Wednesday, December 19, 2018

'It Prevents a Man from Being Merely Modern'

“The highest use of the great masters of literature is not literary; it is apart from their superb style and even from their emotional inspiration. The first use of good literature is that it prevents a man from being merely modern.”

The sentiment is familiar. At the risk of oversimplification, we can reduce it to the colloquial: Old books are better than new books. If we frame it as a syllogism, few can argue with that statement:

Good books have always been rare and lousy books have always been common.
The past is a much bigger place than the present, so more books were published in the past.
Ergo, more good books were published in the past than in the present.

The passage quoted at the top is from G.K. Chesterton’s “On Reading,” published posthumously in The Common Man (Sheed and Ward, 1950). He further defines his terms: “To be merely modern is to condemn oneself to an ultimate narrowness; just as to spend one’s last earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to the old-fashioned. The road of the ancient centuries is strewn with dead moderns.” In short, the present is a provincial backwater, and not a very interesting or important place. The analogy with hats or any article of clothing is useful and precise. Imagine the childish passivity of wearing only clothing that has received the nihil obstat of the fashion commissars.     

Like Chesterton, Guy Davenport published an essay titled “On Reading” (The Hunter Gracchus: And Other Papers on Literature and Art, 1996). He describes his dealings with an illiterate man in Kentucky and the “horror of his predicament.” Davenport expresses gratitude for “being able, regularly, to get out of myself completely, to be somewhere else, among other minds, and return (by laying my book aside) renewed and refreshed.” He adds:

“For the real use of imaginative reading is precisely to suspend one’s mind in the workings of another sensibility, quite literally to give oneself over to Henry James or Conrad or Ausonius, to Yuri Olyesha, Bashō, and Plutarch.”

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