Tuesday, October 29, 2019

'The Sunshine of Temporary Favor'

Writing is hard work and often joyful. The two qualities are not unrelated. The sense of fulfillment that comes with the satisfactory completion of a piece of work is incommunicable to a non-writer or, worse, an indifferent or self-indulgent writer. One thinks of the cult of automatism. Its opposite in the literary sense is deliberation, the application of craft to achieve artistic goals. Such a strategy does not prohibit reliance on intuition but tempers and channels it.

For most of us on most occasions, first thought is not best thought, despite the Beat mantra. Automatism literally applied results in such curiosities as the Surrealists’ adoration of “automatic writing” or Kerouac’s “spontaneous bop prosody,” practices which may achieve therapeutic but not artistic benefits. An automaton is a machine, with the reasoning and imagination of a machine. In a Rambler essay published on this date, Oct. 29, in 1751, Dr. Johnson uses a biological metaphor to suggest the pitfalls of relying on impulse:

“Hasty compositions, however they please at first by flowery luxuriance, and spread in the sunshine of temporary favour, can seldom endure the change of seasons, but perish at the first blast of criticism, or frost of neglect.”

Johnson is just getting warmed up: “[W]ho can bear with patience the writer who claims such superiority to the rest of his species, as to imagine mankind are at leisure for attention to his extemporary sallies, and that posterity will reposite his casual effusions among the treasures of ancient wisdom?”

The operative word is “sally,’ a favorite of Johnson’s. In his Dictionary, he defines essay as “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.”

1 comment:

rgfrim said...

Your commentary puts me in mind if Randall Jarrell’s judgment of the poetry of Archibald Macleish: “ ... written on a typewriter by a typewriter.”