Sunday, August 29, 2010

`Most of the Energies of Civilized Man'

A friend and devoted reader of Anecdotal Evidence leaves New York City this afternoon for Sudan, where he’ll be working for the next two years:

“I’m taking with me to Africa about 15 to 18 books: Astley’s Staying Alive -- a 20th-century global poetry anthology; Jarrell’s anthology Book of Stories, Proust's first two books of A la recherche, Victor Hugo’s poetic collection Contemplations, Chekhov’s shorter stories of the last decade, Boswell's Johnson, Montaigne’s complete works in one very fat volume, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Barzun’s reader, Hemingway’s earlier stories, Frost in the Library of America edition, Wilbur’s collected and a few others. And Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra.”

I envy him the literary company if not the destination. How will it feel to read Richard Wilbur’s witty elegant lyrics in the heat and menace of the Sudanese desert? I trust my friend, who is neither naïve nor inexperienced in the Third World. He’s no dangerously blind idealist, and resembles Wilbur’s bat: “It has no need to falter or explore; / Darkly it knows what obstacles are there.”

Gary reminds me of a better-natured Evelyn Waugh, who in 1938 spent two months in Mexico where the Roman Catholic Church was officially outlawed and practicing priests were subject to execution. The following year he published Robbery Under Law, subtitled The Mexican Object-Lesson, implying we might learn something from the chaos and butchery in that country. The real slaughter was about to start in Europe and Asia. Here’s what Waugh wrote on the final page of his book:

“Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given it from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilised man to keep going at all. There are criminal ideas and a criminal class in every nation and the first action of every revolution, figuratively and literally, is to open the prisons. Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come from merely habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on.”

Gary is eminently civilized, as his reading list attests. He knows the lessons of Heart of Darkness. Saint-Beauve observed that Montaigne lived in “an age of struggle and combat” but managed to sustain his gift for “moderation, caution, and order.” I hope that’s sufficient, Gary, and I sign off as you did in your final e-mail, “Again many thanks and wishing you the very highest good.”

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Roger said...
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