Friday, December 23, 2016

`As Real as Characters in George Eliot or Tolstoy'

Strictly speaking, the age-old gripe that critics are parasites remains accurate but not fatal. By parasite we mean an organism that “lives on, in, or with an organism of another species, obtaining food, shelter, or other benefit.” Without a host, there can be no parasite, and without a parasite a host will get along just fine (or not). Fortunately, there are exceptions – self-renewing critics who think, write and create work that “enable[s] the readers better to enjoy life,or better to endure it.” Rarest of all are critics who write well, sometimes better than those they write about. Among living practitioners is Gary Saul Morson, a scholar of Russian literature at Northwestern who bolsters enjoyment and endurance. For instance:

“The richest cases we have are to be found in realist novels. If psychologists, sociologists, or philosophers understood people as well as the great realist novelists, they would be able to describe people who seemed as real as characters in George Eliot or Tolstoy.”

This is drawn from the final chapter of `Anna Karenina’ in Our Time: Seeing More Wisely (Yale University Press, 2007), titled “One Hundred Sixty-Three Tolstoyan Conclusions.” Morson assembles epigrams, proverbs and brief insights in which he merges, at times, with Tolstoy. Precisely who is speaking is often fruitfully ambiguous, as Morson stands in for us, Tolstoy’s readers. In his introduction, Morson makes clear that Tolstoy doesn’t always speak for him, and vice versa. That’s not his aim: “These conclusions, which paraphrase Tolstoy’s thoughts or draw dotted lines from his thought to the present, are offered as not so many truths but as prompts for dialogue.”

Morson/Tolstoy can sound like a sane William Blake: “The road of excess leads to the chamber of horrors.”

Or Proust: “Most of what we do, we do by habit. Habits are the product of countless small choices at ordinary moments.”

Or Theodore Dalrymple: “We mistake sincerity for honesty when we fail to appreciate that honesty is not passive. One can sincerely state what a moment’s thought would tell one is untrue. Dishonest people can sometimes pass lie detector tests.”

Some of Morson’s “conclusions” remind me of the Colombian aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila, known as Don Colacho. Wisdom for both men suggests humility before experience, and a refusal to be blinkered by theories.” Morson writes: “We need not only knowledge but also wisdom. Wisdom cannot be formalized or expressed adequately in a set of rules. If it could, it would not be wisdom at all. Wisdom is acquired by attentive reflection on experience in all its complexity.” Don Colacho writes: “The first step of wisdom is to admit, with good humor, that our ideas have no reason to interest anybody.” Don Colacho might be referring to Morson/Tolstoy when he writes:

“The traditional commonplace scandalizes modern man. The most subversive book in our time would be a compendium of old proverbs.”

One suspects Morson might find something useful in this gem by Don Colacho: “Contemporary literature, in any period, is the worst enemy of culture. The reader’s limited time is wasted by reading a thousand mediocre books that blunt his critical sense and impair his literary sensibility.”

About Tolstoy, in whom wisdom and foolishness coexisted with extraordinary results, Morson writes: “Do not treat Anna Karenina, or any other great novel, only as a document of its times, as sugar-coated philosophy, or in any other way that diminishes its moral import for us.” 

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