Monday, October 26, 2009

`Friendship and Honour and an Abysmal Tenderness'

“In order to have, like Dr. Johnson, a good talk, it is emphatically necessary to be, like Dr. Johnson, a good man – to have friendship and honour and an abysmal tenderness. Above all, it is necessary to be openly and indecently human, to confess with fullness all the primary pities and fears of Adam. Johnson was a clear-headed humorous man, and therefore he did not mind talking seriously about religion. Johnson was a brave man, one of the bravest that ever walked, and therefore he did not mind avowing to any one his consuming fear of death.”

This I found in “On Smart Novelists and the Smart Set,” an essay by G.K. Chesterton collected in Heretics (1905). Johnson too often is mistaken for a ferocious reactionary, a literary bully, and Chesterton sets us straight. He also clarifies the nature of good conversation – “friendship and honour and an abysmal tenderness.” When talk is rant or stand-up comedy, it’s debased monologue, souls shrieking in empty rooms. The same is true of blogging and other forms of writing in which the model is true conversation. A reader and I have a mutual friend who is a retired English professor. I had an update on Sunday:

“[We] had breakfast again yesterday. He's doing pretty well, except for the knee he had operated on a while ago, which is painful enough that he's using a cane. He mentioned your recent posting on autumn; it stimulated him to recall and to look up and to read happily a few favorite poems about autumn (other than Keats' `To Autumn’ I don't remember the several others he listed). He mentioned again that when it comes to poetry he's re-reading favorites rather than reading anything new to him: time is short and he wants a sure thing.”

Here, the human voice and literary art intersect. Poems are pieces of our lives not specimens for dissection in laboratories. I’ve added a link to the web site of the novelist Roger Boylan. We’ve exchanged notes over the years, and this weekend we spoke of Nabokov. Roger writes:

“Yes, I've always found that many of VN's scenes bring a tear to the eye. He has a Shakespearean ability to evoke pity. See, e.g., not only Pale Fire, as you say, but Laughter in the Dark and, of course, Lolita. And, my goodness, Speak, Memory. No one I know can convey longing and pathos as well.”

So much for the purportedly heartless Nabokov. His art is rooted in “abysmal tenderness.” Yet another friend, this one in New York City, writes:

“I was reading from `The Enduring Hemingway’ this weekend and decided all I really want from him is a few of his short stories, just a few. Also A.J. Liebling delighted me with his account of the young Cassius Clay in `Poet and Pedagogue.’ Finally, I especially enjoyed the last part of Montaigne's `On Three Good Wives’ from Book II. Because I've been spending so much on books lately, I've established a moratorium until year's end, at which time I'll resume with a maximum budget of $30 per month. Public library, here I come.”

Today I turn 57 and couldn't hope for better birthday wishes, but let me add something P.G. Wodehouse wrote in My Man Jeeves (1919):

“The lunches of fifty-seven years had caused his chest to slip down to the mezzanine floor.”


Allan Connery said...

Happy birthday from a grateful reader.

Fran Manushkin said...

Happy birthday, Patrick! I guess you'll be having lunch at school today, so make it a wonderful dinner. P.S.Wt all the walking and exploring that you do, I bet your chest hasn't even hit the balcony level.

Frank Wilson said...

Happy birthday, Patrick. Oh, to be 57 again.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday, Mr Kurp.

WAS said...

Happy Birthday, Patrick. May you have many more years of abysmal tenderness!

Beardo said...

Happy Birthday, Patrick. Hope you received some new Birthday reading today.

Anthony said...

Happy birthday, Patrick, a few days late but from a highly appreciative reader.