Thursday, February 15, 2007

`Merely Beautiful'

The sustaining conviction of Anecdotal Evidence has been my belief that books and life are irreparably conjoined, like most Siamese twins. They are not discrete, self-sustaining organisms. In biological terms, their relation is symbiotic, mutually sustaining. To sever them is to risk endangering both. Literature is typically sabotaged by writers succumbing to one of two great temptations: delivering a compromisingly emphatic “message,” writing propaganda, subverting the literary with extra-literary purposes; and creating pointless parlor games, hothouse orchids, airless rooms which neither sustain life nor expand consciousness. The common reader, who reads for the best of reasons (sustenance, pleasure), loses either way. Two writers, read serendipitously on the same day, bolstered my conviction, though it hardly needed bolstering. In The Dragons of Expectation, the historian and poet Robert Conquest writes:

“Literature exists for the ordinary educated man, and any literature that actively requires enormous training can be at best of only peripheral value. Moreover, such a mood in literature produces the specialist who only knows about literature. The man who only knows about literature does not know even about literature.”

That final sentence is the crux. The cleverness of Oulipoean games, their occasional mathematical elegance, is at first impressive but ultimately freakish and dull. The sensible reader, once he gets the joke, will inevitably ask, “Who cares?” Mark Van Doren – who remembers him? – wrote a brief article, “Literature and Propaganda,” collected in The Private Reader (1942). He observes:

“The trouble with mere propaganda is that it is merely didactic; and from the merely didactic, as a witty scholar of Oxford has said, nothing can be learned. The trouble with mere literature is that it is merely beautiful; and from the merely beautiful, there is no living pleasure to be had.”

I might quibble with Van Doren’s characterization of the “merely beautiful.” There are significant stretches of Wallace Stevens’ work I find incomprehensible and thus “merely” ravishingly beautiful, and that’s fine with me.


Lee said...

I'm not even sure it's possible for anything to be truly beautiful without some degree of truth. Not an original idea, naturally, and rather trite, but perhaps true nevertheless?

Anonymous said...

Mark Van Doren famed Columbia English Prof. who Thomas Merton befriended. The author of the famous text: Shakespeare (New York Review Books Classics)and the father of Carl Van Doren. He promoted the great books program with Mortimer Adler. Mark Van Doren's favoroite work of lit was Don Quixote. Interesting, while John Adams was planning the revolution he carried Don Quixote in his saddlebag while travelling.
Joe, New York