Wednesday, March 15, 2017

`The Risible Faculties'

One might write a fat volume of literary corrections. The point would be to rescue writers from mistaken reputations. Think of John Keats the Seraph and Henry David Thoreau the Do-Gooder. In reality, Keats was a “tough monkey” in the complimentary sense, as Fatso calls Maggio in From Here to Eternity, and Thoreau lauded the psychopath John Brown, burned down a 300-acre woodland and cordially condescended to his fellow Americans – a nasty piece of work who could sometimes write like an angel. Perhaps the most complicatedly misapprehended writer is Jonathan Swift. On the one hand, he is judged a writer of children’s books. You know, giants, little people, talking animals. On the other, he is a Freudian text-book case of “excremental vision.” George Saintsbury writes of Swift:

“It is a commonplace that children, not mere infants, read Gulliver without any sense, without any suspicion of it being other than a `funny’ book. It is not a commonplace, but it is true that it is perfectly possible for any critic who is vieux routier [an old hand] to dismiss or skim over the undermeaning and take the thing as no more than fairly sharp satire.”

The observation comes from The Peace of the Augustans (1916), which carries a marvelous subtitle -- A Survey of Eighteenth Century Literature as a Place of Rest and Refreshment – neatly capturing my understanding of that century. Saintsbury argues that Swift as a writer in no way contradicts his bucolic subtitle:

“Compare Swift’s actual works . . . with those of other hypochondriacs or whatever you want to call them. Besides his actual misanthropy—his actual misozoia—to coin a more accurate word if it does not exist, Byron’s is mere mountebank’s mummery; Shelley’s, though real, is faint and fitful; Leopardi’s and James Thomson the Second’s suggestive, not indeed of any affectation, but certainly of the `stool to be melancholy upon’—of the fashions of their respective times and of certain accidents of life and fortune.”

Swift’s prose is a model of elegant clarity. He documents the anarchic in an orderly fashion. Saintsbury detects no “moaning or raving” in his work and writes: “. . . Swift is always quiet; and though the association of quietness and peace is sometimes deceptive, there can be very little doubt that it is in more than one sense real.”

It should be pointed out that Saintsbury (1845-1933) himself is seldom quiet. He was a gourmand of the written work (and of food and, especially, wine). His prose is nervous, fulsome and digressive. He is forever coining neologisms, waxing alliteratively, piling on adjectives, borrowing words and phrases from one of the seven languages he spoke, relishing slang, mustering comparisons from his vast reading and composing remarkably long sentences that usually come to a happy resolution. Here’s an example:

“But if Gulliver, with all its terrific truths of satire and its disfigurements of unnecessary nastiness, is, for size and quality, the chief actual divertissement among Swift’s works, there is no lack elsewhere of rest and refreshment which, as such rest and refreshment seldom does, will afford as much satisfaction to the pure intellect as to the risible faculties.”

To his everlasting credit, Saintsbury loves my favorite among Swift’s works, which he calls “the immortal, the unique, the inexhaustible, and marvellous Journal to Stella. Here, almost for the first time, there is not the mere perfection of Art, though the greatest artist could have done nothing finer; but a spontaneous overflow of nature, only unconsciously conditioned by the irrepressible artistic genius of the writer.”

That’s a little rich, I know, but deeply satisfying. Later, Saintsbury confides that Journal to Stella may be “the first great novel, being at the same time a marvellous and absolutely genuine autobiography.”     

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

There's a lukewarm review of that book in The Living Age, available in Google Books, that contains this marvelous description of its subject, the 18th Century:

Broadly speaking, the eighteenth century was a settled time, a period without violent disturbance, during which men were able to put their affairs in order and to cultivate their heritage. Like most people of leisure, they spent a good deal of time on trifles; but what better refuge can there be from a world of horrible reality than the trifles of people who could handle trifles, now with dignity, now with vivacity and charm? Much of their thinking, as we see it now, was shallow; but the lively and gracious expression of shallow thought is better entertainment than any groping after deeper things. With the eighteenth century people a reader feels himself in good company. They are a little formal, perhaps; but, even if their very formality were not grateful in a world of violence and brutal force, it is a setting for widely various wisdom, wit, and observation. They are very sensible people; they have social sense as well as common sense. They do not cry for the moon, nor despise the homely pleasures. In their grief and their joy there is manner and measure. There is no one more likely than they to provide us with relief from the frantic excesses of immeasurably bad manners. [...] They did not roam the moors or scale the mountains, restless, soul-hungry, vision-driven suffering from any of the uncomfortable, lost-dog, nobly ridiculous enthusiasms that have blessed and tortured poets of a later day. They were not moths, and they did not desire stars.
-- The Living Age, March 11, 1916, review of George Saintsbury, The Peace Of The Augustans