Friday, September 18, 2015

`Of Truths Previously Unrevealed'

“Reading generally presents the possibility of the pleasures of plot, of style, of form, none of which need be gainsaid. But at the highest level it also holds out the prospect of wisdom, of truths previously unrevealed. Do many people still read—as I do--looking for secrets, for hitherto hidden keys that will open too-long-locked doors?”

Pleasure and wisdom – the reasons we read. Too heavy an emphasis on either and the text is compromised, the reader’s welfare forgotten. The observation above is drawn from Joseph Epstein’s “Monsieur Proust's Masterwork” (In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage, 2007), in which he notes Proust’s aphoristic gift, his “analytic aspect”: “Perhaps more than any modern writer, Proust invites reading not merely for his story but for the power of his analysis—for, not to put too fine a point on it, his wisdom.” Like Shakespeare, Proust is a rare writer in whom the aesthetic and moral merge, a quality they share with the Wisdom Books of the Hebrew Bible -- the Book of Job, Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. This is the portion of the Bible probably most admired by secular readers. Epstein is quick to emphasize that Proust is not a didactic writer, one with a ham-fisted “message.” He continues from the passage above:

“It seems almost impossible to read Proust without this motive. His very style, the aphoristic shading into the philosophical, seems to invite it. Yet the trick here is not to come to him looking for answers to specific questions. (`I have an answer, I have an answer,’ calls out the Yeshiva boy, in the streets of his shtetl. `Does anybody have a question?’) The trick is to have long in mind the questions for which Proust supplies the answers without himself even considering them questions.”

A writer's job is to write well, whatever that may mean. Call it style, the literariness of a book – that is his proper preoccupation. Without it, he is merely another scold, a crackpot riding his favorite hobbyhorse. Wisdom is delivered most effectively through the back door. In William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (2007), Robert D. Richardson writes of his subject: “For all his grand accomplishments in canonical fields of learning, James’s best is often in his unorthodox, half-blind, unpredictable lunges at the great question of how to live, and in this his work sits on the same shelf with Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, and Emerson.” One could scratch Emerson from the list without contesting Richardson’s point: Some writers become teachers without portfolio, sharing not knowledge, information, or “data” but insight, soundness of judgment, or wisdom, an important distinction. William Cowper writes in The Task: “Knowledge and Wisdom, far from being one, / Have oft-times no connexion, Knowledge dwells / in heads replete with thoughts of other men, / Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.”

Across a lifetime, readers assemble an informal personal library of Wisdom Books, sacred and secular, whose authors often write aphoristically, distilling what they have learned into maxims or apothegms. In Samuel Johnson: A Biography (2008), Peter Martin off-handedly gives us a tour of his shelves: “The best way to get the measure of Johnson is to read him. I have often thought that if I were stranded on a desert island, in addition to the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare I would wish to have with me a complete run of Johnson’s moral essays, especially those from the Rambler – almost 450 of them in all.” One might add “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” Rasselas and Lives of the English Poets. Johnson wrote with the confident assumption that he had access to wisdom (not that he was wise; Johnson, no saint, is the opposite of a braggart) and wished to share it. Cowper, his contemporary, writes in The Task: “Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much, / Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.” In a letter to his friend the Rev. William Unwin, written nine months before Johnson’s death, Cowper says:

“I am very much the biographer's humble admirer. His uncommon share of good sense, and his forcible expression, secure to him that tribute from all his readers. He has a penetrating insight into character, and a happy talent of correcting the popular opinion, upon all occasions where it is erroneous; and this he does with the boldness of a man who will think for himself, but, at the same time, with a justness of sentiment that convinces us he does not differ from others through affectation, but because he has a sounder judgement.”

[Epstein mentions a small, bilingual volume edited and translated by Justin O’Brien and published in 1948, twenty-six years after the novelist’s death—The Maxims of Marcel Proust (Columbia University Press). O’Brien extracts 428 brief passages, sometimes single sentences, from À la recherche du temps perdu. Their acuity is heightened, not diminished, by removal from the fictional context. (Epstein says they give Proust's novel its "allure as wisdom literature.") Of the seven-volume, 4,116-page novel, O’Brien writes, rather amusingly: “Proust is not generally considered pithy.” He adds: “Here Proust is witty, sly, cynical, profound, poetic by turns—and almost always pithy.” I acquired The Maxims in the nineteen-seventies, between my first and second readings of the novel. Among other novelists whose work might be fruitfully excavated for comparable volumes, only George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad come to mind.]

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