Thursday, June 07, 2018

'A Lot to Be Said for Pure Idleness'

“Sitwell" is an English surname one finds widely scattered among books no longer being read. Edith (1887-1964), most often. Her poems turn up in anthologies, and her name in the memoirs of other forgotten writers. Then there’s Sacheverell (1897-1988) who, like his siblings, was remarkably prolific. He wrote about music, art and architecture. Finally, Osbert (1892-1969), who served for four years in the English Army during the Great War. He wrote journalism, poetry and art criticism. Go here to see a portrait of the Sitwells as children, painted by John Singer Sargent. There’s no good reason to condescend to the sister and brothers, who were minor writers but major eccentrics. They made life a more amusing place to be.

The first book by Osbert (inevitably, one uses first names) I have ever read is Penny Foolish: A Book of Tirades and Panegyrics (Macmillan & Co., 1935). Most of its essays first appeared in the Sunday Referee, published weekly from 1877 until it merged in 1939 with the Sunday Chronicle. Osbert’s prose is sturdier, more plain-spoken and less fulsome than I would have expected. Even Orwell had good things to say about it. This is from “The Arts of Reading and Writing: Their Future,” a deflationary title that recalls Robert Benchley:

“In the past hundred years almost all English men and women, including even the blind, have been taught—but never have they been taught what—to read. Reading has been offered to them as a drug to soothe their nerves and fill their brief leisure, the equivalent of ‘soma’ in Mr Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and has also been presented to them as something easy, like eating, swimming or ‘kicking a ball about.’ Seldom has it been revealed to them as an art, though in truth the reader should be as carefully and patiently trained as the writer. Alas, just as the writing of English—apart from Business Men’s English—is seldom taught in schools, so is the reading of it.”

Little has changed in eighty years. Reading is treated as a minor recreation, like badminton. The implication being that any other application of reading is an onerous task. Not that Osbert is a canon-defending snob:

“Far be it from me to advocate that every leisure hour should be spent in reading Shakespeare. There is a lot to be said for sheer idleness; it may be, even, that the power to muse in hot weather, extending over many generations, has been responsible for the work of Shakespeare himself. Certainly of no hereditary tendency to read the classics will great poetry ever be born, for the perfect use of leisure is to prefer your own thoughts when surrounded by every possible amusement. And so the great mass of people who sit at this moment with books or papers before them, refusing to read, have right on their side.”

It occurs to me that all the good essayists at least dabble in irony. They play at being contrary, defying expectations, declining to follow the party line, encouraging readers to pay attention to nuances of meaning and tone. Earnest, sincere souls do not make good essayists or company.

1 comment:

Don Kenner said...

Someone should endeavor to put out more of the Sitwell canon in ebook form. Most of their works are hard to find, alas.