Friday, July 03, 2020

'Callow, Shallow, Hackneyed and Unoriginal'

My middle son, Michael, turned twenty on July 1. Two weeks ago he returned to the U.S. Naval Academy after spending three and a half months back home in Houston because of the COVID-19 lockdown. He’s a third-year midshipman. Now out of quarantine, he’ll spend the rest of the summer wearing his Navy-issued mask and training the incoming plebes. In the July issue of New English Review, Theodore Dalrymple’s timing was uncanny. His essay “Earlier Thoughts” begins:

“There are few of us, I should imagine, who would care very much to have their thoughts at the age of twenty about life, literature and the world, exposed to public view and widely disseminated.”

I can’t speak for Michael but Dalrymple’s assessment is accurate in my case. At twenty I was a well-read fool and fancied myself quite the sophisticate. Most of the judgments I spouted off were superficial, unexamined and often intended to hurt someone. In short, I was insufferable. Dalrymple continues:

“Our thoughts at that age, though no doubt essential to our personal development, were hardly worth having, or at least not worth communicating to others. In short, our thoughts were callow, shallow, hackneyed and unoriginal in the extreme, often uttered with that youthful combination of arrogant certainty and underlying insecurity which manifests itself as a kind of inflamed prickliness whenever challenged.”

He nails me, circa 1972-73. I was a junior in college when I turned twenty. An English professor was kind enough to enroll me in his graduate seminar in Joyce. I’ll skip the specifics but I wasn’t shy about sharing my vast knowledge of the subject. I dropped out of college after that year without a degree and would not earn one for another thirty years. Michael, too, has a know-it-all strain but also the discipline to check its advance. Only occasionally is he a smart-ass, and usually on subjects about which he is knowledgeable – computer engineering and Russian, his major and minor, respectively. One of the qualities that distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries (and from me at age twenty) is a historical sense, without a trace of presentism. We’re no better, and in many ways much worse, than our forebears. Combine respect for tradition with a heathy dose of skepticism and you’re on your way to maturity. Hazlitt puts it like this in his essay “On Reading New Books” (1828):

“I have been often struck by the unreasonableness of the complaint we constantly hear of the ignorance and barbarism of former ages, and the folly of restricting all refinement and literary elegance to our own. We are, indeed, indebted to the ages that have gone before us, and could not do well without them. But in all ages there will be found still others that have gone before with nearly equal lustre and advantage, though, by distance and the intervention of multiplied excellence, this lustre may be dimmed or forgotten.”

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