Saturday, October 08, 2016

`The Henchman of the Unreadable'

“He instinctively disliked elaborate and fancy explanations of simple literary phenomena.”

A reader proposes an ingenious reading of a Chekhov story, including multiple references to homosexuality I had never noticed. At the close of several paragraphs, he writes: “I think that covers it.” Not really. My reader’s explication de texte is thorough, clever and internally consistent but adds nothing to our enjoyment of Chekhov’s story, which is devoted to the comedy of people who are unable to communicate with each other. I’m reminded again that reading is not a minor branch of cryptography, and that one can be too clever for one’s own good.

Writing at the top is David Cecil in Max (1964), his biography of Max Beerbohm. The passage comes late in the book. Born in 1872, Beerbohm is an old man living in Rapallo, Italy, many decades removed from the midcentury literary world. Cecil recounts Beerbohm’s meeting with Edmund Wilson in 1954. Beerbohm had never heard of Wilson. When a friend tells him that Wilson has been writing about Marx, Vico and Michelet, Beerbohm replies, “Ah, I see. He is the henchman of the unreadable.” Wilson asks Beerbohm what he thinks of the theory that “The Turn of the Screw” is a study in neurosis, that all of the story’s events take place in the governess’ mind. Beerbohm replies common-sensically that the theory is nonsense, the creation of “some morbid pedant, prig and fool.” Wilson admits it was his idea, but Beerbohm stands his ground, and that’s when Cecil interjects the observation at the top, and continues:

“Moreover, he had a prejudice against the new psychology in literature or anywhere else. He felt it a threat to the privacy of spirit on which he set a supreme value. Nor did he believe in its healing powers.”

Beerbohm dismisses Freudian voodoo, and says he adored his parents and siblings, which sets up one of his best lines: “They were a tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, weren’t they?” 

No, Chekhov doesn’t need our help. He is perfectly and inexhaustibly himself.

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