“I’m a chaotic reader, and the holes in my education are more breathtaking than the Swiss Alps.”
Call it “The Autodidact’s Lament.” We are the selfish readers, hedonistic, unable to follow a syllabus. We don’t have the discipline to be scholars, to cover the intellectual waterfront. We read a lot, yes, but more important is the stuff we fail to read. Our ignorance defines us as much as what we know. In his essay “Young Poets, Please Read Everything” (A Defense of Ardor, trans. Clare Cavanagh, 2004), the late Adam Zagajewski tallies the books (in four languages) he carries on a visit to Switzerland: Jacob Burckhardt, Emerson, Baudelaire, Stefan George, Hans Jonas’ book on Gnosticism, Zbigniew Herbert and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Travel entails anxiety for the inveterate reader. You worry about the volumes you’ve forgotten, the ones you'll need. In Switzerland half a century ago I read Under the Volcano and Spinoza. Zagajewski continues:
“[O]ur reading takes place chiefly beneath two signs: the sign of memory and the sign of ecstasy. We read for memory (for knowledge, education) because we are curious about what our many precursors produced before our own minds were opened. This is what we call tradition--or history.”
We are catch basins, reservoirs of learning, wisdom and beauty recalled. About ecstatic reading, Zagajewski says: “[B]ooks contain not only wisdom and well-ordered information but also a kind of energy that comes close to dance and shamanist drunkenness.” That’s a little strong. My pilot light burns at a more modest setting. I can’t dance and have never met a shaman. I liken reading at its best to an inspired, deferential conversation. Zagajewski suggests we read broadly, haphazardly. If you’re a poet, read more than poetry, certainly beyond contemporary poetry – “a shadow of premature professionalism hovers over this practice. A shadow of shallowness.” Read beyond a phrase I hate – “your comfort zone.” This applies to all of us, not just poets:
“[R]ead against yourselves, read for questioning and impotence, for despair and erudition, read the dry, sardonic remarks of cynical philosophers like Cioran or even Carl Schmitt, read newspapers, read those who despise, dismiss, or simply ignore poetry and try to understand why they do it. Read your enemies and your friends, read those who reinforce your sense of what’s evolving in poetry, and also read those whose darkness or malice or madness or greatness you can’t yet understand because only in this way will you grow, outlive yourself, and become what you are.”
I had to look up Carl Schmitt.