Wednesday, September 13, 2017

`With Special Gusto'

I happened on a word – not exotic or rare but seldom heard outside of beer commercials – that suggests the spirit in which books ought to be written and read: gusto. In Hours in a Library, in the chapter he devotes to Richardson’s novels, Leslie Stephens writes of the villain in Clarissa:

“Granting the high improbability of Lovelace as a real living human being, it must be admitted that he has every merit but that of existence. The letters which he writes are the most animated in the voluminous correspondence. The respectable domestic old printer, who boasted of the perfect purity of his own life, seems to have thrown himself with special gusto into the character of a heartless reprobate.”

Stephen’s prose suggests the quality of gusto (from gustare, “to taste”) as defined by the OED: “keen relish or enjoyment displayed in speech or action; zest.” I read Clarissa once, more than forty years ago, and don’t remember consuming that epistolary behemoth with anything like gusto. It seemed a terrible slog. If the word has a precise antonym, it might be Richardson. It’s significant that the OED cites so many superior writers in its entries for gusto, including Dryden, Pope, Pepys, George Eliot, Sterne, Lamb and Hazlitt. The last devotes an entire essay to “On Gusto”: “Gusto in art is power or passion defining any object.”

In the title of her essay “Humility, Concentration, and Gusto” (The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, 1986), the poet identifies her trinity of virtues. She writes: “All of which is to say that gusto thrives on freedom, and freedom in art, as in life, is the result of a discipline imposed by ourselves. Moreover, any writer overwhelmingly honest about pleasing himself is almost sure to please others.” Another writer who celebrates gusto is Arthur C. Benson in “The Art of the Essayist”: “The only thing necessary [for writing an essay] is that the thing or the thought should be vividly apprehended, enjoyed, felt to be beautiful, and expressed with a certain gusto.” In his journal entry for Sept. 2, 1851, Thoreau writes: “We cannot write well or truly but what we write with gusto.”

In their various ways, Swift, Sterne, Chekhov, Colette, A.J. Liebling, Guy Davenport and most of the writers cited above all wrote with gusto.

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