Sunday, January 06, 2013

`The Constant Pleasure of Discovery'

A book titled The Pleasures of Ignorance promises provocation or something milder like benign eccentricity. In the case of Robert Lynd’s collection of familiar essays (Grant Richards Ltd., 1921), it’s the latter – old-fashioned, good-humored, unpretentious, pipe-and-tweeds civility. No one writes this way today: 

“…there is, perhaps, a special pleasure in re-learning the names of many of the flowers every spring. It is like re-reading a book that one has almost forgotten. Montaigne tells us that he had so bad a memory that he could always read an old book as though he had never read it before. I have myself a capricious and leaking memory.” 

The passage is drawn from the fifth page of this little book’s title essay. Lynd begins by stating an unpleasantly obvious truth – most of us are ignorant about the commonplace things that surround us, such as flowers and birds. His indictment is not unilateral. Lynd is not a know-it-all. His essay-persona is a regular good fellow. He finds in our ignorance something to admire: 

“This ignorance, however, is not altogether miserable. Out of it we get the constant pleasure of discovery. Every fact of nature comes to us each spring, if only we are sufficiently ignorant, with the dew still on it.” 

It’s not ignorance Lynd is talking about after all. It’s knowingness, the smug assumption that we already know everything worth knowing. In its contemporary mutation, this attitude masks as cool hipness. Nothing surprises us, nothing is quite satisfactory and the world is essentially a rather dull place. 

Lynd was Irish, born in Belfast in 1879, within a decade of Joyce, Pound and Eliot, but he was no Modernist or even Victorian. We can fix his sensibility somewhere late in the eighteenth century, still within the Age of Johnson but on the cusp of Romanticism. Less grandly and more importantly, his touch is personal. We’re aware of a charming, quietly intelligent fellow who enjoys good conversation. Lynd follows the first passage quoted above with this sentence, a thought unimaginable in today’s literary world: 

“I can read Hamlet itself and The Pickwick Papers as though they were the work of new authors and had come wet from the press, so much of them fades between one reading and another.” 

Lynd is endorsing qualities essential to any writer someone might actually want to read – curiosity, enthusiasm, “ignorance.” He died in 1949 but Lynd would be pleased to learn the copy of The Pleasures of Ignorance I’ve borrowed from the Fondren Library was part of the personal library of Edgar Odell Lovett, the first president of Rice University (then Rice Institute). Lovett died in 1957. According to the circulation card at the back of the book, I’m the first person ever to sign it out. Not surprisingly, in another volume by Lynd, Books and Authors (Jonathan Cape, 1929), the essayist celebrates Charles Lamb. Of Elia’s alter ego he writes: 

“He had most of the virtues that a man can have without his virtue becoming a reproach to his fellows. He had most of the vices that a man can have without ceasing to be virtuous. He had enthusiasm that made him at home among the poets, and prejudices that made him at home among common men.”

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