Saturday, October 16, 2021

'Read at Whim! Read at Whim!'

Shrinks call it anhedonia – the pitiable inability to experience pleasure. In his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James describes it this way: 

“One can distinguish many kinds of pathological depression. Sometimes it is mere passive joylessness and dreariness, discouragement, dejection, lack of taste and zest and spring. Professor [Théodule-Armand] Ribot has proposed the name anhedonia to designate this condition.”


The world is ours to enjoy – and that includes literature. Not to do so seems ungrateful and unnatural, like refusing a gift. Indifference to beauty – call it aesthetic catatonia -- might be a form of death-in-life. The manifestation of anhedonia that concerns us here is found among readers and critics, those who seem not to enjoy books and to have little experience of “taste and zest and spring” in their reading. I’m thinking in particular of online critics who seldom leave the postmodern ghetto. One can’t imagine them relaxing for a moment and saying, “Boy, that was a good book.” Or, “Can’t wait to read that again.”


They make books sound like problems to be solved, like algebra, or conditions to be endured, like hemorrhoids. The phenomenon is not new. In his 1960 essay “Poets, Critics, and Readers,” Randall Jarrell describes an interview he has read with “an unusually humane and intelligent critic,” whose life is “artless” except for the reading he is obligated to do as part of his jobs as writer and teacher. Jarrell finds a redeeming moment in the interview:


“The critic said that once a year he read Kim; and he read Kim, it was plain, at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love—he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn’t help himself. To him it wasn’t a means to a lecture or article, it was an end; he read it not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn’t this what the work of art demands of us?”


Kipling’s novel is a perfect example of pleasure-driven reading matter. I have read it many times and never known a slackening of pleasure. In a sense I read it the way I first read it as a kid, with nothing to prove, no theories to foist on the world. My reading is utterly selfish. The book is not something to conquer, something to feel superior to. Jarrell broadens his point to include all forms of art:


"The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means—that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives; but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence, Read at whim! read at whim!


[“Poets, Critics, and Readers” is collected in Kipling, Auden & Co.: Essays and Reviews, 1935-1964 (1979) and  No Other Book: Selected Essays (1999).]

[To Allen Connery: Yes, the shelves are mine. I love Powell. One of the twentieth-century’s supremely amusing and satisfying works of art.]


Richard Zuelch said...

Believe it or not, Woody Allen briefly considered titling his film, "Annie Hall" (1977), "Anhedonia." Yeah, *that* would have brought in the crowds!

mathew said...

Great scene from the very pro-multiculti English Patient, where the Hungarian spy & traitor Almasy tries to get a proto-SJW Sikh sapper to read Kim for him. It's interesting as I recently came to see the entire book/film as an attack on Western civilisation, but this scene is something of an exception - at least, if you think the Sikh is being a humourless sourpuss and Almasy is right.

Allan Connery said...

Please excuse my bookshelf-peeping, but the four-volume set, middle rank, top shelf, far right, must be Anthony Powell's "A Dance To The Music of Time"
Two questions, if I may: your shelves? Your thoughts on Powell?