WRESTLING WITH AN AUTHOR





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

intensifies it.





Work and Waste WRITING THE ARTICLE facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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