Tuesday, October 10, 2017

`It Diverts Us from the Horror'

“How many books there are that make one wish for a little more naïveté of soul and a little more finish of style!”

Smug knowingness in a writer is fatal. Readers will put up with a lot but not lectures on their dullness. “Naïveté of soul” suggests a capacity for surprise, an antidote to the cool sophistication that kills pleasure and makes for dead-end conversation. About style, the biologist Jean Rostand (1894-1977) is correct, but the impulse to write too often trumps the impulse to write well. The Substance of Man (1962) is a collection of his maxims and musings translated by Irma Brandeis, the Dante scholar and Eugenio Montale’s "Clizia." The Substance of Man merges two previously published volumes, Pensées d'un biologiste (1939) and Carnets d'un biologist (1959). Some of his thoughts on writing are pungent: “Try not to let phrases discourage words.” And this hits home: “There are some writers one hesitates to praise, so much would one seem to be pleading one’s own cause.”

Rostand is too much the optimist to be a first-rate aphorist. His science is mushy and he comes off as a little too pleased with himself. The best aphorists are willing to write cruelly for the sake of truth. Their words are barbed and often contain a hinge, that point where logic takes an unexpected detour. The greatest aphorist remains La Rochefoucauld: “Why we hate with so much bitterness those who deceive us is because they think themselves more clever than we are.” Aphorists are forever unveiling self-centeredness. Take the English writer and unsuccessful parliamentarian Philip Guedalla (1889-1944): “Autobiography is an unrivalled vehicle for telling the truth about other people.” Or Nicolás Gómez Dávila, known as Don Colacho: “As long as he is not so imprudent as to write, many a political man passes for intelligent.”

Occasionally, Rostand sounds sturdier and more forthright, less interested in dazzling or charming his readers: “Man has no need to plunge into the two Pascalian abysses in order to be appalled by what he is: let him merely scrutinize his own substance.” Even here, Rostand lacks the elegant logic of his betters. But every so often he redeems himself: “Let us be grateful for the chaos of life: it diverts us from the horror.”

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