Tuesday, June 18, 2019

'An Attitude Toward the World, an Enigma'

If my goal is to be the middleman, the broker or matchmaker, between books and readers, I’ve been an unambiguous failure. Rarely do I hear of someone who has taken up one of my suggestions, acquired the book, read it and shared my enthusiasm. An exception occurred on Sunday when a reader whose name was not familiar said he was reading Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). It’s among the most entertaining volumes in the language but not exactly Fifty Shades of Gray. To best appreciate it, one must love the medium – that is, words – as few readers and writers do today. My reader even shared a favorite passage:

“In a word, the world itself is a maze, a labyrinth of errors, a desert, a wilderness, a den of thieves, cheaters, &c., full of filthy puddles, horrid rocks, precipitiums, an ocean of adversity, an heavy yoke, wherein infirmities and calamities overtake, and follow one another, as the sea waves; and if we scape Scylla, we fall foul on Charybdis, and so in perpetual fear, labour, anguish, we run from one plague, one mischief, one burden to another . . .”

A graduate student might note that the passage itself is “a maze, a labyrinth,” but most of Burton’s sentences are like that, stretching grammar to the limits and beyond, and full of wonderful catalogs. In his brief life of Burton, Desmond MacCarthy (Portraits, 1931) writes of the Anatomy: “It is a book for dippers. Full of fantastic digressions, fantastic stories, vigorous images, racy, quaint and grand in style, it is the richest curiosity shop in English literature.” I’ve read it both ways – straight through and by way of bibliomancy. To return to the book with some regularity across a lifetime, to follow Burton’s allusions to their sources and learn your way around its eccentric geography is the truest form of adult education. Later in the chapter quoted above, Burton documents a peculiarly contemporary note of grievance:

“One complains of want, a second of servitude, another of a secret or incurable disease; of some deformity of body, of some loss, danger, death of friends, shipwreck, persecution, imprisonment, disgrace, repulse, contumely, calumny, abuse, injury, contempt, ingratitude, unkindness, scoffs, flouts, unfortunate marriage, single life, too many children, no children, false servants, unhappy children, barrenness, banishment, oppression, frustrate hopes and ill-success, &c.”

With Burton, style is the man. He is our waywardly learned, word-drunk guide who never met a digression he couldn’t make even more convoluted. Guy Davenport writes in “Ernst Machs Max Ernst” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981):

“Style, ‘the man,’ remains unexplained, like different handwritings. It is imitation that has progressed into individuality; it is a psychological symptom kin to tone of voice and personality. It is a skill, an extension of character, an attitude toward the world, an enigma.”


rgfrim said...

You write: “Rarely do I hear of someone who has taken up one of my suggestions, acquired the book, read it and shared my enthusiasm. “ Please be assured that this reader has acquired hosts of your recommendations in e-book and real book form. Walter de la Mare’s anthology arrived the other day. Larkin and Edward Thomas occupy my trusty Nook reader. I value you and your selections as the best of friends.

T. Wood said...

Here, here! So many times has Anecdotal Evidence sent this reader to the (second-hand) book store and even the library. Of course there are many occasions when I nod my head in enthusiastic assent as I pull a book off my shelf eminently grateful for AE's reminder of the treasure inside. As you know, Mr Kurp, you have a daily reader in Flushing, NY! I couldn't agree more with rgfrim's sentiment as expressed in her/his concluding sentence!

Baceseras said...

I couldn't agree more with the commenter who couldn't agree more with the commenter above. You have been an unambiguous success as far as I am concerned. Profoundest thanks.

E Berris said...

There must be many more who read your blog according to the Wendell Holmes quote in your earlier blog, You acquaint us with the choices we may never have considered, even if we only read about these writers in your blogs.
PS. i do surprisingly have a copy of "The One-Hoss Shay" on my bookshelf which I shall shortly go and seek. Thank you and please continue to amuse and educate us.E. Berris

Jeff Gee said...

I owe you for introductions to Aldo Buzzi (2 books) and Fred Chappel (3, with number 4 on the horizon).

-Z. said...

Yep. Me too. Most recently, I'm re-reading "Zeno's Conscience" and have started in on Kipling's Collected Poetry and "Kim" at the prompting of Anecdotal Evidence. My Amazon Book List has lengthened about half a mile thanks to you.

mike zim said...

Please chalk me up as another of your suggestion followers.

Just finished Wm Maxwell's fine "So Long, See You Tomorrow", which you discussed last month.

In addition to being a worthwhile read, two parts hit home on a personal level.

p 12... His father blew cigar smoke into his ear for earache relief. ... I'd completely forgotten that my dad did this when I was a child.

p 16... "What strange and unlikely things are washed up on the shore of time."
On Monday, out of the blue, I received a 1951 quickie self-portrait that my father added to an autograph. (He was a pro wrestler.) ... I knew that he sometimes did that, but I'd never before seen one. (The internet has made this a global village!)