Thursday, September 28, 2006

What Lord Chesterfield Taught Me About Child Rearing

The unread classics of literature are not, I dare say, Ulysses, War & Peace, Remembrance of Things Past and Don Quixote. Though one sometimes sees observations published such as that only fifty or so people living have finished, for example, all of Proust this is obviously nonsense. There must be alone at least fifty critics alive who have published books of their own about these novels, as well as hundreds more who have taken them up in Master's theses or as part of PhD studies. I, who know almost no one, probably know twenty people who have read it on account of the unignorable attraction of its cultural status even in this postliterate age. There are numerous websites on which others have recorded their efforts, generally successful, to conquer this iconic mountain of literature. The little village of Illiers-Combray apparently attracts enough tourist traffic through its Proust associations that cool people don't want to go there and snobs (who have presumably read the book) feel compelled to sneer or complain about it. Most importantly all of these books are easily available on the shelf at any remotely decent bookstore, with competing translations and editions, as parts of series of classics, sometimes with companion volumes of notes (as in the case of Ulysses) approximately as long as the actual book itself. This leads one to assume that even in the provinces there is enough of a market for and interest in these dinosaurs to make it worth the while to keep putting them out, which must translate, though unfortunately in geographic diffusion compared to the more cosmopolitan cultural concentration enjoyed by other peoples and other ages, into a fairly large audience for them.

It makes more sense that the classics--and yes, they still are classics--nobody reads anymore are those that require a considerable effort just to find a copy of, especially if one does not have privileges at a university library. The internet obviously has assuaged this problem a little for anyone actively searching for such books, but the chances of the general would-be educated or merely curious man at large stumbling across any of them and taking them up, which is still I believe the way many people come into possession of books, remain quite low. Works of this class, some of which are fairly monumental in the history of English literature at least, include Johnson's Lives of the Poets, The Spectator, Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, most of the plays of Dryden other than All For Love, Pope's Dunciad, and the letters of Lord Chesterfield to his son. (As a side note many of the Greek and Roman classics are only available now in the lovely Loeb bilingual editions, which can get expensive, and are not exactly ubiquitous unless you happen to be in the neighborhood of a college where Greek is widely studied. If you do want to pick up, say, the twelve surviving volumes of Diodorus Siculus's Library of History--the only ancient source for much information regarding the Sicilian Greeks, and one of the handful to give an extensive account of the career of Alexander, another section on Egypt that inspired Shelley's "Ozymandias", etc--it will set you back $240. But to get on with the point of the article).

That the Lord Chesterfield book has languished out of print, at least in a mass market edition that I know of, for 50 years, I find the most surprising. Its contents being intended as it were for a child and adolescent, it is eminently readable and is in fact extremely informative in an offhand way about many aspects of 18th-century culture and politics that are sometimes obscured in works in which knowledge of certain events and systems are assumed. For example, the tour of the various courts, particularly in Germany and Italy, which young Philip is sent on, gives a certain vividness both to the political situation of the day and the character of the cities in which these courts formerly existed even now that other books had failed to impress upon me. It was also here that the identities, particular adventures, dates, representative factions, etc, of those ubiquitous 18th-century characters the Old Pretender and Bonny Prince Charlie finally attained a degree of clarity in my understanding. Chesterfield is famous of course for his elegant and easy English style, as well as his amorality in social matters, of which the model of his prose is probably of more interest to the modern reader. His Lordship being who he was, his attitude and relationship towards his language and his motivations for writing as he did were considerably different than those a desperate American middle-class writer of the present day such as myself is going to be able to harness for the purposes of composition. Being near the pinnacle of his nation, from which in his time the language had just begun to disperse to all the ends of the earth where one finds it today, he very reasonably saw himself as one of its primary guardians, for whom the setting and adherence to rules and manners of expression were something of a duty and necessity for the continued health and vigor of the country. His position was such as to be nearly as capable of bestowing stature and validation on the literature of his nation as to seek the same for himself from the pursuit of it, and it is only when one is able to reach this point, in any artistic or scholarly undertaking, that interesting work can begin to be produced. (Note--In reading Boswell's Life I have come across the passage where he says that Chesterfield was eager for literary distinction. I still believe his case is significantly different than that of the completely obscure scribblers of the present day, to whom attaining such stature appears to require a much more miraculous series of events).

Chesterfield's great weak point however, was that he had but one (illegitimate) son, whom he quite naturally and reasonably attempted to form into an even more perfect version of himself, and it is said, suffered a great disappointment in the utter failure of this plan. Indeed, his poor son has gone down in literary history as one of the greatest dolts ever to play so prominent a role in its action, though his real shortcomings appear to have been more in the way of being a less than sparkling conversationalist and of a saturnine disposition rather than being actually stupid; scholars forming a race of men apparently so inured from ever having to encounter any truly stupid and ignorant people that any figure from history who falls far short of greatness in current estimation is considered an appropriate target for ridicule, though in 99% of the cases the object of mirth was a more significant figure as well as better educated in relation to his own age than his critics. In any event young Chesterfield appears to have been at least accomplished in languages, Latin, French and German certainly, possibly Greek and Italian too, with regard to both the spoken and literary aspects of these tongues, and his education in math, music, history, literature, probably made a greater impression upon his dull mind than that of most modern college graduates has had on theirs due, if nothing else, to the persistence and effort and time bestowed on it by his tutors. Nonetheless he was an unqualified disappointment, who not only failed to make any figure in Europe's better circles either social or intellectual, but ended up marrying a barely literate water-carrier or something of the sort, and died around the age of 30, predeceasing his father. If he was truly the loser his reputation makes him out to be, naturally I have to wonder what, if anything, can be made of my own male offspring, even should some remarkable circumstance of genetics reveal one or another of them to have superior ability in any serious adult endeavor? My personal resources and access to the upper reaches of learning, competitive athletics, business, beautiful women, etc, which prevail in my own age are hardly, after all, to be compared to Lord Chesterfield's.

One possible mitigation of this inevitable and generally hopeless problem of parental ambition may be to simply have more children, as a means both of relieving the pressure that (in my particular instance) an only son must feel to attain all of the qualities and successes his father impresses upon him as desirable in a man, as well as increasing the possibility of some of those various desirable successes being attained by one son or another. What, the philosophers will ask, might these successes be, and why are they important anyway? Naturally they are those which the father considers his own deficiency in to have been most crippling to his own enjoyment and experience of life. I am certain that my life would be much more satisfying if I were a master of the classical Greek language, if I spoke French or Russian or any other important language (including English) well enough to engage in intrigues and vigorous contentions at dinner parties, if I were proficient enough in advanced mathematics, physics and chemistry that at least I could remember how basic instruments work and phenomena are explained, if I could play piano, if I had been more aggressive and vigorous and confident in my youth on the athletic field, if I were able go to Paris or Istanbul and actually contribute to the vitality and brilliance of such places rather than be a sapper of their most charming qualities, if I had a real profession in which I was accomplished, if I had well-made shoes and pants, if I could generate a lively scene on my own rather than be forever having to fruitlessly seek for one. If I would not wish them to be ruthless and amoral ladykillers, I certainly desire for them, when they get into the later years of high school and college, and on their travels and other youthful adventures, to be competitive for such women as interest them as erotic companions whether the attractions are of an intellectually seasoned or more purely animal nature. I can hardly think of a point that, in the type of society we live in, would have a greater power at those ages of transforming one's experience of life entirely, yet this charming state of being in constant communication and interaction with a variety of desirable women is reserved to but a very small number of men, the majority being lucky if in the prime of their health and vigor they can latch on to one cutie (and hopefully that, at least) and eagerly submit to whatever particular slavery their mistress favors in return for the wholly undeserved pleasures she is gracious enough to provide them. The young man who is in a constant state of worry over either the supply or security of his nookie--especially when everyone around him is actively participating in the game to some extent--is generally of little ornament to his college and little interest to his society. The virus of erotic failure eventually renders modest but still worthwhile quantities of native wit, vigor, education, good cheer, handsomeness irrelevant and calls their very existence into question, until they do wither and are found no more.

In short, the man who expects himself or is expected to be the master of too many qualities beyond his capacity may end up developing none at all to his satisfaction.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

What would Mr. Spectator say?

While I am constitutionally incapable of not taking personally attacks on the culture, education, dress, eating habits, etc, typical of people of my type, I have always found it slightly ridiculous when people claim to wonder what George Eliot would have thought about MTV sorority girls or Mozart of the productions of Lynyrd Skynyrd, as if somehow their personal and direct denunciation of these things would have any more power to destroy them than the actual works they produced and the awesome iconography around their persons which very much exist. Nonetheless, as I was driving around the other day and that raunchy "London Bridge" song that is currently a hit came on the radio, I could not help thinking of the Spectator being transported to the psychic environment of modern London. Addison seems to be the sort of historical figure who would really be thrown into quite a state of discountenance by the scale of modern cultural collapse. I think this is because first of all he had not only a tremendous pride in his classical education, but an absolute faith in its authority as regarded wisdom, morals, virtues, and so on. Secondly, compared to a profound genius his grasp of the extent and latent force of human moral and intellectual depravity unleashed on a mass scale was limited. It is not clear that he could really imagine a society that was not essentially primitive in which liberally educated people on the classic model not only had no influence over the general culture, but were scarcely a perceptible presence in most schools and colleges. Such a society would not be a society, such schools not schools, such a culture no culture at all, and such human beings not human. I suppose this is a defining characteristic of classicism. These are exactly the sorts of observations which the brilliantly educated German emigrants of the Hitler era made upon their banishments to American universities of the native population and its institutions. These people had a similarly unshakeable pride and confidence in the thoroughness and authority of their humanistic educations (which of course, it should be noted, included mathematical and scientific instruction of an extent that we seem to consider impossible to impart to non-professionals) and when presented with a mass society almost wholly cut off from learning and genuine artistic sensibility, were unable to admit them the status of full human beings.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Yikes, another person visited my bio page today (that makes 2). This is getting to be almost nerve-wracking. I will attempt in this post to wrap up my general thoughts about the writers' conference so we can move on to...well, there is nothing pressing to move onto, but we oughtn't dwell on the conference forever. The other people who were there have probably pared their manuscripts and contacted agents already, and I haven't even finished unpacking my bags yet.

Ten years ago, I was pretty determined that attending a writers' conference, tempting though it was for the mere possibility of being able to go somewhere and get drunk with bookish girls, dreaming of which consumed 90% of my waking thoughts at that time, would be tantamount to an admission of failure or at least a lack of serious artistic commitment. I remember reading some article in which an attendee spoke about some fairly well known author whom I did not particularly care for ripping their manuscript and thinking to myself "Good God! If I am not already a far greater writer than said author, what is the point of writing at all?", etc. Of course a part of me still believes this and understands that there perhaps is no point in writing at all, but coming to such a realization doesn't put an end to all one's problems if one maintains at some level the will to continue anyway. Naturally my real hope in going now was that I would simply be recognized upon arrival as so superior that great efforts would be undertaken immediately to ensure I received an appropriate contract and such compensation as my talents merited; the pragmatic will guffaw at the absurdity, naivete, etc, of such a mindset, but what else can one suppose is going to happen? I could not undertake such efforts and essentially devote the entire active part of my adult life to them if I did not imagine them worthy of circulation among the worthiest people. I am neither disappointed nor discouraged by this aspect of the experience nearly so much as by the extreme difficulty I had conversing with other people. I think this last is because people always want to know what your job/field is, and mine is not one I can declare without feeling acute shame and disgrace, even if the other person's job is equally crummy to my own, because let's face it, unless the other person is extremely attractive or humorous, if he has a similar job to mine, I have to suspect he is a loser too. The job question hangs over every interaction, and kills 99.4% of them. You have to be a professional to make friends even at Bread Loaf

Classic-type (meaning any old) literature seems not to be studied as fervently as contemporary writers. Seventeenth and Eighteenth century authors of own tongue other than Shakespeare, whose style and understanding of the language, both in prose and poetry, ought to be studied at least as models of gracefulness and precision of thought, are entirely ignored. Besides the deeper understanding of the manner in which our language developed and was wont to be used by men of talent and penetration, I cannot but think it is invaluable to retrace the manner in which human thought has developed, especially now that we are so sophisticated as to take many things that were quite wondrous and stimulating to our ancestors for granted. In the 487th Spectator (September 18,1712--yes, I'm still reading it) Addison has a quite good piece on dreams, which is one of those subjects about which clever modern people have become at least breezy if not cynical towards. The quote by Nabokov about the intellectual mediocrity of dreams is well known and often quoted, but Addison provides some insight as to how the experience of dreaming contributed to spur human intellectual development into any number of fruitful directions, particularly the existence it suggests of a nonmaterial aspect at work in the universe. Nabokov--whom I admire but think is too flippant here--is disappointed with the quality of the reading his sleeping mind generates for him in his dream, while Addison is still able to find it marvelous that the sleeping mind can generate such a plausible story as never existed before almost as an instinctive action. This does not make him a greater intellect than our hardheaded and unsentimental modern thinkers--this is not my point--but I think it opens up a more layered understanding as to how and why we are intellectually developed to the point we are that a lot of clever people do not seem to think is important.
Hmph! I thought for sure that writing about the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference would bring potentially nasty and dangerous viewers to my site but appoarently that hasn't happened. Good then, I will keep on with my report on the conference.

I found the conference to be more emotional socially than I had thought it would be, namely because I was expecting the participants to be (as they are often portrayed by authors who don't like writers' conferences) a bunch of timid, cowering losers seeking escape from the realities of life amongst whom I would possibly be one of the more normal and better-adjusted people. In reality I would say most of the people there were quite accomplished and successful in some demanding area of life, as well as reasonably attractive and personable. There were almost no overweight people there, and none who were grotesquely so such as one sees at least ten times a day in ordinary life. I was one of the few people there--especially in my age range--who had a lot of trouble joining in conversations and intimated to others the possibility that I might be seriously pondering suicide. I was not, but by the middle of the conference I felt that my persona as a somewhat strange and depressing figure was so well established that I didn't really meet any new people after that point, and there were actually quite a few people that I think I might have liked to have met, simply because I generally don't get to meet a lot of intelligent and humorous people. I also probably drank too much in proportion to any other activity, but in social settings one's instinct is to do something, and preferably something one does well, to at least establish some purpose for being there. Later in the conference I bought some cigarettes, though I as I have never been good at smoking this, if it did anything, probably drew more negative attention upon me than if I had stuck simply to alcohol. But my inability to connect on a broad scale had made me nervous and melancholy. I did have a couple of very lovely conversations which salvaged several days from ending in a kind of despair, but even these required great generosity on the part of my interlocutor to bear with me, because there often long periods of silence while I thought of something to say. I have really become like the poor letter-writer in Spectator 362 (April 25, 1712):

"I am a Person who was long immured in a College, read much, saw little; so that I knew no more of the World than what a Lecture or a View of the Map taught me. By this Means I improved in my Study, but became unpleasant in Conversation. By conversing generally with the Dead, I grew almost unfit for the Society of the Living; so by a long Confinement I contracted an ungainly Aversion to Conversation, and ever discoursed with Pain to my self, and little Entertainment to others."

He later develops a passion for a lady of his generation named Belinda which appears destined for a Platonic resolution.

There was a reasonable amount of parties/drinking at the conference compared with ordinary bourgeois life though it doubtless pales in comparison to what went on 30-40 years ago. You can probably double or triple that latter comparison where sex, at least for anybody over 25 is concerned (Do educated people over 25 even acknowledge the possibility of sexual tension any more? I have no expectations of ever touching any woman ever again but can't there be an occasional signal that maybe, just maybe we would if we could?). It seemed in those halcyon days to be pretty de rigeur for the established writers at least to make their offers to the attractive women on hand, in the name of inspiration and all that, proprieties, marriage vows, 30-year age differences, all that kind of nonsense be damned, what is the bloody point of being an artist in the 1st place anyway? To be fair, there were a couple of real men, 40ish or so, who showed a little of the old gallant spirit with the (young) ladies and went down firing all their bullets; alas, however, go down they did.

The 22-23 year old women who were at the conference, for the benefit of you younger males who are looking for an excuse to apply, were generally attractive, were quite good writers, were ready to party and were a hell of a lot friendlier than I remember comparable women being 12 years ago or so when I was that age.

A lot of the under-40 contigent were graduates of the same kind of small, fairly prestigious, eastern, very white upper middle class liberal arts colleges that I attended. Lots of Middlebury people of course, but also places like Bowdoin, Colby, Skidmore, etc. Although sometimes one reads articles complaining that the world is being overrun by people from these types of antiquated schools with useless humanities degrees, in most of real life they are quite rare, I think about 2 percent of all college graduates attended this type of traditional liberal arts school. The point I am getting to is that it was for me very invigorating to be back among people who had somewhat similar schooling and young adult experiences to what I had, even though this composition of similar people is one of the most common (and probably most valid) criticisms of such conferences. With regard to such racial diversity as there was, it was most prevalent, and interestingly most distinct, among the faculty. Among the people paying their way the distribution was overwhelming white, and among the men in that group almost entirely white. This last difference I find quite interesting, as there were at the conference, and seem to be in American writing in general now, a decent number of women writers of Pakistani, Indian, Korean, Chinese, etc, descent, but very few or no men from these groups (though this is not the case in the Britain; is it because literature is still a pursuit that carries substantial, real esteem there in comparison with the U.S.?) There was a decent amount of exhortation from the professional publishing people to this mainly white crowd to get out of their private agonies and domestic ghettoes and demonstrate some awareness that they lived in and perhaps even made part of a dynamic, multicultural world, but of course that is the fundamental problem with we bourgeois authors, the most dynamic multicultural family in the world could move in next door and we cannot see them for thinking about the stout, freckle-faced cheerleader who taunted us in seventh grade for not being as well-muscled and handsome as the quarterback of the 8th grade football team.

All right I am tired but I think I have one more Bread Loaf post to pour out before I can leave the matter alone.