I have not been reading two books lately. One is Mimesis by Eric Auerbach, the other is Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Charles Peirce (1839-1914) was a very great American Philosopher, perhaps the greatest American philosopher who ever lived, at least in my opinion. Though ignored in his life time, exiled by academia, nowadays he is much studied. Societies have been named in his honor. Great scholars have turned their attention to him and his ideas have been much debated and written about. Eric Auerbach wrote his famous book in Istanbul. The fact that it is a classic book as is Peirce's book above means nothing to my purpose here. But neither of these two books, though I have owned them for a year, have I read at all, which has caused me to think a lot about why you read one book and ignore another. Or why you do read one author and do not read another.
Both of these books include classic writings by timeless authors. They are books demanding any student's attention. Scholars and learned men and women, and people like myself who aspire toward wisdom will be reading these books years, maybe centuries, from now. Both have the science imparted to people who have studied long and hard and who have given to their study reasoning. I wonder if either of them thought of their study as work? I remember Balzac complaining about work. His only complaint was why he was so often disturbed from it! I doubt that what he was doing with such obsessive concentration he personally would think of as work. The reader might think of the reading as work, especially if assigned as school work, or the reader of Balzac, though enjoying the reading of his own free will, might think of Balzac's oeuvre as works. But I wonder if Balzac himself would be inclined to think of himself as a worker doing work. Ditto, I believe, Auerbach and Peirce. And why should study of any great author be listed in the category work?
When the head is as if mesmerized by a startling phrase and evidence of unlikely or novel comprehension and insight, how can that be work? Work has more to do with the humdrum and the routine than the novel and the startling. The books above may be termed by some, not me, as difficult, or hard reading. Peirce may at times be hard to make sense of, but why should that be a reason not to read his book? If a poet, for instance, like Elliot, is difficult to get through at times, you insult yourself if you say, "Oh, I don't feel like wading through that right now." Who would not be embarrassed to think such a thought? I know it will be my pleasure at some time to study both these books in order to shamble down the path toward wisdom. But not now.
So I might as well admit what I have been reading, if only to get it over with promptly. Instead of these worthy authors above I have been reading a book not by a great novelist or even a great writer, but by a wandering writer and singer of songs, Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory.
The book has the advantage of not being on the list of assigned reading in school. It's a gift to lovers of books that comes without elaboration. Being non-academic in style, it won't stand still in a handbasket of overwriting but forges onward energetically in disinterest of tenure and do re mi. Woody was pure, a free spirit. Where do people like that come from?
It's just a book. You might call it a novelistic dramatization of an autobiography. Woody was a prolific writer of songs and poems and stories, and then in New York in the 40's he wrote this book. It was edited quite a bit, I think the word was "heavily". The Okie twang got lacquered over by the New York types, though not buried. It's still there, sort of. (My personal research has not turned up a printing of the original manuscript before they got to it. Go here for some good sounding twang. Its total lack of falseness eases the spirit.) Every sentence in the book has the zest of sensual detail that is truthful sensual detail. This is one book whose narrative style does not depend on abstraction. Woody is Woody. Although the author might say the Woody in the book is an abstraction about Woody Guthrie, in which case Woody would not be Woody Guthrie, I do not think that he would say any such thing. Too complicated, for one. When authors tell stories and fill books with them, it is their choice to write about what really happened, or not. In fact an author may write about what really happened all the while denying it and still write a good book. A book of stories may not have anything at all to do with objective data. Just so happens I am in the mood for objective data.
Suppose the story is about a subjective, highly personalized environment, a world somewhere between data (science) and faith that the author happens to be interested in. This world might be meaningful to someone else than the author, or it might be worth nothing at all, no matter how lovingly tragic or comic. So what do I mean by this and who cares? If you like a book, it keeps you busy and involved for x number of hours that could have been miserable otherwise, who cares whether it is truthful? That's like saying horses shouldn't race because racing is bad for horses. You'll still read literature whether it is a commotion and a big argument with God or not, and if you do make it, you'll make it because you hope it contains original thinking, and that is, after all, the golden fleece. Bound for Glory has made me think about this more than any other book of the twentieth century. Just a damned little autobiographic book about barefoot boy growing up in Oklahoma. Woody Guthrie was a pure font of drinkable water rising from the stones such as has not been found since the holy days. And about time America knows it. You don't have ta go to Europe for wisdom.
Now, ten years ago I read this book without much interest the same as I read other books without much interest. So what happened? Did I grow up, or did I grow down? The same thing happened between me and another great writer, Isaac Babel. I somehow ended up with Red Cavalry when I was still in high school, didn't think much of it for almost thirty years, then the book suddenly swelled over me. Red Cavalry is a war book, but Bound for Glory is not necessarily a war book. Another book I like a lot is Ceremony of Innocence. But the book is written by a person, Timothy Victor Richardson, I know pretty well, though not as one knows a friend, still I dare not say how great I think the book is. But I can say I am looking forward to reading it many times again before I die. I ran across it by happy accident. Usually I am not lucky. Someday I will quit writing but for now what's wrong with writing? Maybe a race horse can't race but he can't quit either, and so what is it to you, mister?
This is what I think. I think there is in literature a battle between concrete data and abstraction. Sometimes the battle goes one way, sometimes another. Lots of times dead bodies litter the battle field and one side or the other is retaking ground that has been lost and won before. Some times are for philosophy and criticism like the above, Auerbach and Peirce. They know plenty of raw data, don't get me wrong, but they "style" it in generalization. That is: certain effects which are predominant characteristics of the data are fused in the abstraction process in such a way that the data is generalized. The result is a re-creation of the data into a less personal and more understandable form. Nobody is lying. Anybody can tell a lie. Talking heads are everywhere, and you know them by the glitter in their teeth. Nobody who cares about the written word can possibly use words to lie with. They may approach the words differently, as if with a different battle in mind, but it is a killing task to use them for other than truth.
It goes along through history that a story is a fascinating lie. And only lies are entertaining. The theory goes that if a story was a bare recital of straight facts, then it would be uninteresting. Suppose I say "I want to define pride." A guy I know is acting like a know it all for some reason. And I go on to give numerous examples of actions that seem to show that he is prideful when in fact he has nothing to be prideful about. His attitude is incorrect and I can prove it by describing his beliefs and his actions. I don't have to say anything. Just describe and continue the story. So if I see that as my job, sketch along the lines of a scientific (characterizing) study, where are the lies? Since I am as I am going along dealing at all times with scientific exposition of factual data along the lines of a preconceived demonstration, then how can anyone say I am lying? I first describe the issue, then I describe both factual data and, perhaps some imaginative data, all the while adhering to the prescribed circumference of my study, where is the lie? Even imaginative data cannot be considered to be lying if it is in the middle of the theme. The trouble is how the hell do you define a theme? I have been trying for the last 40 years to come up with an obsessive idea, for example "What is freedom?" In other words, what does it mean to be free? Also I have wanted to place the one idea against the other and allow them to fight each other to the death in even, fair battle. But I have never been able to proceed that way. For instance: I am thinking about a sketch in which a woman goes to a mental hospital to take her daughter out on an outing. They finally stop at a fair and they proceed to have a good time with each other playing fair games. The mental hospital is such a place where you wonder what they have in mind, as mental hospitals often are. The mental hospital is eerie, and the daughter doesn't like it and the mother doesn't like it, and even the boyfriend is wondering what he is doing there, as they bring the kid back. But ultimately I do not know what that means. It is not enough to start from square one and proceed along without a meaningful direction. Artists are artists because they hate lies, and they understand what nobody else does.
Art is full of portents, not lies. What I really want to do, whether in reading or writing, is get into something that will stand me for a long time. But why wouldn't any story do; as long as you are taking the time to think. But there is thinking and there is thinking. Isn't there? Salinger's thinking was good for a time, now Woody Guthrie's thinking is better. I got tired of Holden, don't think any longer he is quite real. Plato was all right, he stood me for a long time. Job was worth thinking about. Thinking about what is for supper is not the same as thinking how there can be error in a world made by a God who is supposed to be perfect. Sometimes I have characters at the edge of my brain, just behind the eyes. I swear they are more real than the real persons I know, but do I have the right to treat them as real? I don't know. Then it will be a lie, and how many times have we been through this territory? A thousand? You have to rise above all this doubt. Reaching for beauty and wisdom is not like reaching for a tasty lunch. Or even searching out the character of the fool who lives next door. I give up. Who the hell wants to spend the rest of his life writing about some figments of his imagination? Bullshit can't be how it goes. Don't seem like to me Woody ever even thought these dark suspicious thoughts. They must come from Europe or somewhere.
You read one book and not another, whether right or wrong, because it fulfills a longing. Best stay open minded then, because longings shift like the wind.