Tuesday, April 22, 2014

`By This Clear Knowledge I Unread My Books'

“I have always known that the non-bookish existence underlies and precedes the bookish one, which should ornament and implement the latter: and that the eye is far more important than the pince-nez, the telescope, or the microscope. Although they are not to be despised, such machines are subsidiary aids.” 

The book-minded are often caricatured as feckless wraiths, useless in a demandingly pragmatic world. It’s true, some of us, if we’re not careful, recede into fugue-like states that jeopardize the welfare of ourselves and those around us. I’ve been known to walk into trees while reading outdoors. Our author, a notably physical and tough-minded poet, South African-born Roy Campbell (1901-1957), cautions against retreating into a hothouse lined with books. The passage above is drawn from a chapter in Light on a Dark Horse: An Autobiography (1952) recounting Campbell’s brief spell at Oxford, which he left without taking a degree. Among his roommates was Aldous Huxley, whom he describes as “the great Mahatma of all misanthropy” and a “pedant who leeringly gloated over his knowledge of how crayfish copulated (through their third pair of legs) but could never have caught or cooked one.” We know the type. 

Some of us look upon books as tools for enhancing, not evading, our experience of the world. They’re simply another aspect of life, like earning a living and raising children, one that enables us, as Dr. Johnson suggests, “better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Campbell, I think, is cautioning us against replacing our attentive engagement with the world with someone else’s, seeing with second-hand vision. He follows the passage above with a stanza from his poem “The Sling” (Mithraic Emblems, 1936): 

“By this clear knowledge I unread my books
And learned, in spite of theories and charts,
Things have a nearer meaning to their looks
Than to their dead analysis in parts;
And that, for all the outfit be antique,
Our light is in our heads and we can seek
The clearest information in our hearts.” 

About the last line I’m skeptical.  To be human is to be deluded, at least on occasion. The “clearest information” isn’t always the truest. An Emersonian faith in self can prove murderous. Speaking of which, the copy of Light on a Dark Horse I borrowed from the Fondren Library has a bookplate at the front from a group called the Christianform, with an image of the cross smashing a hammer and sickle and proclaiming In hoc signo vinces – “In this sign you will conquer.” The group, which donated the book to the library, describes itself as “a non-profit organization dedicated to the defeat of atheistic Communism and the liberation of all peoples enslaved by its tyranny.” In his book, Campbell describes Communist treachery during the Spanish Civil War. Writing of the fate of the anarchists, he says: “But they were warm-blooded—unlike their ice-cold compères, the `commies,’ who were less than human. It was not long before most of the anarchists wished they had gone Right for they were unmercifully massacred by their Red Comrades.” 

Campbell’s book was published in a very dark year, 1952. China had fallen, the Korean War raged, Stalin had another year to live, the Soviets had the atomic bomb and soon would have the hydrogen bomb. Not coincidentally, Whittaker Chambers published Witness in 1952.

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