Friday, September 03, 2021

'Good Sense About Trivialities'

Words of wisdom needn’t sound portentous, like the narration in a biblical epic from the 1950’s. That tone is likely to sound parodic to contemporary ears. Better to keep it serious but colloquial, or even amusing and colloquial. Or at least homely, heavy on one- and two-syllable words, and avoid the high-falutin’ boilerplate. Don’t try to sound wise, which is never wise. With that in mind, you’ll find wisdom in unexpected places. Here is N. John Hall writing in Max Beerbohm: A Kind of a Life (2002): 

“Frivolous subjects? Well, and thank God for it, not everyone can be writing about big, so-called important issues: population, genes, semantics, sex, death [climate change, diversity, capitalism . . .]. Surely there is value in anything that makes us laugh, that makes us understand ourselves more. A shrewdness of observation coupled with common sense can amount to a kind of wisdom. Good sense about trivialities, Max once said, is better than nonsense about things that matter.”


I think of Beerbohm as among the wisest of writers, as is Charles Lamb, despite his seeming silliness and stupid anti-Semitism. Consider Kay Ryan’s “Shift” (The Best of It, 2010):


“Words have loyalties

to so much

we don’t control.

Each word we write

rights itself

according to poles

we can’t see; think of

magnetic compulsion

or an equal stringency.

It’s hard for us

to imagine how small

a part we play in

holding up the tall

spires we believe

our minds erect.

Then north shifts,

buildings shear,

and we suspect.”


A wise poet who wisely never preaches. To be wise is not to find solace. No, wisdom is its own reward and doesn’t always bring comfort. In Robert Alter’s translation of Qohelet (the book we know as Ecclesiastes) he writes: “For in much wisdom is much worry, and he who adds wisdom adds pain.”


[Alter’s translation can be found in The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: a Translation with Commentary (2010).]

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