Sunday, 5 October 2008

The Meaning of Culture

To realize the advantage that a person who loves books has over one who cares nothing for them, consider the contents of two separate human heads whirling through a New York subway tunnel. Both these heads are covered with hats. Both are staring helplessly at the subway advertisements. Both are swaying to and fro with a dense crowd of other human heads. Both are preserving an expression of democratic patience. But there the resemblance ends. The un-bookish head, likely enough endowed by Nature with a whimsical philosophy all of its own, has probably been so debauched but its daily reading of newspapers and magazines that its only humour consists in a pathetically standardised facetiousness. Such facetiousness is no doubt at this very moment playing grimly enough over very practical problems. The angry or the sarcastic words of our gentleman’s employer… the worry about his unpaid doctor or furious landlord… his wretched quarrel over God knows what, with his difficult sweetheart… such matter, gone over and over again in this harassed mind, throw their fretful patterns over the pictures of soap and tooth-paste and toilet-powder. On the other hand his thought may be complacent and self-satisfied; his curiosity piqued by some recent scandalous incident, may be pleasantly provoked to humorous ponderings. It is quite possible to live a busy, entertaining, and eminently respectable life, independent altogether of literature; but in such a case it will probably be concrete objects, realistic situations, external shocks rather than any kind of fanciful dreaming that will fill a person’s head.

But what about that other human skull? If one could visualise mental impressions one would be able to observe, floating in and out of this opaque, bony structure, how may airy clouds of fanciful craziness! This human head would doubtless in any case dream its dreams; but now, in its present pendulous position, when the charm of its own vision of things shrinks and wilts under reality at its worst, now is the moment when the imaginative worlds created by great geniuses, long ago dead, may, the mental will is strong enough, come to that poor head’s rescue. Under more normal conditions these imaginary “worlds” would serve, when our book-lover was remind of them, to rouse him to mould reality after his own secret pattern. But now, driven inwards, driven back upon itself, his mind struggles to fling the magic of these unrelated worlds, like a sorcerer’s hypnosis, over this whirling panorama of the raw and the crude. From Charles Lamb’s “Essays,” for example, why should he not be snatching something that might hover ironically and with a rich mellowness between himself and those rows of monotonous grey hats and black boots. The there would arise in that Manhattan tunnel a friendly assemblage of old-word humours, a fragrance, as it were of old folios, old wainscoted hall-ways, old gardens and purlieus of old college courts!

But more relevant perhaps to the nature of the motley spectacle before him might there not float and eddy round such a head quite a different host of airy sprites… the grotesque-sentimental population of Dickens’ reckless fancy? Weeping, chuckling, leering, grimacing, this cloud of lively hobgoblins might bear a resemblance to our traveller’s strap-supported neighbours. Hardly a photographic resemblance; a cerebral phantasmagoria rather, wherein a chance-tossed crowd of preoccupied New Yorkers is transformed into fairy-story ogres and angels!

But it is not only when in contact with the great outer world that a person’s saturation with literature thickens by a phalanx of portentous witnesses his vision of the familiar. Alone in one’s room of a late evening, bending over the fire, with the night sounds of the city or the night –silences of the country flowing through one’s absent-mindedness, how deeply does one’s inkling of the nature of life’s wild dream-stuff respond to the gestures of Dostoievsky’s fatality-masks! Let them beckon to us, these living figures, from amid their red coals! They are more than characters in fiction, these people of Dostoievsky. They are apocalyptic prophecies of psychic ecstasies, only to be revealed when some use-and-wont shutter of the human mind swings back in some Pentecostal wind….

…Down there, in those caverns of red coals, over which we dream, we, our very selves, will be watching all this; watching it and sharing in its monstrous terror. And how is t, that while from the wretched tales of contemporary brutality there only rises within us a wretched nausea of outrages nerves, or, at best, a simple human pity and indignation, there should mount up from these Dostoievsky tragedies a strange quivering beauty, that beyond all and in spite of all, seems to avenge and to absolve the human race? Is it that in the great moments of these heart-piercing novels we touch the fringe of some unguessed-at Absolute of feeling, which, in “the dark backward and abysm” of human suffering, hints at unspeakable consolation? Or is it simply that art itself, creating a reality beyond reality, turns with its demiurgic finger the intolerably pitiful into the symbolically tragic?

A person certainly does not realize all in a moment the influence that literature exerts over human minds, the power it has of transferring to one’s real experience that mythical heightening which it diffuses through its imaginary world. It is indeed only after we have saturated ourselves in these things, only after we have read these books over and over again, that the charm begins properly to work. But delayed though it may be, the moment will come at last when we find ourselves better able to cope with our won misadventures because of what we have caught, let us suppose from the heroic fantasies of the author of Don Quixote, or from the sly humours of the author of Tristram Shandy.

One of the most invaluable clues to that difficult casuistry that keeps the integrity of the ego intact amid the rough-and-tumble of life can be derived from the writings of Henry James. But neither does the spacious aroma of this high secret reveal itself at the first encounter; too diffused is it in the provocations of plot, too involved in the complications of character. By degrees, however,, as we read – say “The Golden Bowl” – for the second or third time, it dawns upon us that these punctilious and roundabout approaches to the quintessence of life, these wavering and reluctant moth-hoverings about the problems of good and evil, have a definitely significant worth in one’s personal adjudication of human values, as one goes through the world; a worth that, although implicated here with the cunning craftsmanship of a rich aesthetic creation, is in reality a redoubtable asset to the armoury of one’s own private life-weapons

The Meaning of Culture
John Cowper Powys p26

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