Monday, May 18, 2020

'Accurate Portrait of Your Mind and Your Heart'

It takes a singular individual, one who is unfashionably non-aligned, to acknowledge his dependence on the work of others. Somewhere Bob Dylan says he couldn’t play a note without a nod to Charley Patton or Hank Williams, and some of us can’t complete a sentence without thanking somebody, consciously or otherwise. Originality is a pernicious myth. Something truly original would be a horrifying blank, or chaos. We all come from somewhere, even at the humble blog level. Mike Gilleland’s Laudator Temporis Acti is woven almost exclusively of other people’s threads in the form of quotations from half a dozen languages. And yet I’m certain that in a double-blind test I could recognize any day’s entries as assembled by Mike. Even his blog’s title is an inspired borrowing. Simon Leys writes in “The Experience of Literary Translation” (The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, 2013):

“String together all the pages that you have copied out over the course of your readings and, without there being a single line by you, the ensemble may turn out to be the most accurate portrait of your mind and your heart. Such mosaics of quotations resemble pictorial ‘collages’: all the elements are borrowed, but together they form original pictures.”

Inevitably, Leys -- nĂ© Pierre Ryckmans (1935-2014) – published his own commonplace book, Other People’s Thoughts (Black Inc.), in 2007. He divides his slender volume into 150 topics and cites 170 writers. In his brief foreword, Leys writes:

“[A] commonplace book that would collect literary quotes on the sole basis of their eloquence, profundity, wit or beauty would be both endless and incoherent. It can draw its inner unity only from the compiler himself, whose mind and character it should somehow mirror.”   

The lengthiest section in Leys’ little book is devoted to “Reading,” in which he attributes a piquant thought to C.S. Lewis: “We read in order to know that we are not alone.” That jibes with everything I’ve learned from a lifetime of reading. It concurs with the sensation I have had many times that serious reading is a form of conversation, though only half the dialogue can be heard by the world. Reading is companionship. I don’t know Lewis’ work very well, having read only a handful of his books, so I looked online for the source of the observation. It appears Lewis didn’t write the sentence, though it is spoken by Anthony Hopkins in the role of Lewis in the movie Shadowlands (1993). Of course, that doesn’t invalidate the thought. In the section titled “Truth,” Leys quotes George Santayana: “[T]ruth is only believed when someone has invented it well.”    

It occurs to me that publication of a commonplace book – on the face of it, an act of humility – might also be interpreted as yet another vanity project: “Look at me! Look at all the books I’ve read!” Of course, anything human probably possesses at least a sliver of vanity. After reading him for more than forty years, I’m fairly confident that Leys was among the least vain of writers and men.


Wurmbrand said...

Leys might have been thinking of a passage in the Epilogue of C. S. Lewis's superb late book -- a meditation on reading from a lifelong reader -- called An Experiment in Criticism.

He refers to the perennial human impulse "to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness" (page 138 of my Cambridge UP paperback).

Dale Nelson

Faze said...

I discovered Laudator Temporis Acti through your blogroll, and for this I am greatly indebted to you.