Saturday, February 20, 2016

`To Listen to the Human Voice'

At first I couldn’t trace the original, but for now let Joseph Epstein do the paraphrasing. This is from “The Pleasures of Reading” (Narcissus Leaves the Pool, 1999):

“Marguerite Yourcenar said that there were three sources of knowledge in the world:   that knowledge which comes from observing fellow human beings, that knowledge which comes from looking into one’s heart, and that knowledge which comes from books. Is there any point in ranking the three according to importance?  I suspect not. Not to observe others is to put oneself in danger in the world, not to observe oneself is to  lose the permanent use of that unnamed organ responsible for reflection, not to read is to risk barbarizing oneself – leave any one of the three out and you have a less than fully equipped human being.”

After a little digging I found what I wanted in her great novel Memoirs of Hadrian (trans. Grace Frick and Yourcenar; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; p. 21). Epstein is quoting the advice Hadrian gives his successor, the young Marcus Aurelius:

“Like everyone else I have at my disposal only three means of evaluating human existence: the study of self, which is the most difficult and most dangerous method, but also the most fruitful; the observation of our fellowmen, who usually arrange to hide secrets where none exist; and books, with the particular errors of perspective to which they inevitably give rise.”

The variance is interesting – Epstein’s “sources of knowledge” as opposed to Yourcenar’s “means of evaluating human existence.” Epstein inverts the first and second points but both conclude with books. Yourcenar warns that books contain “particular errors of perspective,” while Epstein cautions that the errors may lie not in the books but in ourselves: not to read is to “risk barbarizing oneself.” The two agree that knowledge is important, even essential, but requires labor. Knowledge is not information in the user-friendly sense of IT, and is not accumulated passively or indifferently. The easiest to gauge in others is the third – the illiterate or under-read quickly betray their nature. What seems obvious is that the three sources of knowledge are often intimately linked and only rarely found in isolation. A person attentive to human behavior is likely to be self-evaluative, even contemplative, just as a serious reader weighs his experience against the words he reads. Consider the passage in Memoirs of Hadrian that immediately follows the one quoted above:

“I have read nearly everything that our historians and poets have written . . . and to such reading I owe perhaps more instruction than I have gathered in the somewhat varied situations of my own life. The written word has taught me to listen to the human voice, much as the great unchanging statues have taught me to appreciate bodily motions. On the other hand, but more slowly, life has thrown light for me on the meaning of books.”

These thoughts were sparked by yet another book I happen to be rereading. In A Tourist in Africa (1960), Evelyn Waugh writes: “As happier men watch birds, I watch men. They are less attractive but more various.” This, in turn, reminded me of the Epstein passage. I have no illusions about Waugh. He could be enormously nasty and difficult (as well as generous and compassionate), and yet he wrote the finest prose of the twentieth century. To read him attentively is to stimulate all three of the knowledge sources identified by Epstein and Yourcenar, and give ourselves sublime pleasure. As Epstein writes in “The Pleasures of Reading”:

“My motives in reading are thoroughly mixed, but pure pleasure is always high among them. I read for aesthetic pleasure. If anything, with the passing of years, I have become sufficiently the aesthetic snob so that I can scarcely drag my eyes across the pages of a badly or even pedestrianly written book.”

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