Thursday, May 23, 2019

'Nobody to Blame for His Mistake'

“[W]e must be as clear as our natural reticence allows us to be.”

Never has reticence been in such short supply. It’s as though everyone in the country had suddenly adopted as gospel the old Beat mantra of Spontaneous Bop Prosody, known down at the tap room as running your mouth off. Few of us are any good spontaneously. If you want to put people on the spot, tell them to improvise. Most of us sputter, hem and haw. The best writing (and conversation) may give the impression of spontaneity but in fact is carefully crafted, every sentence weighed for rhythm and impact. The author cited above, who might be Henry James, is Marianne Moore. She goes on: “[Y]ou don’t devise a rhythm, the rhythm is the person, and the sentence but a radiograph of personality.” Consider this passage, a typical digression by A.J. Liebling in Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962). The context is autobiographical, the sort of material in which reticence can be a tricky matter. Liebling reflects on his student days in Paris in 1926:

“Had I had a companion in my wanderings, his reactions would have differed from mine and perhaps spoiled them. The matter of how much discomfort a man is prepared to undergo for an experience depends on how much it is worth to him. The best of friends can seldom agree on the price. (This is true even of a price in money.)  Excursions are likely to become compromises, gratifying the full taste of neither. The man who pokes around alone may take a wrong turning at the junction of two streets and return from his ramble disappointed, but never recriminative. He has nobody to blame for his mistake.”

There is reticence in Liebling’s confession. This was written by a man in his sixties about himself in his twenties. Liebling was a social fellow who cherished solitude. Nowhere does he say he dislikes other people. In fact, Liebling’s digression is charming. He was no misanthrope. Contrast this with Thoreau in the fifth chapter of Walden, “Solitude”:

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

With that kind of attitude, regardless of how stylized for literary purposes, is it any surprise Thoreau was alone much of the time? Though he has been adopted as a hero of peace and love by many – in particular those who has never read his journals – Thoreau could be a nasty, condescending little shit, a man who valorized John Brown, a murderous sociopath. Moore might be thinking of Thoreau when she writes, “the author is resisted as being enigmatic or cryptic or disobliging or arrogant.”    

[The Moore essay is collected in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, ed. Patricia Willis, 1986.]

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