when he says it is “difficult to retain much” when reading Analects, as the brilliance remains consistent across 622 pages. One wishes to remember nearly every pared-down thought, and ends up remembering none, which is why we keep commonplace books. An aphorism is dense matter of little weight, thought concentrated into the fewest syllables. As I’ve gotten older, the appeal of concision has grown while the allure of bloat has withered. The volume’s title is perfect. Most often associated with the thought of Confucius, “analects” is defined by the OED as “the choice part; the select essence,” and as “literary or philosophical fragments or extracts.” Valéry’s analects inspire contrary impulses in a reader. The beauty of one aphorism stimulates impatience to read the next, but also a desire to linger and savor the first. One is left engaging in a quiet, readerly tug-of-war. Auden writes in his introduction:

“For Valéry, all loud and violent writing is comic, like a man alone in a room, playing a trombone. When one reads Carlyle, for instance, one gets the impression that he had persuaded himself that it takes more effort, more work, to write fortissimo than piano, or universe than garden.”

In Valery’s piano mode: “If everybody wrote, where would literary values be?” To weigh his judgment, just look around. Everyone writes; almost no one writes well. Reading Valéry, I frequently find myself testing his judgments against reality, in a manner almost mathematical, and usually find them solid. Consider this, with its literary and political implications: “The new has an irresistible appeal only to minds that get their maximal stimulus out of mere change.” Immediately followed by this: “What’s best in the new is what answers to an old desire.” And this, urgently pertinent in politics, literature and our daily lives:

“An attitude of permanent indignation signifies great mental poverty. Politics compels its votaries to take that line and you can see their minds growing more and more impoverished every day, from one burst of righteous anger to the next.”

Reading Analects, one feels simultaneously energized for living and humbled by the modest worth of one’s own insights, as when we realize Valéry has been there before us: “To reread what one has written proves how little one knows oneself.”

A comparably lively collection of aphorisms and assorted bon mots might be gleaned from Berger’s letters. Here he is sounding like La Rochefoucauld in a 1977 letter to Ghose: “Envy, my dear fellow, is more operative in the affairs of men than is lust or greed—indeed it might be said that greed and lust are merely among the masks that envy assumes.” And this of George Bernard Shaw from 1975: “It’s his tendentiousness, I think, that keeps him trivial. He’s always out to solve social problems—the sure sign of a superficial practitioner.”

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