Saturday, July 31, 2021

' I Like a Man Who Knows His Own Mind'

The library cart was loaded with giveaways, mostly how-to books about writing -- style guides, vocabulary builders, that sort of thing. Unpromising. I kept looking and About Fiction (1975) by the wonderful and seemingly forgotten novelist Wright Morris turned up. Then a real surprise: The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (1920) by Ernest Fenollosa, the 1936 edition published in London with a foreword and notes by Ezra Pound. More grist for Pound’s crackpot autodidacticism. The book is inscribed John Hancock-style (large, flamboyant signature) by Stanley Raime [?], and on the front endpaper is a label from the Subun-So Bookstore in Tokyo. 

Next, a collection of interviews with a Southern novelist I have never read and probably won’t, based on the title: Getting Naked with Harry Crews (1999). Tucked into the volume is a clipping of a New York Times review of Crews’ second-to-last novel, Celebration (1998). Then a Donald Hall editing job: The Modern Stylists: Writers on the Art of Writing (1968). It’s an anthology of essays and excerpts by writers, mostly from the Modernist era, reflecting on their trade. Two inspired inclusions are H.W. Fowler (Modern English Usage) and H.L. Mencken (The American Language).


Finally, volumes II and III of The Writer’s Mind, collections of interviews with a hodgepodge selection of writers, edited by Irv Broughton and published in 1990 by the University of Arkansas Press. Author interviews have become a plague. Most are self-serving and tedious. There are exceptions. Broughton asks Fred Chappell which century he would choose to live in if he had a say in the matter, and Chappell sensibly selects the eighteenth: “[I]t gave us, besides all the eighteenth-century literature we usually think of, it gave us our American Constitution.” Then Broughton asks Chappell to name his favorite eighteenth-century thinker:


“Samuel Johnson. I like a man who knows his own mind. I don’t like these wishy-washy guys who pussyfoot around with their statements. I like somebody who says something definite. I like all The Lives of the Poets. The judgments sometimes seem to us right on and sometimes they seem to us scatterbrained these days. Nevertheless, the authority of the prose, the ability to handle abstractions in such a way that they don’t seem abstract in the least but have the conviction of concrete statements, the ability to read and perceive the inner outlines, the inner structure of work, that seems to me to be very rare; and the ability to put things in definite form with seeming ease, even in conversation—I have to admire somebody like that.”


This reminds me of something Christopher Ricks says in his recent interview with the New Statesman:


“[A] continuing thing for me is the suspicion – amounting to hostility, mounting to repudiation – of theory. The idea that Dr Johnson, not being a ‘theorist’, cannot have thought to much purpose – absurd. He thought very hard, and it did not issue in ‘theory’ or in a theory. Johnson matters so much to me not only because of his humanity and his generous goodness, but because he is large, living evidence that somebody can be an extremely powerful critic while finding philosophy – in specifiable, particular ways – inimical to criticism. It’s not just an anecdote and Bishop Berkeley and kicking the stone. The lexicographical dedication or habit of mind says that if you think about words and concepts, you’ll quite soon reach the point where thinking further in an abstracting way won’t work, won’t help. The distinction between ‘courage’ and ‘foolhardiness’ is extremely important, but you will not arrive at it by philosophically cogitating – you’ll make your way to it only by thinking with well-informed imagination about the dictionary citations and the instances which catch the difference.”

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

Chappell's preference for the 18th century makes me think of Randall Jarrell's statement: "Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the death camps. Soon we shall know everything that the eighteenth century didn’t know, and nothing that it did, and it will be hard to live with us."