Friday, March 08, 2013

`Charmed By Its Skilful Evasions'

How strange and childish to feel nostalgia for times before our birth and places we’ve never visited. A woman I knew long ago believed such intuitions were evidence of previous lives, reincarnation confirmed. She was a sad soul, the thought gave her comfort and I never bothered arguing. For me, the explanation is simpler and more mundane. Certain times and places feel like antidotes to now, and represent better ways of going about the business of living. I’m no soft-headed romantic and I’m grateful for antibiotics and modern sewage treatment. Without them, we might never have survived childhood, but eighteenth-century London, despite oceans of shit in the streets, remains seductively attractive. V.S. Pritchett rekindles this longing with London Perceived (1962), abetted by the splendid photographs by Evelyn Hofer: 

“When one tries to imagine Londoners of the eighteenth century, the age of Fielding, Richardson, Johnson, Boswell, Dryden, Pope, Hogarth, Reynolds, and Gainsborough [and Sterne], one is struck by the fact that they are, by taste, urban. They are men of fashion, politeness, wit, and the town . . . London is learning manners and conversation from Addison, Steele, and the Spectator writers, drinking tea or chocolate—at least polite London is. The rest is soaked in gin, drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence. There are always two sides to the London coin.” 

And to life. When Boswell wondered whether he would lose enthusiasm for London if he lived there instead of periodically visiting from Scotland, Johnson replied: “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Pritchett cites G.M. Trevelyan’s notion that the English of the eighteen century were “not yet troubled with anxieties about a very different future.” One might mistake their equanimity about the times to come for complacency. Pritchett suggests that “the sense of a future was mostly a spiritual luxury or fright peculiar to the nineteenth century” – that is, when an unexamined faith in progress took over. “Until then Londoners lived bluffly and sensibly without it.” Equipped with bluffness and sense, we have no need for pipe dreams of the future. Sufficient unto the day, etc. Consider Pritchett on Johnson and Boswell, and how their complementary differences define the age and its allure: 

“If Johnson is all certainty, Boswell is all experiment, speculation, introspection, doubt, wonder at himself. In the very act of intercourse with a cheap harlot on the street, on Westminster Bridge, he wonders at his nerve, the price, the mystery of his lusts and his `genius’; Sterne sees his very consciousness in dissolution. The proper study of mankind is man, but man melts away before one’s eyes. He is dirty, sensual, climbing, vain, idealistic, feeling, crying, pushing, sensitive, mad, brilliant. They excel, all these writers and talkers, as conscious or unconscious autobiographers. Life is made for conversation.” 

How alien to our noisy age when most talk is monologue. We don’t listen and, as a result, don’t speak well. Pritchett observes that the eighteenth century “lay down a manner of talk that has never quite died.” Those who’ve read his stories and his best novel, Mr. Beluncle (1951), will recognize Pritchett’s ear for conversation: 

“Good London talk—if we can risk a definition—is, before anything else, light, sociable, discursive, enquiring, personal without vulgar reserves, prone to fantasy, never too serious, avoids entering the wilderness of the merely informative, the expert, and the didactic—a bore is the man who tells you everything—does not lay down the law except as a matter of personal idiosyncrasy, and is regarded as a relaxation and not a means to an end. It sedulously avoids the professional, never harangues, and is enhanced—or ruined, according to your view—by the amateur spirit. London talk has a horror of conclusions, and some foreigners have been exasperated by its fundamental eccentricity, though they have been charmed by its skilful evasions.”  

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

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