Friday, May 24, 2019

'Burgundy Thus has Two Publics'

Like Sir Thomas Browne and Herman Melville, A.J. Liebling had a gift for prolific metaphor making. In his case it suggests a joyousness in assembling words into amusing, often raffish sentences, paragraphs and books. We have it on good authority that he was often heard laughing as he wrote in his office at the New Yorker. When he’s in an exalted mood, one of his sentences contains a string of metaphors that may sprawl into the next several sentences. This is not evidence of preciousness or poeticism. Rather, it’s a writer having a grand time with his medium – linguistic joie de vivre. Beware of writers who tell you writing is an odious chore. That’s precisely what they’ll make it for readers. Consider this from Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962):

“Burgundy has the advantage of a clear, direct appeal, immediately pleasing and easy to comprehend on a primary level. This is a quality compatible with greatness. Shakespeare and Tolstoy, because more accessible, are not necessarily inferior to, say, Donne and Dostoyevsky. The merits of the Parthenon sculptors are not inferior to those of the primitives for being easier to recognize. Burgundy thus has two publics: one (which it shares with Bordeaux) that likes it for its profound as well as its superficial qualities, and one that likes it only because it is easy to like.”

I no longer drink. When it came to wine, I was no connoisseur. More like a common sewer. I was indiscriminate. I know a freelance writer who occasionally writes about wine and is especially proud of the phrase she coined to describe some vaunted vin ordinaire: “steely minerality.” Liebling avoids oenological blather and snobbery while thinking metaphorically. Everything reminds him of something else.

Liebling is bucking the Modernist tide and doing it amusingly. For much of the last century, if a work of literature was “more accessible,” a pleasure to read, there had to be something wrong with it. Thus, Pound good, Frost bad. Obscurity was valued for its own sake. The result was a sort of literary priesthood. Only the illuminati were fit readers of literature. Liebling’s examples are interesting. At mid-century, Donne and Dostoyevsky were riding high among academics. Donne is a great poet but not notably transparent, whereas any serious reader can enjoy Shakespeare and Tolstoy, both of whom wished to be understood. As a result they were and remain immensely popular. Both sustained Liebling’s “two publics.”

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