Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dignified, ridiculous, and endlessly amusing

“So from the study of literature we learn that life is sad, comic, heroic, vicious, dignified, ridiculous, and endlessly amusing – sometimes by turns, sometimes all at once – but never more grotesquely amusing than when a supposedly great thinker comes along to insist that he has discovered and nattily formulated the single key to its understanding.”

So says Joseph Epstein in the article I mentioned yesterday. This statement is obviously wrong, in the sense that by “we” he just means “I, and people like me.” Kazuko Okakura and I suspect William Deresiewicz have learned rather different lessons. But I’m in Epstein’s camp. Careful with those Big Ideas – you might hurt somebody.

Epstein points to Theodore Dreiser as a great writer who was a sponge for bad ideas. Balzac is an example from my own recent reading. These were writers of high intelligence who were suckers for nonsense (“a man who fell for Stalin and Hitler both,” as Epstein describes Dreiser), yet they both wrote novels as great as anyone’s, and the best parts of their books are full of well-observed details about human nature, characters worth knowing, themes that are banal on the surface but rather more meaningful deep down. They are not sugar-coated philosophy or symbolical representations of Big Ideas.

To use Epstein’s examples, who wants to read Proust as a study of Bergson’s ideas about the nature of time, or Thomas Mann as a study of the rise of fascism? If you’re so interested, why not go straight to the source? And in fact almost no one, no non-professional, gives much of this sort of thing a second thought. But Proust’s ideas about how people have different identities in different circumstances, or about snobbery, or jealousy – this is the good stuff, right? To the extent that there is wisdom here, though, one doesn’t simply grasp the principle, incorporate it into one’s life, and move on to the next idea. Or if that is what you do, let me know how that works.

I know that I am often too reluctant to pursue meaning, that I am too quick to turn an author’s ideas into The Author’s Ideas, allowing me to dismiss them. This, by the way, is one of my answers to the test question about my intellectual flaws. Fear of meaning. Let’s drop the subject.

The positive side of all this is that I expect the process by which literature turns facts into ideas to work slowly. That's how it works for me, at least. This is part of my sanguinity about conditions at elite schools. Patience, Professor, patience. You’ve pointed the youngsters in the right direction. Check back in twenty years, or thirty.* Even if they are as resistant as I am, that may be long enough for some ideas to slip through.

* Epstein informs me that Willa Cather refused to allow school editions of her novels. She thought that high school students, at least, were too young for her books. Was she wrong?

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