Thursday, February 28, 2013

`To Say What I Cannot Say So Well'

In the final decade of his life, the English poet D.J. Enright (1920-2002) assembled three curious, form-blurring volumes: Interplay (1995), Play Resumed (1999) and Injury Time (2003). Their subtitles are suggestive: A Kind of Commonplace Book, A Journal and A Memoir, respectively. It might be useful to say that the first subtitle added to the second equals the third. Enright left us a magpie’s hoard of shiny bits, and like the magpie, a rare bird that recognizes its image in mirrors, he collects reflections of himself, drawn from wide reading and attentive living. They recall nothing so much as the books left by those other practitioners of grab-bag learning, Montaigne and Burton, who also create cumulative self-portraits. All three Enright volumes are laced with passages and paraphrases from Montaigne’s essays, and the first two carry epigraphs drawn from them. Here is the passage from “On Books” affixed by Enright to Play Resumed: 

“As for my borrowings, see whether I have known how to choose what will enhance my drift. I get others to say what I cannot say so well, either because of the weakness of my language or because of the weakness of my mind. . .I would love to have a more perfect grasp of things, but I don’t want to pay the high price exacted. My aim is to pass what life is left to me gently and unlaboriously. There is nothing I would cudgel my brains for, not even learning, however precious it may be.” 

Seasoned readers will recognize Montaigne’s familiar mingling of humility and audacity. I knew from the start Anecdotal Evidence would be more than a commonplace book. The vestigially humble part of me sought to lard posts with citations from better writers than I, while the prideful part warred to have his way with them, presuming to connect quotes with commentary. Over time, a new form evolved. A proto-blogger, Montaigne was among the models. For him, books and life are interleaved. A reader asked a variation on the chicken-or-egg question: Which comes first, the experience or the quote? Both. I read something and, like a synapse firing, it connects with something from the past or present I’ve experienced or read. Or, something happens and I’m reminded of something else in a book. In Florio’s great translation, here is the sentence from “On Books” that immediately follows Enright’s epigraph: 

“I doe not search and tosse over books but for an honester recreation to please, and pastime to delight my selfe: or if I studie, I only endevour to find out the knowledge that teacheth or handleth the knowledge of my selfe, and which may instruct me how to die well and how to live well.” 

Montaigne was born on this date, Feb. 28, in 1533. With the assistance of Shakespeare, his most fruitfully attentive reader, he made us moderns and helped make some of us writers.

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