Montaigne was the greatest essayist. Here’s the best bit from his best (and possibly last) essay, ‘On experience’. This is as good as it gets.
We are great fools. “He has passed his life in idleness,” say we: “I have done nothing to-day.” What? have you not lived? that is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious, of your occupations. “Had I been put to the management of great affairs, I should have made it seen what I could do.” “Have you known how to meditate and manage your life? you have performed the greatest work of all.” In order to show and develop herself, nature needs only fortune; she equally manifests herself in all stages, and behind a curtain as well as without one. Have you known how to regulate your conduct, you have done a great deal more than he who has composed books. Have you known how to take repose, you have done more than he who has taken empires and cities.
Having posted recently in Facebook so as to leave little doubt that J.D. Salinger was my ‘favourite’ author, I am now having to revise my opinion. I actually read Seymour: An Introduction all the way through (it’s a ‘novella’). It took three sessions.
I discovered (again, by the way) that the more I read about ‘Seymour’, the less I knew (or, more to the point, cared). His name is like a Zen koan. ‘Seymour Glass’. The more you try to see into him, the less you see, because you see right through him: ‘he’ is a glass window.
The case of his creator is not so different. Oh, you do learn a little about Salinger: his interest in oriental thought and art, and Zen Buddhism in particular, but he uses language partly as a barrier behind which to conceal himself.
Language – writing – is finally all you do get from this ‘Introduction’. It’s actually about the New Yorker (which even gets a mention along the way, no not by name). The piece is not much more than ‘something written for publication in the magazine’. It is the New Yorker style. Not much more than that.
The title of Robert Graves’s 1929 autobiography, Goodbye to All That, it turns out in the Epilogue (1957), merely means that he had left England to live in Majorca.
I assumed it meant that the First World War had fixed a great gulf between life before and after it.
I’ve just read it again, and note here a few excerpts.
G.H. Rendall, the then Headmaster at Charterhouse, is reported to have innocently said at a Headmasters’ Conference: ‘My boys are amorous, but seldom erotic.’ … I agree with his Rendall’s distinction between ‘amorousness’ (by which he meant a sentimental falling in love with younger boys) and eroticism, or adolescent lust. The intimacy that frequently took place was very seldom between an elder boy and the object of his affection – that would have spoiled the romantic illlusion – but almost always between boys of the same age who were not in love, and used each other as convenient sex-instruments. So the atmosphere was always heavy with romance of a conventional early-Victorian type, complicated by cynicism and foulness. (Penguin, 39)
At least one in three of my generation at school died; because they all took commissions as soon as they could, most of them in the infantry and Royal Flying Corps. The average life expectancy of an infantry subaltern on the Western Front was, at some stages of the war, only about three months; by which time he had been either wounded or killed. The proportions worked out at about four wounded to every one killed. Of these four, one got wounded seriously, and the remaining three more or less lightly. The three lightly wounded returned to the front after a few weeks or months of absence, and again faced the same odds. Flying casualites were even higher. Since the war lasted for four and a half years, it is easy why most of the survivors, if not permanently disabled, got wounded several times. (Penguin 54-55)
Professor Edgeworth, of All Souls’, avoided conversational English, persistently using words and phrases that one expects to meet only in books. One evening, [T.E.] Lawrence [of Arabia] returned from a visit to London, and Edgeworth met him at the gate. ‘Was it very caliginous in the Metropolis?’
‘Somewhat caliginous, but not altogether inspissated, ‘ Lawrence replied gravely. (Penguin, 246)
I photographed the photo of Robert Graves from the Penguin that was published in 1957, the revised edition of the book.
A man … A man ain’t got no hasn’t got any can’t really isn’t any way out. … A man … A man … A man … Now the way things are the way they go no matter what no. … Don’t fool yourself. Like trying to pass cars on the top of hills. On that road in Cuba. On any road. Anywhere. Just like that. I mean how things are. The way that they been going. For a while yes sure all right. Maybe with luck. A man. … A man. One man alone ain’t got. No man alone now. No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody chance.
It had taken him a long time to get it out and it had taken him all of his life to learn it.
It always seemed obvious to me, from adolescence, that it was necessary to have a library. If you read The Grapes of Wrath, you needed also to own Tortilla Flats. As with The Old Man and the Sea and To Have and Have Not. You expected not only to be able to read The Turn of the Screw when you wanted to, but also to able to read it again.
Not only that, but you were the person who owned copies of those books. To some extent, it defined who you were.
All that has changed.
The canon is no longer of any consequence. And even further: not only is the ownership of books no longer of any consequence, but neither are printed books themselves of any value of any kind.
Many, most, of the books I have are paperbacks. They are dirty and deteriorating. They have no monetary or any other kind of value as artefacts.
The cultural value they allegedly contain has come in question, and indeed found wanting, post modernism.
Having written all that, I find that I have convinced myself that I can throw into recycling or into landfill – it doesn’t matter much, as the one may become the other – almost of my capital L Literature library.
I shall of course ask my heirs and assignees (whatever that means) – as I happen to be still alive – how they feel about it, but I think they will agree with the conclusion I’ve come to.
I shall have many bookcases to give away.