Impatience of our Concupiscence


Detail from Patrick William Adam’s portrait of John Miller Gray

‘Tis to rebuke a vicious taste which has crept into thousands besides herself,—of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them.—The mind should be accustomed to make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions as it goes along; the habitude of which made Pliny the younger affirm, “That he never read a book so bad but he drew some profit from it.” . . . It is a terrible misfortune for this same book of mine, but more so to the Republick of Letters;—so that my own is quite swallowed up in the consideration of it,–that this self-same vile pruriency for fresh adventures in all things, has got so strongly into our habit and humours,—and so wholly intent are we upon satisfying the impatience of our concupiscence in this way,—that nothing but the gross and more carnal parts of a composition will go down:—The subtle hints and sly communications of science will fly off, like spirits, upwards;—the heavy moral escapes downwards; and both the one and the other are as much lost to the world, as it they were still left in the bottom of the ink-horn.

—Laurence Sterne, (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, p.49)

Returning to Abandoned Treasure

[…] the legacy of copia is two-fold, On the one hand it is a valuable expressive tool; on the other its very richness leads the more thoughtful writers to question its essence: If I can say anything, then what is the status of what I say? If I can tall about bears or beguines or beeswax or birth at the drop of the hat, and then go on to cats, clouds, coprophilia and cucumbers, then what is the point of talking about any of them? And, if I start, where am I to stop?

From Gabriel Josipovici’s Writing and the Body, an exploration into the nature of fiction, reading and writing; in this first essay (lecture) he dissects Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which I set aside on first reading a dozen or more years ago. Of Sterne’s book, Josipovici says:

Yet the book, like Tristram himself, exists only as a series of failures, of negations: it is not a straight line, it does not tell a proper story properly, it is not, perhaps finally, either a novel or not a novel. Yet, like Tristram, it is indubitably there. What then, as the riddles have it, is it?

The thrill of Josipovici’s dissection of the novel aside, as any solicitous criticism should, it sends me back to the text. Flicking through Tristram Shandy again, I look back pitiably at the younger self that was unable to appreciate the inherent joy of the book, and add it to the stack beside my desk.

Reading Carefully

Mark Thwaite’s (of ReadySteadyBook) cogent commentary on What Ever Happened to Modernism:

Two themes dominate Josipovici’s book, as two themes have dominated most critics’ response to it. In a world that moved from being viewed by the vast majority through a sacramental lens, to one where earthly powers had ever more secular explanations, the problem of authority became a problem for art and artists. Why and in what way did the artist have authority to speak? And how could that question inform the art that the artist produced, so that their work did not exhibit the bad faith of pretending that question away. This leads to our second theme: the disenchantment of the world. Do artists seek to re-enchant the world (and who/what gives them authority to do so) or to respond to its disenchantment? Either way, it’s a serious job, even when you’re laughing as you do it, like Sterne or Spark. For readers who seek through their reading to reach into existenital questions of their own, it is a vital activity. The critics who responded to Josipovici seem disenchanted that he has reminded them how small their current giants are, annoyed that he has asked why so many of the books they have spent a lifetime praising are so thin and insubstantial, and they have responded spitefully to an authoritative critic that they don’t have the nous to read carefully and even to begin to understand.

In the Gloom the Gold

An excerpt from a Lapham’s Quarterly piece on Ezra Pound:

Everybody knows the story. Pound launched the Imagist movement, epitomized by that hardy perennial of poetry anthologies, “In a Station of the Metro” (in full: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough”), and then played a decisive role in shaping T. S. Eliot’s epochal masterpiece The Waste Land. He devoted the rest of his life to composing The Cantos, a vast, unreadable epic left unfinished at his death in 1972. The story ends badly: he went off the rails during the war years, embracing fascism and anti-Semitism in broadcasts for Mussolini that got him arrested for treason, and was eventually committed to a mental hospital.

As conventional wisdom goes, the standard skinny on Pound is no worse than most. True to the genre it lacks nuance, emphasizing controversy over substance, but it isn’t actually wrong about anything—except the work. Pound’s Imagist poetry was revolutionary but by no means the best even of his early compositions, and The Cantos are called unreadable by the same people who call Tristram Shandy and Ulysses unreadable, those who haven’t read them. Many of the cantos are as deeply felt and exquisitely rendered as any verse in English. No poet has ever been so influential, so controversial, and so little read.