Monday, March 28, 2016

`Essays Into Rather Than About'

“What’s worse, ponderousness or levity? My first responsibility, I believed, was to entertain in a spirit of high seriousness. Glide seamlessly between Rabelais and George Eliot.” 

There’s a loyalty oath I could sign without crossing my fingers: “to entertain in a spirit of high seriousness.” Give Matthew Arnold a whoopee cushion and Proust a banana-cream pie. After eighteen years, Howard Jacobson has published his final column for the Independent. An editor I worked with thirty years ago said that a daily newspaper was a bargain, and the reader was getting his money’s worth, if he read only one story and found something in it to move, amuse or educate him. I’ve been reading Jacobson’s column for only four or five years, and not once has he failed the test my editor proposed. He has something of value for writers, sounding a lot like Montaigne: 

“You need to snake your way to meaning, find out what’s true, or at least more true than false, in the course of saying it, allow the words to discover the passion, not the passion dictate the words. The reason ideology leads us astray is that it is the expression of made-up minds. The best novels surprise their authors and the best columns end up somewhere the columnist never expected to go.”                   

And for writers and readers, sounding a lot like a more demotic Dr. Johnson: 

“What’s wrong with the social media can be simply stated. In the heat of violent exchange, everything but opinion gets lost. A generation has grown up that – online, at least – is deaf to tone, impervious to irony, incapable of grasping that thought can be tentative and argument exploratory. Theirs is a battleground of stated positions. One view lowers its head and charges its antlers at another. All we can hope is that in time they will all have butted themselves into unconsciousness.” 

The least important and interesting thing I can know about you is your opinion of anything. I’d rather hear what you ate for breakfast. People have opinions instead of thoughts. Few things are less interesting than “comments,”  “likes” or id-ridden Tweets.  Because the expression of opinion requires no effort or self-discipline, it is the intellectual equivalent of free verse. Of course, Jacobson has opinions. He’s right on Israel and the resurgence of anti-Semitism but never merely right. As Jacobson says above: “allow the words to discover the passion, not the passion dictate the words.” The useful advice for writers (and readers) just keeps coming: 

 “It might sound fanciful to claim that my columns have been little novels, but that was how I saw them. Essays into rather than about, dramatic pieces in which I didn’t have to say what I believed, because I didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, or hoped that in the interactive play of images and ideas a way of looking at the world would emerge that wasn’t trite, that might surprise and energise, and would give pleasure.”

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