Even in the worst of times – and who can doubt that the times are pretty bad– reading comes to the rescue by revealing other worlds of experience where cruelty and mindlessness and man’s inhumanity to man do not continually have the upper hand. One’s resolve is renewed not to give in to the hate, the illiterate and contemptible antagonisms and the bitter discontent which threaten to suffocate all good feeling and civility and optimism and striving for improvement in this society.
• Adam Gopnik, one of my favourite essayists, one wrote in the New Yorker about an editorial in the French daily newspaper Le Monde: “‘What menaces us all at the beginning of the twenty-first century…,” the editors wrote, “is the isolating of the Other in his identity – national, ethnic, or religious…To better know the Other in his own language and his own imagination is not to renounce oneself. It is, on the contrary, to accept the plurality of worlds, the diversity of visions, and, above all, a respect for differences.” A recondite literary allusion lies in the phrase “plurality of worlds:” it comes from the title of one of the great books of the French Enlightenment, Bernard Le Bovier Fontenelle’s seventeenth-century “Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds,” which is one of the first published works of popular science. Fontenelle explored the idea that there might be many worlds out there in the universe, with many tongues and many points of view, to suggest, subversively, that it would be only natural to expect lots of points of view, tongues, and ideas down here on earth, too. It remains an – no, the – enlightened thought.’”
• I read of the desert monks of the fourth century who regarded anger as the most dangerous of human passions, more destructive than greed or lust. When it is necessary to correct another do so but do it quickly and let it go. Do not brood. Do not expect compensation or redress or insist on apology. Otherwise anger can take hold and fester and lead to the commission of acts worse than the fault that caused the anger. Victory over anger is a victory over time-consuming and spirit-consuming resentment. Let it go. For God’s sake, and for our own sake, let it go.
• In James McPherson’s magnificent history of the American Civil War, there is a wonderfully vivid picture drawn of Abraham Lincoln, the greatest of all American Presidents, an inspiring, stubbornly brave, large-spirited leader in a terrible time. And he was marvelous beyond comparison among politicians in his language, his speeches, his letters, even his daily office memoranda. He composed his own eloquent prose. “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history….The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honour or dishonour, to the latest generation….The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present…”And, consistently, he comes up with the apt, rough, folk saying, pithy as a pitchfork: on being told that one of his Army Commanders had claimed, not for the first time, that victory was imminent, Lincoln remarked to an aide: “The hen is wisest of all the animal creation because she never cackles until the egg is laid.”
• I read with deep satisfaction an article by Tony Judt on the Algerian/French writer Albert Camus. “Camus was a moralist who unhesitatingly distinguished good from evil but abstained from condemning human frailty…..He was a public man of action who insisted that all truly important questions came down to individual acts of kindness and goodness. He was a believer in absolute truths who accepted the limits of the possible. ‘Other men will make history…All I can say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims – and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.’”
• Gustave Flaubert, the great nineteenth-century French novelist, was the most meticulous and careful of writers. He tried to achieve perfection in every page, every paragraph, every sentence he wrote. He revised again and again and again. He would work desperately hard at his writing and at the end of a week of intense application achieve “five hundred irreproachable words.” In his sentences not one word could be changed or placed differently without changing the weight and exact sense of what he wished to convey. That is how one should try to write. And yet Flaubert was never satisfied, suspecting that neither he nor anyone else would ever write the perfect sentence. “As if the soul’s fullness didn’t sometimes overflow into the emptiest of metaphors, for no one, ever, can give the exact measure of his needs, his apprehensions, or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity.”
• In some bad future, perhaps soon to come, will anyone, except eccentric scholars, read a Gustave Flaubert novel – Madame Bovary, say, or The Sentimental Education – in book form? It is to be feared that reading old-style books will increasingly become an anachronistic foible among a very few and that the love and habit of reading books will die out as generations pass. But I find that this is by no means a new thought. There is a poem by Louis Macneice, the Irish poet, written nearly seventy years ago:
When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?
• When last did you look up at the clouds, carefully watch them moving, jostling, in the sky? See the dissolving castles, a tiger springing, a sweeping red dress at sunset, a gold-rimmed cup of frothing milk, a bearded man riding a one-legged horse, flowers on a branch which I imagine are orchids, a black swan, an avalanche of storm-dark snow, all changing in no time at all, writhing quickly into other shapes? We scarcely look up or look around. Kenneth Koch’s poem encourages me to look up for a while:
A Big Clown-Face-Shaped Cloud
You just went by
With no one to see you, practically.
You were in good shape, for a cloud,
With perhaps several minutes more to exist.
You were speaking, or seemed to be,
Mouth open wide, talking to a
Belted angel-shaped cloud that was riding ahead.
Down below, heads down, anxiously looking behind them if anywhere, people go about their business.