Tuesday, August 22, 2017

`Lucid or Devious'

“It is not that what happens to writers is more remarkable than what happens to the rest of mankind, merely that through them we may see ordinary events more vividly because we have glimpses of how they appeared to minds exceptionally lucid or devious, and can measure how little separates such minds from our own, when it comes to the ordinary business of living.”

I grew up romanticizing writers, as writer-wannabes do. Few dream of someday becoming septic-tank cleaners, though the work is steadier, the pay sometimes better and you get to work outdoors. We grant writers special powers few of them possess. As a group, it’s impossible to draw general conclusions about them. Some don’t even write. The author of the statement above, C.H. Sisson, suggests writers “may see ordinary events more vividly,” and thus help us do the same. No writer does that consistently, which is a good argument for reading widely and, probably, unsystematically. Take Tolstoy, the scene in War and Peace (trans. Constance Garnett) in which Prince Andrei is wounded at the Battle of Borodino:

“`Can this be death?’” Prince Andrei wondered, with an utterly new, wistful feeling, looking at the grass, at the wormwood and at the thread of smoke coiling from the rotating top. `I can’t die, I don’t want to die, I love life, I love this grass and earth and air . . .’

“He thought this, and yet at the same time he did not forget that people were looking at

“`For shame, M. l’aide-de-camp!’ he said to the adjutant; “what sort of . . .” He did not finish. Simultaneously there was a tearing, crashing sound, like the smash of broken crockery, a puff of stifling fumes, and Prince Andrei was sent spinning over, and flinging up one arm, fell on his face.”

That scene is as vivid as any in fiction and has stuck with me since I read it as a kid (in the Maude translation). It shapes how I think about trauma (say, an automobile accident), the way we sometimes experience a sense of calmness, clarity and neutral remove (“an utterly new, wistful feeling”) in the middle of it. Tolstoy confidently enters Andrei’s consciousness and shares it with his readers, and confirms Sisson’s observation that some writers enable us to “see ordinary events more vividly because we have glimpses of how they appeared to minds exceptionally lucid or devious.” Most of us will never experience war first-hand, but we all know the “ordinary business of living.” So much for the lucid Tolstoy. That leaves the “devious” Tolstoy, riding one of many hobbyhorses, preaching, lecturing, needling readers like a soapbox crank on his cause du jour -- vegetarianism, vows of poverty, pacifism, sexual abstinence. The later Tolstoy is most often annoying and unconvincing. As Sisson puts it, “how little separates such minds from our own.” Sisson is profligate with insights. In this case he is reviewing volumes of letters by Cowper and Hardy, and two other volumes, and formulates an interesting, no-nonsense approach to collections of letters:    

“In the end letter-writing is valuable less for its clues to the supposed personality of the author than as a form of literature in itself, subject to the same tests: Does it please us? Is it elegant? Does it appear to enlighten us as to a world beyond itself? – questions which I dare say are not allowed those who credit theories, political and otherwise, as to exactly how ‘texts’ should be read. The more fumbling reader would no more think of having theories about how to read books than about how to understand his friends.”

1 comment:

Tim Guirl said...

My first full reading of War and Peace was aboard a United States warship plying the coastal waters of South Vietnam during the last year of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Our quarters were directly below the big aft guns that we fired each night at inland enemy targets. I read nightly before attempting a gunfire-fractured sleep, Reading Tolstoy's great novel in the midst of war was an unequaled experience.