Thursday, December 31, 2015

`You Double Your Existence'

Much is lost with our knowingness and deft deployment of irony. We become actors. We play to an audience, real or imagined, external or otherwise. We don’t merely enjoy a meal, a sonnet or a beautiful woman. We study ourselves in the act of enjoyment, looking for ways to improve our form. We fear an unsophisticated reaction to the world and its bounty. The Scottish essayist Alexander Smith was no rube, but he knew how to enjoy life: 

“The intensest scarlet on an artist’s palette is but ochre to that I saw this morning at sunrise. No, no, let me enjoy Mr. Tennyson’s verse, and the blackbird’s song, and the colours of sunrise, but do not let me emulate them. I am happier as it is. I do not need to make history,—there are plenty of people willing to save me trouble on that score. The cook makes the dinner, the guest eats it; and the last, not without reason, is considered the happier man.” 

This skirts Romantic rakishness, yet another performance, but reading Smith’s essays (Quotidiana has a good selection) with some regularity suggests a pre-Modernist modesty. We admire a man who understands the pleasures of Tennyson, birdsong and dawn. This passage too is from “Books and Gardens”: “In my garden I spend my days; in my library I spend my nights. My interests are divided between my geraniums and my books. With the flower I am in the present; with the book I am in the past. I go into my library, and all history unrolls before me.” 

For further confirmation of Smith’s naturalness and literary sophistication, read this from “A Shelf in My Bookcase” on the virtues of Boswell’s Life of Johnson: “It is quite impossible to over-state its worth. You lift it, and immediately the intervening years disappear, and you are in the presence of the Doctor. You are made free of the last century, as you are free of the present. You double your existence.” 

Smith was born on this date, Dec. 31, in 1830, and died in 1867 at age thirty-seven. He defines the charms of the too-often-patronized “minor writer.”


Levi Stahl said...

Oh, thank you for the introduction to Alex Smith. I'll be off to the library to hunt him down tomorrow, on the strength of his comments on Boswell.

Anonymous said...

Amen to what Levi Stahl wrote! Any book entitled Books and Gardens becomes an immediate target for my library visit. The introduction of obscure-or-unknown-to-me authors is one of the joys of reading your blog. If one of the virtues of good writing is to spur a reader to action - even to action to find another good writer - you fit the bill. (My unverified reservations about what I presume to be some of your political views notwithstanding. No one's perfect. Please keep writing, should you ever decide to stop voting!