03 May 2012

Re-discovering Irving

Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Tales
It's been two years since I found this hardbound beauty at a bargain book shop and I cherish it for the dedication written on the flyleaf—

Zach, Read. Love, Dad & Rio (Dec 2005)
That the book is now in someone else's possession and not Zach's is rather sad; but I'd like to assume a happier story: Zach had finished reading the book and let go of it in the spirit of passing on his father's sweet imperative.

I re-unearthed this treasure when I was cleaning my shelf two weeks ago. It was stacked with other, older pretty books I bought but hadn't opened yet—In the Name of the Rose, The Tale of Despereaux, and three titles from Graham Greene. Thought it was a sign for me to finally pore over its pages.

The mutability of literature

My first instinct was to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but I became more attracted to reading the essays first, The Mutability of Literature in particular. And what do you know, it was about great books being unread, and, consequently, authors who 'buried themselves in the solitude of cells and cloisters, shut themselves up from the face of man, and the still more blessed face of Nature; and devoted themselves to painful research and intense reflection...to occupy an inch of dusty shelf—to have the titles of their works read now and then in a future age by some drowsy churchman or casual straggler...'.

Ouch. I wasn't hurt for the poor writers; I was offended by being thought of a 'casual straggler', when I am, I believe, a most sincere and careful reader.

On immortality

It is refreshing how Irving highlighted the myth of art and immortality, reminding us that immortality is nothing but hyperbole,
A mere temporary rumor, a local sound; like the tone of that bell which has tolled among these towers, filling the ear for a moment, lingering transiently in echo, and then passing away, like a thing that was not!
Though in the end he made an exception in (surprise!) Shakespeare:
It is owing to that very man that the literature of his period has experienced a duration beyond the ordinary term of English literature. There rise authors now and then who seem proof against the mutability of language because they have rooted themselves in the unchanging principles of human nature. They are like gigantic trees that we sometimes see on the banks of a stream, which by their vast and deep roots, penetrating through the mere surface and laying hold on the very foundations of the earth, preserve the soil around them from being swept away by the ever-flowing current, and hold up many a neighboring plant, and perhaps worthless weed to perpetuity.
Who are the worthless weeds? 'Indifferent authors', according to Irving, who have extended their shelf-life 'merely from having flourished in [Shakespeare's] vicinity'.

On prose and poetry

He also gave a generic comparison between prose and poetry, claiming that poetry has the best chance for immortality. But the special qualities he attributed to poetry could be present in other forms of writing: a faithful portrayal of nature, whose features are always the same and always interesting; every thing is terse, touching, or brilliant; the choicest thoughts in the choicest language.

In other words, his descriptions are true, but vague. Though he saved himself from falling into excessive subjective rambling by pointing out that he was falling into excessive subjective rambling and then terminating his piece: 'I was just about to launch forth into eulogiums upon the poets of the day when the sudden opening of the door caused me to turn my head. It was the verger, who came to inform me that it was time to close the library.'

On limitless literature

During his time, Irving was already worried about the un-controlled proliferation of writers:
Language gradually varies, and with it fade away the writings of authors who have flourished their allotted time; otherwise the creative powers of genius would overstock the world, and the mind would be completely bewildered in the endless mazes of literature. Formerly there were some restraints on this excessive multiplication. [...] But the inventions of paper and the press have put an end to all these restraints. They have made every one a writer, and enabled every mind to pout itself into print, and diffuse itself over the whole intellectual world. The consequences are alarming.
He should take a visit to 2012. Tumblr will give him a heart attack. The invention of the printing press, and in our time, the internet, surely have their consequences, good and bad. But I more alarmed by this observation:
Many a man of passable information at the present day reads scarcely anything but reviews, and before long a man of erudition will be little better than a mere walking catalogue.
It reminds me of the syntax, 'I don't know who/what [noun] is, but I know the reference.' —The conflict between 'knowing and knowingness'. I have long surrendered to the fact that there are thousands of noble books out there and I cannot read them all, but I can at least read a hundred with absolute attention.

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