A Picture of a Life Not in Cinders

"It is striking that the bad behaviour of great writers should strike us with quite such force: perhaps it is because the assumption still runs so deep, despite the obvious evidence, that creative genius and moral intelligence somehow go together," writes Seamus Perry at the Literary Review. And yet according to the Phaedrus, we learn from Socrates that true rhetoric is the persuasion founded on knowledge of the truth and of character, based on love of ideas. We learn from Socrates that the ideal in communication is for the speaker to first possess the right soul and then be dialectically inspired, which is like being moved by love, to pursue the truth.
I was reading Benjamin Jowett's introduction to the same and he points out the unusual arrangement to what I will describe here as what is in part Socrates' discourse on arrangement: "He fastens or weaves together the frame of his discourse loosely and imperfectly, and which is the warp and which is the woof cannot always be determined." There is a fluidity in saying in ancient Greek work, this was also recognised by Matthew Arnold, who wrote of Hellenism's "spontaneity of consciousness." Arnold can be seen in Jowett at the end of the latter's Phaedrus introduction; in his hope of the promise of education, teaching the best parts of the best literature - if only that were actually done. Jowett, who never married, who wrote understandingly of marriage... (how can the young marry if they are ignorant of each other; how can they be said to choose? is one of his gems). Jowett, therefore, who put the instruction in Phaedrus to practice by taking the time to understanding the psychology of other men. Apparently, too, he knew all his students.
Why wouldn't we expect of writers to try to harmonise ideals with the practice of a life? Probably because this would betray our own ideals, and discussion of such lofty ideas is scorned today, and invitation to be attacked unreasonably by those who think differently.
Perry's review mentioned above of a book on Byron, Shelley, et al., was most riveting also for its ending, declaring that Romantic company was not bent on wrongdoing, rather: "it is a sequence of human ineptitudes, some well meant and more motivated by misplaced principle than by cruelty." (Emphasis added.) It calls to mind one of my favourite lines from Chesterton's Orthodoxy about "virtues gone mad". To extend Jowett's argument that "all literature [is] passing into criticism" one might add that such wild behaviour of recent 'artists' requires several generations of critics to explain it all properly, in a context that makes sense. They were not without ideals, but one would be well warned not to follow their lives.




Except that is but the statement of one who falls into lapses of the curmudgeon. One may even be well aware that such thinking is not open to the free play of thought necessary to creation. Whence this wish to retreat from that which appears chaotic? It may be due to exhaustion caused by exposure to too much that is unprincipled. One can only take so much; there is to be balance. No disrespect to Shelley is meant, whose Defence continues to be a useful shield. It is just that in this modern age there are so many people who imitate the tragic outward form of those artists without understanding that maybe that fire was what was purifying them while they were still alive. One might feel too close to those artists, might need to look away from that jumping flame that produced art, yes, but at the cost of a life in cinders.
I think of Flannery O'Connor's Prayer Journal: "“I want so to love God all the way,” she wrote. “At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it—I want to be a fine writer.” The aspiration to acclaim, she knew, was dangerous: “Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even.”  The solution, though, was something other than humility—it was the audacity to pray that God would not only give her the words but make those words an instrument of evangelism." A seeking between the human wish to be realised in something, for her, her writing, and yet not wishing for this realisation to carry her away - Jowett, Plato, and Socrates would agree, this is what the section on love in the Pheadrus, too, partly imparts.
Who would know from reading Jowett's introduction that he was once enamoured by Kant, Hegel. I only read that on wikipedia so do not wish to write conclusively, but find it fascinating that it is written, "he never ceased to cultivate the philosophic spirit; but he had little confidence in metaphysical systems, and sought rather to translate philosophy into the wisdom of life." For in the Phaedrus intro, he wrote the most beautiful thing about that work: "it is a picture not a system".
D.G. Myers wrote today about admiring the kind of book that is, " like sitting in on a late-afternoon graduate seminar in the oak-paneled honors room with the comfortable chairs." This is the perfect description for the book I now enjoy, far from l'enfer of youth that some souls cannot wait to grow out of, caught in it by mere circumstance of terrestrial years. 



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