Saturday, September 10, 2016

`Sanding Off Such Pretense or Exploding It'

An eagerly embraced mutability, an enthusiasm for change, is overvalued, but so is staidness. You hear people say, in the abstract, “change is good” -- a ridiculous idea. But others say they resist all change, which is equally asinine. The most egregiously provocative of writers, Edward Dahlberg, described Melville’s nature as “watery,” and not because he wrote about sailors. Dahlberg was wrong but his word is useful. In its liquid form, water assumes the shape of the vessel that contains it, which is not an admirable quality in humans. But neither is water as ice. It becomes cold and brittle.   

A reader and I exchanged thoughts on William Gaddis. For him, JR and Gaddis’ other novels are “comic masterpieces.” I once shared his judgment, though my taste ran more to The Recognitions. No longer. I’ve changed, which is cause for neither celebration nor regret. I’ve grown up a little. I see this as neither wishy-washy nor hypocritical. In some ways, when it comes to literary matters, I’m more demanding, largely because I’m jealous of my time and don’t want to squander it on the fashionable or cute. My reader, a musician of roughly my age, writes, “In the 1970s, I, too, was infatuated with big, difficult, pretentious works and their complex techniques.  I was a card-carrying serialist and, musically and otherwise, most likely insufferable to any sensible person.” Except for the serialist part, that was me. Snobs are always insufferable, even when they’re right, though holding strong opinions is not the same as snobbery. Some ideas and tastes are worthy only of contempt. Now my reader grows Johnsonian:

“Fortunately, life has a way of either sanding off such pretense or exploding it with blunt force.  My musical tastes are much more eclectic now, and I go for more direct enjoyment, as you do.  I retain my fondness for Gaddis because of his humor, which was indeed his redeeming quality, as you said.”

Here’s how Dr. Johnson himself, in The Rambler #196, puts the matter: 

“Whoever reviews the state of his own mind from the dawn of manhood to its decline, and considers what he pursued or dreaded, slighted or esteemed, at different periods of his age, will have no reason to imagine such changes of sentiment peculiar to any station or character. Every man, however careless and inattentive, has conviction forced upon him; the lectures of time obtrude themselves upon the most unwilling or dissipated auditor; and, by comparing our past with our present thoughts, we perceive that we have changed our minds, though perhaps we cannot discover when the alteration happened, or by what causes it was produced.”

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