Thursday, January 19, 2017

`The Political Unimportance of a Creative Work'

A program of reading I can admire but never adopt:

“My system is curious. I keep reading the same book over and over, perhaps for six months, every day, and then switch to another which may last the same time.”

I am a slow reader, out of mental necessity, but not that slow. If I’m reading for pleasure, I never skim. That useful technique I reserve for purely utilitarian reading, such as finding a passage I failed to mark. I’m also a greedy reader. Only necessity could confine me to reading one book at a time. I sprawl and have no aim other than pleasure and learning. Only three times have I read systematically. Twice I read writers chronologically, first work to last, though I had already read almost everything by both of them: Shakespeare and Melville. And fifteen years ago, when I went back to college thirty years after dropping out, I read nothing but books by and about Henry James for almost six months, and wrote a thesis: “Poor Sensitive Gentlemen.” After my release from a strict diet of James, the first books I read were Waugh’s Sword of Honour, Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.

“Altogether I have not read more than six or seven books during the past number of years. But I have read Gil Blas, Moby Dick, Ulysses, D’Arcy McGee’s History of Ireland and Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry hundreds of times.”

The last two titles I have not read. Alain-René Lesage’s picaresque novel I read once, long ago, in Smollett’s translation, and I remember nothing about it. The other two I reread periodically. Our reader could do much worse. It occurs to me that I have never finished reading a book and immediately started reading it again. I often do that with poems, good and inadvertently funny ones, and with the occasional movie. I need time to digest.

“All these books have several qualities in common. A dominant note is their comic detachment; their authors are not afraid to bend, to let themselves go, to be outrageous. Theirs is the philosophy of men who in a wonderful way do not care.”

Certainly this is true of Melville’s novel. Much of his other work is wonderful but unexceptional, and some is nearly unreadable, or readable only under self-imposed duress – see Mardi and Pierre. Moby Dick “outrageous”? Savor the farting and penis gags, and Chap.36, “The Quarter-Deck.” The book’s copiousness is outrageous. It is a rare novel in which a digression on almost any subject might find an appropriate place, a quality it shares with Montaigne’s Essays, The Anatomy of Melancholy and Tristram Shandy.

“This inconsequentiality is a sign of the author’s assurance; he is master of the situation. Every so often the author of Moby Dick bursts out laughing or goes off on a ten thousand word digression leaving his principal character standing in a corner. But though far from his creator that character is never out of the author’s control. And when the author comes back the character is patiently waiting. This quality of not caring is part of the political unimportance of a creative work. `We the unpolitical’ says Auden.”

The quoted passages above are from “Studies in the Technique of Poetry: Extracts from Ten Lectures” in Patrick Kavanagh: Man and Poet (ed. Peter Kavanagh, National Poetry Foundation, 1986). In the next sentence in the same extract, Kavanagh (1904-1967) writes: “Being ignored except by a small group leaves a man free because he had none of the responsibilities which a large public inflicts on him.”

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