WRESTLING WITH AN AUTHOR
From: Literary Taste How to Form It
Having disposed, so far as is possible and necessary, of that
formidable question of style, let us now return to Charles Lamb,
whose essay on *Dream Children* was the originating cause
of our inquiry into style. As we have made a beginning of Lamb,
it will be well to make an end of him. In the preliminary stages
of literary culture, nothing is more helpful, in the way
of kindling an interest and keeping it well alight, than
to specialise for a time on one author, and particularly on an author
so frankly and curiously "human" as Lamb is. I do not mean
that you should imprison yourself with Lamb's complete works
for three months, and read nothing else. I mean that you should
regularly devote a proportion of your learned leisure to
the study of Lamb until you are acquainted with all
that is important in his work and about his work. (You may buy
the complete works in prose and verse of Charles and Mary Lamb,
edited by that unsurpassed expert Mr. Thomas Hutchison,
and published by the Oxford University Press, in two volumes
for four shillings the pair!) There is no reason why you should not
become a modest specialist in Lamb. He is the very man for you;
neither voluminous, nor difficult, nor uncomfortably lofty;
always either amusing or touching; and--most important--
himself passionately addicted to literature. You cannot
like Lamb without liking literature in general. And you cannot
read Lamb without learning about literature in general;
for books were his hobby, and he was a critic of the first rank.
His letters are full of literariness. You will naturally
read his letters; you should not only be infinitely diverted by them
(there are no better epistles), but you should receive from them
much light on the works.
It is a course of study that I am suggesting to you.
It means a certain amount of sustained effort. It means
slightly more resolution, more pertinacity, and more expenditure
of brain-tissue than are required for reading a newspaper.
It means, in fact, "work." Perhaps you did not bargain for work
when you joined me. But I do not think that the literary taste
can be satisfactorily formed unless one is prepared to put
one's back into the affair. And I may prophesy to you,
by way of encouragement, that, in addition to the advantages
of familiarity with masterpieces, of increased literary knowledge,
and of a wide introduction to the true bookish atmosphere
and "feel" of things, which you will derive from a comprehensive
study of Charles Lamb, you will also be conscious of
a moral advantage--the very important and very inspiring advantage
of really "knowing something about something." You will
have achieved a definite step; you will be proudly aware
that you have put yourself in a position to judge as an expert
whatever you may hear or read in the future concerning Charles Lamb.
This legitimate pride and sense of accomplishment will
stimulate you to go on further; it will generate steam.
I consider that this indirect moral advantage even outweighs,
for the moment, the direct literary advantages.
Now, I shall not shut my eyes to a possible result of your
diligent intercourse with Charles Lamb. It is possible
that you may be disappointed with him. It is--shall I say?--
almost probable that you will be disappointed with him,
at any rate partially. You will have expected more joy in him
than you have received. I have referred in a previous chapter
to the feeling of disappointment which often comes from first contacts
with the classics. The neophyte is apt to find them--I may as well
out with the word--dull. You may have found Lamb less diverting,
less interesting, than you hoped. You may have had to whip yourself up
again and again to the effort of reading him. In brief, Lamb has not,
for you, justified his terrific reputation. If a classic is a classic
because it gives *pleasure* to succeeding generations of the people
who are most keenly interested in literature, and if Lamb
frequently strikes you as dull, then evidently there is something wrong.
The difficulty must be fairly fronted, and the fronting of it
brings us to the very core of the business of actually forming the taste.
If your taste were classical you would discover in Lamb
a continual fascination; whereas what you in fact do discover
in Lamb is a not unpleasant flatness, enlivened by a vague humour
and an occasional pathos. You ought, according to theory,
to be enthusiastic; but you are apathetic, or, at best, half-hearted.
There is a gulf. How to cross it?
To cross it needs time and needs trouble. The following considerations
may aid. In the first place, we have to remember that,
in coming into the society of the classics in general
and of Charles Lamb in particular, we are coming into
the society of a mental superior. What happens usually
in such a case? We can judge by recalling what happens
when we are in the society of a mental inferior. We say things
of which he misses the import; we joke, and he does not smile;
what makes him laugh loudly seems to us horseplay or childish;
he is blind to beauties which ravish us; he is ecstatic over
what strikes us as crude; and his profound truths are for us
trite commonplaces. His perceptions are relatively coarse;
our perceptions are relatively subtle. We try to make him understand,
to make him see, and if he is aware of his inferiority
we may have some success. But if he is not aware of his inferiority,
we soon hold our tongues and leave him alone in his self-satisfaction,
convinced that there is nothing to be done with him. Every one of us
has been through this experience with a mental inferior, for there is
always a mental inferior handy, just as there is always a being
more unhappy than we are. In approaching a classic, the true wisdom
is to place ourselves in the position of the mental inferior,
aware of mental inferiority, humbly stripping off all conceit,
anxious to rise out of that inferiority. Recollect that we always regard
as quite hopeless the mental inferior who does not suspect
his own inferiority. Our attitude towards Lamb must be:
"Charles Lamb was a greater man than I am, cleverer, sharper,
subtler, finer, intellectually more powerful, and with keener eyes
for beauty. I must brace myself to follow his lead."
Our attitude must resemble that of one who cocks his ear and listens
with all his soul for a distant sound.
To catch the sound we really must listen. That is to say,
we must read carefully, with our faculties on the watch. We must read
slowly and perseveringly. A classic has to be wooed and
is worth the wooing. Further, we must disdain no assistance.
I am not in favour of studying criticism of classics before
the classics themselves. My notion is to study the work
and the biography of a classical writer together, and then to read
criticism afterwards. I think that in reprints of the classics
the customary "critical introduction" ought to be put at the end,
and not at the beginning, of the book. The classic should be allowed
to make his own impression, however faint, on the virginal mind
of the reader. But afterwards let explanatory criticism be read
as much as you please. Explanatory criticism is very useful;
nearly as useful as pondering for oneself on what one has read!
Explanatory criticism may throw one single gleam that lights up
the entire subject.
My second consideration (in aid of crossing the gulf) touches
the quality of the pleasure to be derived from a classic. It is never
a violent pleasure. It is subtle, and it will wax in intensity,
but the idea of violence is foreign to it. The artistic pleasures
of an uncultivated mind are generally violent. They proceed from
exaggeration in treatment, from a lack of balance, from attaching
too great an importance to one aspect (usually superficial),
while quite ignoring another. They are gross, like the joy
of Worcester sauce on the palate. Now, if there is one point
common to all classics, it is the absence of exaggeration.
The balanced sanity of a great mind makes impossible exaggeration,
and, therefore, distortion. The beauty of a classic is not at all apt
to knock you down. It will steal over you, rather. Many serious students
are, I am convinced, discouraged in the early stages because
they are expecting a wrong kind of pleasure. They have abandoned
Worcester sauce, and they miss it. They miss the coarse *tang*.
They must realise that indulgence in the *tang* means the sure
and total loss of sensitiveness--sensitiveness even to the *tang* itself.
They cannot have crudeness and fineness together. They must choose,
remembering that while crudeness kills pleasure, fineness ever
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