Wednesday, June 24, 2020

'Love Long and Slow Thoughts and Books'

Something Adam Zagajewski told my friend Cynthia Haven a decade ago has stuck in my head. She asked the veteran of Soviet Poland about the likely future of poetry and its readers in the age of social media, and Zagajewski replied:

“We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

Like every Pole, Zagajewski is an adept of irony. It’s his genetic inheritance, as it is mine. (My paternal grandparents were born in Krak√≥w and came to the U.S. as young adults. The Irish infusion from my mother’s side turns Polish irony into something like unreliable fulminated mercury.) How seriously Zagajewski takes his vision of the literary future (our present) is difficult to say. On the whole it’s a hopeful forecast, though his choice of ghetto may trouble some readers. Originally it meant the district in an Italian city where Jews were restricted. In The American Scene (1906), when Henry James revisits his home town of New York City he observes “the denizens of the New York Ghetto, heaped as thick as the splinters on the table of a glass-blower, had each, like the fine glass particle, his or her individual share of the whole hard glitter of Israel.”

More recently we think of poor neighborhoods in American cities inhabited by blacks. The OED assures us that ghetto can now mean a place “occupied by an isolated group; an isolated or segregated group, community, or area.” Zagajewski, I think, is using this sense of the word, though he certainly would be familiar with the Warsaw Ghetto.

His prophecy is coming true. Readers – and I mean “serious” readers of poetry and other genres, a chronically endangered species – have formed informal networks, pockets of affinity, as humans always do. Anecdotal Evidence has regular readers younger than half my age (“a new delivery of minds”) and a few who are my senior. They “love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music.” The blog attracts submoronic visitors as well, but that’s inevitable. Those who blame everything on the internet (among whom I number myself in lazier moments) forget that without it I would never have met my best readers, those for whom books are at least as important as they are for me. COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown have intensified these gatherings and made them more precious. To read only the headlines, you might conclude the human race has been replaced by defective automatons. On this date, June 24, in 1797, Charles Lamb wrote to his childhood friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

“I see nobody, and sit, and read or walk, alone, and hear nothing. I am quite lost to conversation from disuse; and out of the sphere of my little family, who, I am thankful, are dearer and dearer to me every day, I see no face that brightens up at my approach. My friends are at a distance; worldly hopes are at a low ebb with me, and unworldly thoughts are not yet familiarised to me, though I occasionally indulge in them. Still I feel a calm not unlike content. I fear it is sometimes more akin to physical stupidity than to a heaven-flowing serenity and peace.”

I understand Lamb’s vacillations of understanding.


Thomas Parker said...

Submoronic Visitors would be a great name for a blog, I think. said...

I'm sure I'm teaching my grandmother to suck eggs but...

James was probably remembering the glassblowing furnaces of Murano in Venice in that image.

The first ghetto was, of course, in Venice and the word is Venetian dialect with the typical insertion of an 'h' from the Italian gettare - to throw or cast. This is because the area of Venice was one where iron foundries were located. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to see a travelling production in English with Italian surtitles of 'The Merchant of Venice' by the British 'Globe Theatre' company with Jonathan Pryce as Shylock and his daughter playing Shylock's daughter. It was performed in the Goldoni theatre a few hundred yards from the Rialto bridge and a kilometre or so from the first ghetto.