Home after work, eightish, as the grey at the horizon glisters that bit brighter than the grey overhead, and the gasometers are giving out; the blackberried professionals pour off the first carriage onto Hornsey platform, and struggle up the stairs in a flat throng. I drop eaves on a young woman:
He was also, he also had a marionette of death with him. I mean, well—who would bring that to a christening?I am in every mood to appreciate the macabre. The AHRC has withheld its fecund nipple for a second time, pooh-poohing my scholarship application and denying me my rightful forty grand. I am consoled only by the thought that doctoral theses on John Lennon, Prada handbags and poofter Shakespeare are being well rewarded. Not that I'm bitter or anything. An elder colleague, no friend to the AHRC, wisely counsels me 'not to capitulate to their imaginary'. But now they have hacked away the planks once and for all, and the Luding Bridge will be just that much harder to cross. Still, onwards to victory, comrades:
To fight with Heaven is infinite pleasure!
To fight with earth is infinite pleasure!
To fight with men is infinite pleasure!
To fight with earth is infinite pleasure!
To fight with men is infinite pleasure!
At Metafilter, someone called Nasreddin, whose identity I can only suspect, links here with generous words. The context is a "Which important books haven't you read?" discussion, where the assembled stooges try to impress each other with greater and greater lacunae. Naturally, the idea behind these admissions is: I have come this far without [Ulysses / Hamlet / War and Peace, etc.]—and I'm no worse off for it. The bigger the book you scorn, the bigger you are. Philosophy comes in for a bit of one-upmanship too, including gems like:
I think a lot of philosophy is actually best ingested via secondary sources. Especially works in translation, where you'll be missing out on possible linguistic nuances anyway. You can certainly get the "meat" of Plato in 100 pages of well-written exposition.And later:
I've read quite a bit of Plato, I like Plato. But, honestly, if you're going to read philosophy as a matter of cultural literacy you would do better to read the early moderns: Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, with a dash of Hobbes, Pascal, and Malebranche for good measure. (I would add Kant, but he is all but impenetrable.)(Myself, I advise against expectations of increased 'cultural literacy' from any study of Malebranche.) But the bloke who really annoys me goes by the soubriquet of 'Yoink'. At the request that he illuminate the Greatness of the Great Books, he snorts:
Well, the request is a bit absurd (if you want to know why, see Cliff's Notes), but, with regard to the authors I mentioned above (Austen, Melville, Flaubert and Tolstoy), here you go:"Oh, alright—if you really must have a display of my superiority." The subsequent display is 'favourited' by no fewer than five fellow readers, including—gasp!—Nasreddin himself. Do these epigoni take him at his word? Here's what Yoink thinks of Melville:
Melville: delerious prose-poetry of the most intoxicating kind. Melville puts the whole of Western Lit in a blender and sends you out sailing on a turbulent sea of allusions, puns, half-caught echoes. To read Melville is to find yourself remapping the literary and philosophical world.What disturbs me about this assessment is the casualness of its sublimity. Sublimity must never be made casual: then it becomes bathos. It ruins Melville, or more accurately Moby Dick, for which 'Melville' is here blatant synecdoche, to call him 'prose-poetry', and it ruins him to use the expression 'of the most intoxicating kind', which a trip to Google will soon expose as crass gush. Melville does not put the 'whole of Western Lit'—a tasteless abbreviation—'in a blender' and to read him is not to find oneself 'remapping' any sort of world. What Yoink has done is reiterate a slew of clichés, on the very level of the Cliff's Notes he disparages, dressed up in the prose style of a Coldwater Creek catalogue. Yoink might as well not have read Moby Dick if all he could glean from it was a hackneyed encyclopaedism. And in that case, he'd have done better to keep his views to himself, lest his respondent think reading books is merely about checking 'Greatness' boxes off a list.
Let's see what he says about Flaubert:
Flaubert: where to begin? Madame Bovary is the obvious example, although I prefer "L'education sentimentale." For a start it's simply a privilege to be exposed to such a whip-smart mind and a prose style that combines an extraordinarily labile grace with sinews of steel.Here is another species of false humility. This species is signalled, as so often, by the use of the word privilege—a word that should be razed from dictionaries, as a punishment for its services to the obsequious. Were I Ayatollah, I'd law it that anyone claiming such a thing as this to be privilege should have that privilege immediately rescinded.
The snivelling begins in the first words. Notice the rhythm of ideas: Where to begin? It is all too much; the genius of Flaubert escapes all mortal summary. But then, with a tip of the beret to the 'obvious example', a little jab in the ribs: I acknowledge the preference of the many, but I am capable of subtler appreciations. But it gets yet more vain. Flaubert's prose 'combines an extraordinarily labile grace with sinews of steel'. Labile means 'unstable, prone to lapse', and so it is not surprising that Google has hardly heard of 'labile grace'. Is it really the word Yoink wanted? Did he perhaps mean 'agile grace'? Or is he, rather, attempting a bit of theology? And what could it really mean to say that Flaubert's prose has 'sinews of steel'? No passage I adduce from the novel could possibly confirm or disprove the statement.
Worst of all is the contention, superficially unremarkable, that Flaubert has a 'whip-smart mind'. I have just googled the phrase. Who else possesses a whip-smart mind? The teenage protagonist of a young adult novel; a hypothetical physics-major freshman; someone's 13 year old niece; the Frances McDormand character in Fargo; and the soft-rocker Craig Finn. What these minds have in common is that they are smart, yes, but possibly not quite as smart as the speaker, or else, so smart as to be deficient in other, more important qualities present in the speaker: 'whip-smart' has the quiet soupçon of condescension. Mrs. Roth, not given the context, confirms my intuition. In the circumstances, calling Flaubert 'whip-smart' frankly lacks taste.
And what is so damned wrong with lacking taste? Why should I castigate some irrelevant schlub on Metafilter for failing to meet my standards of delicacy? Doesn't that lack taste? Possibly. It is my suspicion—soupçon—that being a good writer, a good thinker, is essentially about possessing or acquiring good taste. By taste I do not mean politeness. Taste is judgement in the realm of the unquantifiable. It is the aesthete's equivalent of phronesis, practical know-how: it is aesthetic know-how. To have taste is to know not only the dictionary definition of a word, but its precise colour and nuance—knowledge that cannot be transmitted succinctly or mechanically. To have taste is to know that, if we would communicate the greatness of a Melville, we must not rely on stereotype. It is to be alive to possibility, and above all to the rare possibility of bouleversement. It is to know, likewise, when to be outrageous. Flaubert and Melville had perfect taste. Both could be outrageous: Melville with his bloody mess of a book—hardly a 'fabulous quest-narrative which is gripping at the level of narrative'—and Flaubert with his St. Anthony and his Dictionary of Received Ideas, into which would now have to go the mental contents of a Yoink.
He says that the main reason to read these works 'is that they're just fucking amazingly enjoyable to read', as if that proposition could genuinely answer the question, put to him initially: 'For what reasons, besides blunt-force insistence, are they considered required reading?' Yoink lacks taste because, with his literary nose retroussé up Flaubert's arse, he has not allowed himself to hear this question: he has not entered into dialogue. Words are labile things, and require mastery: to deal with words is to deal with people—to hear, to communicate.