Thursday, December 06, 2018

'Such Infallible Veracity!'

Writing about the ongoing temper tantrums in France, Theodore Dalrymple makes an observation that reminds me of another writer who was also a doctor: “Many people I know want six impossible things before breakfast.” The line is memorable because it’s homely, and its homeliness carries the truth. This mingling of acuity of thought and intelligent, carefully worded folksiness is a rare balance. Most writers tip in one direction or the other and end up sounding humorless and scolding, or like bush-league Mark Twains.

I thought of William James because this week I found an anthology of his greatest hits, As William James Said, edited by Elizabeth Perkins Aldrich and published by Vanguard Press in 1942. Aldrich sensibly draws much of her material from James’ masterwork The Principles of Psychology (1890), a book Jacques Barzun called “an American masterpiece,” one that like Moby Dick “ought to be read from beginning to end at least once by every person professing to be educated.” Don’t let the title intimidate you. Normally I wouldn’t be caught dead reading a psychology text or related voodoo. But James, like his brother, was foremost a writer. His style is one to emulate. So too is one of his student’s, George Santayana. Here’s a sample included in Aldrich’s “Art and Literature” chapter:

“The aesthetic principles are at bottom such axioms as that a note sounds good with its third and fifth, or that potatoes need salt.”

Again, common-sense homeliness coupled with the assumption that his reader knows a little about music. James respects his reader. Here’s an anecdote from Chap. 25 of Principles of Psychology, the section titled “The Subtler Emotions”:   

“I remember seeing an English couple sit for more than an hour on a piercing February day in the Academy at Venice before the celebrated ‘Assumption’ by Titian; and when I, after being chased from room to room by the cold, concluded to get into the sunshine as fast as possible and let the pictures go, but before leaving drew reverently near to them to learn with what superior forms of susceptibility they might be endowed, all I overheard was the woman’s voice murmuring: ‘What a deprecatory expression her face wears! What self-abnegation! How unworthy she feels of the honor she is receiving!’ Their honest hearts had been kept warm all the time by a glow of spurious sentiment that would have fairly made old Titian sick.”

It's reassuring to be reminded that the pretentious have always been with us. Some people can’t look at a painting without pontificating. Consider James’ approach to aesthetic criticism: “The difference between the first- and second-best things in art absolutely seems to escape verbal definition—it is a matter of a hair, a shade, an inward quiver of some kind—yet what miles away in point of preciousness!”

That’s an admission many would find difficult to share with others. How unsophisticated. James’ forthrightness is admirable. You can also see it in his enthusiasms. Here is James in an 1896 letter:

“Of course you have read Tolstoi’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I never had that exquisite felicity before this summer, and now I feel as if I knew perfection in the representation of human life. Life indeed seems less real than his tale of it. Such infallible veracity! The impression haunts me as nothing literary has ever haunted me before.”

Again, not for sophisticates, but many of us share James’ impulse to celebrate Tolstoy’s novels. To read them thoughtfully, devotedly is to be changed for good. Afterwards, most other novels seem like mere bags of words. James praises an unlikely mix of writers: Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Turgenev, Whitman, Théophile Gautier, William Dean Howells, Shakespeare. James writes almost enviously of the literature he admires: “I don’t see how an epigram, being a pure bolt from the blue, with no introduction or cue, ever gets itself writ.” And here from the “Mysticism” chapter in The Varieties of Religious Experience:

“Most of us can remember the strangely moving power of passages in certain poems read when we were young, irrational doorways as they were through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, stole into our hearts and thrilled them.  The words have now perhaps become mere polished surfaces for us; but lyric poetry and music are alive and significant only in proportion as they fetch these vague vistas of a life continuous with our own, beckoning and inviting, yet ever eluding our pursuit.”

Barzun reports that a female reader expressed shock at James’ style because of its “want of academic dignity.” Thank God. Barzun dissented. For him, James “has few or no equals in the language when compared with his peers in philosophy and science.” And literature.

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