Saturday, January 25, 2020

'Wandered Out of Life'

When I was young and occasionally willing to take advice from my elders, a high-school teacher suggested I select courses in college based more on their instructors than on their ostensible subject matter. I saw two problems with this. First, how could I choose a professor if I knew nothing about the faculty? As an incoming freshman, they were all blanks to me. Was word-of-mouth reputation reliable? Second, what if I ended up taking too many classes outside my major? Would I have to spend twelve years as an undergraduate?

Serendipity was on my side. As a freshman at Bowling Green State University I took classes with two professors with whom I became a serial student. The first was in English, my ostensible major. She was an eighteenth-century specialist who passed on that enthusiasm to me. The other taught history and was one of the few functional eccentrics I have known. He looked like Robert Benchley. You could count the hairs in his mustache. He wore the same brown, three-piece tweed suit the entire time I was enrolled in his classes. The heels of his shoes were scuffed flat. He was given to reveries. He spoke plummy Italian and loved to say Cimabue, stretching every vowel. He was, naturally, absent-minded. In his Renaissance class he assigned only one text: Swiss historian Jacob Burkhart’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1867). In a subsequent class (one of three I took with him) he had me write a paper on the fate of the Jews under Napoleon. He said it was a subject he wanted to know more about. This was Prof. John F. Oglevee, a memorable if unorthodox teacher.

I dropped out after three years without a degree. A few years later I heard Dr. Oglevee had committed suicide. It didn’t make sense. I had no details about what had happened. For decades I was left with fond memories of a man who was just that -- a memory. Periodically, I looked for information about him online without realizing I was misspelling his surname. Finally, after many alternate spellings and combinations of search terms, I found a brief article on Page 5 of The BG News dated May 24, 1977: “History Professor Oglevee dies.” His wife, Imogen, whom I met several times at various campus events, had died on May 19. The following day he took his life by carbon monoxide poisoning. I’m surprised to learn he was only fifty-eight years old at the time of his death. I had assumed six or seven years earlier that he was close to seventy. As Dickinson puts it, Dr. Oglevee “wandered out of Life.”

Friday, January 24, 2020

'The Full Gibbonian Roll'

I understand the intimidation posed by lengthy works of literature. People are busy. They have commitments. Between job and family, reserving time to read can be tough, and never have we been so tempted by so many distractions. I have no advice to offer. I know a man who recently finished reading the twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time. I know what certain books mean to me and have no regrets for the time I devoted to reading them. Proust will always be more important, a more loyal companion, than any television show I ever watched (and I watched a lot – McHale’s Navy? Outer Limits? – when I was a kid).

A reader wants to want to read Gibbon but is afraid of two things: 1.) Devoting a large amount of time to reading 2,000 pages of Roman history. 2.) Feeling defeated and ashamed if unable to read the entire book. About the latter I’m less than helpful: “That’s your problem, buddy.” About the former, I might suggest something I’ve never practiced myself. Formalize reading time. Be consistent. Set the alarm and read for an hour, replace the bookmark, put the book back on the shelf and do the same thing tomorrow. It may take a year, but who cares? Here is George Saintsbury, an Olympic-class reader (and writer), in A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912):

“Once more, one would not like all literature to be Gibbon; but one may be very well satisfied with that part of literature which is. . . . I have admired and enjoyed his style for at least half a century, and I have more than once or twice endeavoured to give critical account of it; but its secret, though perfectly easy to feel, is very difficult to describe precisely.”

I like a critic who admits defeat. That’s humble and human. When I return to a previously read book, it’s usually because of the style. Admittedly, that word covers a lot of ground. I mean more than word choice or filigree. The best books are suffused with their authors’ sensibilities. That’s style. Few people today read A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as their first text on Rome. Some of Gibbon’s conclusions have been usurped by later research and historical understanding. But I’m usually lured not by a book's hard information but by its style when I return to a writer, whether Sir Thomas Browne or Whitney Balliett. With Gibbon I’m attracted by what Saintsbury calls “the full Gibbonian roll—the flux and reflux of that majestic wave that kept time with the revolutions of more than a millennium.”

Thursday, January 23, 2020

'Beauty Fades as a Tree in Winter'

A woman among my readers has been “dipping into,” as she says, The Anatomy of Melancholy, and finding treasure. “Under all the learning and the Latin quotations,” she writes, “is a lot of insight into human behavior. [Robert Burton] was like an intelligent psychologist.” She’s right. The book is more than a quaint and heavily learned curiosity. Overlook the theory of humors -- black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, blood – and you discover an anatomist of our nature (especially our ruling passions, vanity and folly). My reader savors this lovely metaphor from the Third Partition, Member V, Subsection III:

“[T]heir beauty fades as a tree in winter.”

A good metaphor is immediately understood and delights us with its precision and wit. Burton’s prose is so dense with information and poetry that we find this little beauty easy to miss, flanked as it is by a passage from Drayton and another from Seneca. He is writing of women but men are hardly immune. Keep in mind Burton titles this subsection “By counsel and persuasion, foulness of the fact, men’s, women’s faults, miseries of marriage, events of lust, &c.” A few paragraphs earlier he writes:

“This beauty is of the body alone, and what is that, but as Gregory Nazianzen telleth us, a mock of time and sickness? or as Boethius, as mutable as a flower, and ’tis not nature so makes us, but most part the infirmity of the beholder.”

We’ve all known young people already anxious about losing their looks, what Dr. Johnson refers to as “the fortune of a face.” Such vanities fuel vast industries. Burton continues:

“[L]et  her use all helps art and nature can yield; be like her, and her, and whom thou wilt, or all these in one; a little sickness, a fever, small-pox, wound, scar, loss of an eye, or limb, a violent passion, a distemperature of heat or cold, mars all in an instant, disfigures all; child-bearing, old age, that tyrant time will turn Venus to Erinnys; raging time, care, rivels her upon a sudden; after she hath been married a small while, and the black ox hath trodden on her toe, she will be so much altered, and wax out of favour, thou wilt not know her.”

Burton is just getting warmed up:

“One grows to fat, another too lean, &c., modest Matilda, pretty pleasing Peg, sweet-singing Susan, mincing merry Moll, dainty dancing Doll, neat Nancy, jolly Joan, nimble Nell, kissing Kate, bouncing Bess, with black eyes, fair Phyllis, with fine white hands, fiddling Frank, tall Tib, slender Sib, &c., will quickly lose their grace, grow fulsome, stale, sad, heavy, dull, sour, and all at last out of fashion. . . . Those fair sparkling eyes will look dull, her soft coral lips will be pale, dry, cold, rough, and blue, her skin rugged, that soft and tender superficies will be hard and harsh, her whole complexion change in a moment.”

Thanks to my reader for reminding me of the delights packed into Burton’s Anatomy.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

'His Cursory Mode of Reading'

I spent my younger years reading to the finish every book I started. My motives were mixed, pride being the prime mover. I didn’t like the idea of a book defeating me. I took it personally. The advantage of this strategy is reading a lot of books that might in some way be good for me if not particularly enjoyable, like eating kale. It also hones one’s ability to distinguish gradations of quality on a scale ranging from the essential to abysmal wastes of time. The disadvantage is losing time that might be spent on better, more interesting books. Now I feel no compunction over permanently closing a volume even after reading only a page or two. It helps that I’m no longer impressed by reputation or take lousy books as personal affronts.

A reader writes to complain that I’m not giving writers a chance. Closing a book prematurely is unfair, he says: “An author works hard writing a book. You should work hard reading it.” Although it’s true, as Dr. Johnson put it, that “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure” (Johnsonian Miscellanies, ed. G.B. Hill, 1897), intensive labors by a writer guarantee nothing. There’s nothing fair about art. Life is too short to squander it on dullness and stupidity. Boswell reports this exchange taking place on April 19, 1773:

Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. JOHNSON: ‘I have looked into it.’ ‘What,’ said Elphinston, ‘have you not read it through?’ Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, ‘No, Sir, do you read books through?’" [Italics in the original.]

[See “I Can’t Afford These First Editions, but I Buy Them Anyway” by Stephen Marche: “The bookish are a tribe in resistance now; this is the most essential change to our way of life as a people. Every person who picks up a book is consciously turning away from a screen.”]

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

'An Interesting Self to Express'

Here’s a thought experiment, one rooted in immediate experience, nothing theoretical. Think over your last twenty-four hours. Recall all of the people with whom you had a conversation, anything exceeding “Good morning!” with spouses, parents, children, other relatives, neighbors, friends, co-workers, strangers. Factor in telephone calls, emails, texts. Now, how many of those exchanges were interesting? How many did you only reluctantly conclude? How many do you wish could have been longer? How many will you wish to resume if the opportunity presents itself? How many will you avoid? How many do you regret? Now, the tougher question: In how many of those conversations were you the duller partner, or at least as dull as the other?

None of us shines all the time. Mundane pleasantries have their place. Each morning, walking across campus to my office in the dark, I greet custodians, faculty, students, strangers. That represents a minimal gesture of courtesy and respect. Civility can soothe an unhappy sensibility or at least not exacerbate the unhappiness. I enjoy the small opportunities for wit presented to us throughout the day. What a pleasure to make another person laugh, if only politely. Some days what I remember best since waking that morning is someone’s wisecrack, joke or pun, cherished all the more because utterly gratuitous.

True conversations, the rich, stimulating sort, are rarer. Michael Oakeshott puts it like this in “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 1962): “Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering.” In other words, conversation is more like dance than debate. It works best when one’s partner is limber, energetic and conversant with all the moves. In an interview I discovered on Monday, the late Sir Roger Scruton says:

“Self-expression is fine if you’ve got an interesting self to express. But what makes a self interesting is precisely that it’s gone through a rigorous process of discipline and order and self-understanding of a kind that, for instance, Milton went through. Self-expression that hasn't done that is just embarrassing.”

Monday, January 20, 2020

'Boisterous or Arrogant Language, Boastful Assertion'

Occasionally I discover a new word precisely when I need it most and no other is quite appropriate. Take fanfaronade. Jonathan Swift was a prolific writer and though much of his work is judged minor, in my experience everything I have ever read by him was worth reading at least once, if only for the quality of the prose. About how many writers can we say that? In 1713, Swift published a preface to the third volume of Gilbert Burnet’s The History of the Reformation of the Church of England in which he writes:

“I was debating with myself, whether this hint of producing a small pamphlet to give notice of a large folio, was not borrowed from the ceremonial in Spanish romances, where a dwarf is sent out upon the battlements, to signify to all passengers what a mighty giant there is in the castle; or whether the bishop copied this proceeding from the fanfaronade of monsieur Boufflers, when the earl of Portland and that general had an interview.”

Thirteen years later Swift would memorably return to the theme of dwarfs and giants. The mention of Louis Fran├žois de Boufflers, Duke of Boufflers, and Hans William Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland, refers to a 1695 incident during the Siege of Namur in the Nine Years’ War. Fanfaronade, appropriately, is French in origin. The OED defines it as “boisterous or arrogant language, boastful assertion, brag; ostentation.” What word could be more applicable to public life today? The Dictionary also refers to a rare use of the word as a verb: “to bluster, swagger.” I’m reminded of an observation a newspaper colleague once made about an editor much given to fanfaronade: “He’s the first guy I’ve ever known who could swagger while sitting down.”

Sunday, January 19, 2020

'A Desirable and Enviable Existence'

I welcomed the undergraduate into my office and had her take a seat. She was well-dressed by campus standards, polite and attentive, and appeared eager to please. The word “wholesome” came to mind. She was an engineering major and I wanted to know what influences had gone into that choice of education and future career. I got the usual boilerplate about wanting to change the world and make a difference, so I probed a bit deeper but she didn’t seem to fit the customary engineer profile.

She hadn’t played with Legos as a kid, solved math puzzles, played chess or built her first computer by age ten. STEM didn’t seem to engage her intellectually. I asked if any books had influenced her. She said she didn’t read much and had never been in the university library except during the orientation tour. I asked what she did for fun. “Hang out with my friends.” Any complaints about life at the university? “It’s kind of boring. There’s nothing to do.” She's clearly intelligent and didn’t appear depressed.

That pretty much finished our conversation. She remains a cipher, though it seems significant that she checked her smartphone several times during our interview. I’ve never understood being bored. There are boring people and boring situations, but there’s never a good reason for me to be bored. I felt sorry for this undergraduate. She has the privilege of getting a first-rate education and access to much of the world’s knowledge and art, most of it free of charge, and that seems not to interest her much.

Rereading the late Clive James, I came across this in his introduction to Cultural Amnesia (2007): “There is too much to appreciate.” Mozart, he notes, never heard all of Bach. “We can hear everything by both of them.” He writes:

“It would be a desirable and enviable existence just to earn a decent wage at a worthwhile job and spend all one’s leisure hours improving one’s aesthetic appreciation. There is so much to appreciate, and it is all available for peanuts. One can plausibly aspire to seeing, hearing and reading everything that matters.”