Wednesday, November 18, 2020

'Lamentably Desultory and Immethodical'

“My reading has been lamentably desultory and immethodical.” 

Mine, too. I’m no scholar or “expert,” God forbid, despite what a reader recently called me. Only once have I set out to read a writer systematically -- Henry James – and that was to earn my B.A. in English thirty years after dropping out the first time around. I’m pleased, at last, to have the diploma, though it has had precisely no impact on my IQ or bank account. The admission quoted above is from “The Old and the New Schoolmaster” by Charles Lamb, who read widely and idiosyncratically, as all serious readers do, and never attended a university. He continues:


“In every thing that relates to science, I am a whole Encyclopaedia behind the rest of the world. . . . I know less geography than a school-boy of six weeks’ standing. . . . I have no astronomy. . . . Of history and chronology I possess some vague points, such as one cannot help picking up in the course of miscellaneous study.”


Like all newspaper reporters, part of my job description was to be an instant expert. Reporters are by definition generalists. We know a little about many things, but our only expertise is writing on deadline. Theodore Dalrymple recently put it like this: “As every journalist and lawyer knows, it takes about half an hour to become an expert on any subject.” If recent history has taught us anything, it is to distrust self-appointed experts, especially the prognosticator sub-species, even more so if they append a string of degrees after their names and insist on being addressed as “Dr.” when they have no M.D. In The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969; rev. ed. 1991), John Gross sings a love song to literature and its inexpert readers:


“Isn’t there a certain basic antagonism between the very nature of a university and the very spirit of literature? The academic mind is cautious, tightly organized, fault-finding, competitive – and above all aware of other academic minds. . . . Think of the whole idea of regarding literature as a discipline. Literature can be strenuous or difficult or deeply disturbing; it can be a hundred things – but a discipline is not one of them. Discipline means compulsion, and an interest in literature thrives on spontaneity, eager curiosity, the anticipation of pleasure; it is unlikely that a reader who comes to a book under duress, or weighed down with a sense of duty, will ever really read it at all, however much he may learn about it. Even the most intensely serious literature needs to be approached with a certain lightness of heart, if it is to yield its full intensity.”

1 comment:

Baceseras said...

More and more I see the wisdom of Housman's holding that in the main a University's proper business with literature is philological: collating script and draft, establishing a text, preserving and correcting the text once established, and transmitting all to the next generation to be done again, for the work is endless: rust corrupts and the moth devours. A "dry" professor's labor is as necessary as a plumber's or carpenter's -- and ought to be done to as high a standard.

Criticism should be left to amateurs, in the best sense. Happy the worthy -- there are a few, we know -- who can tend to literaure in both ways; happy too, and not to be despised, those who have only one kind of strength: if they know it, and use it well.