Friday, February 26, 2010

"How many secrets may the man of genius learn from literary anecdotes!", or, Isaac D'Israeli and the fortunate limits of method

The impressively unsystematic nature of Isaac D'Israeli's thought and writing is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that his clearest defense of his method doesn't appear until near the end of the first edition of his enormous (and ever-expanding) Curiosities of Literature. In the essay "Literary Anecdotes," he writes,
A writer of penetration sees connexions in literary anecdotes which are not immediately perceived by others; in his hands anecdotes, even should they be familiar to us, are susceptible of deductions and inferences, which become novel and important truths. Facts of themselves are barren; it is when these facts pass through our reflections, and become interwoven with our feelings, or our reasonings, that they are the finest illustrations; that they assume the dignity of “philosophy teaching by example;” that, in the moral world, they are what the wise system of Bacon inculcated in the natural knowledge deduced from experiments; the study of Nature in her operations. . . . For this reason, writers and artists should, among their recreations, be forming a constant acquaintance with the history of their departed kindred.
But D'Israeli doesn't rest his claims there--instead, he ups the ante a bit:
What perhaps he had in vain desired to know for half his life is revealed to him by a literary anecdote; and thus the amusements of indolent hours may impart the vigour of study; as we find sometimes in the fruit we have taken for pleasure the medicine which restores our health. How superficial is that cry of some impertinent pretended geniuses of these times, who affect to exclaim, “Give me no anecdotes of an author, but give me his works!” I have often found the anecdotes more interesting than the works.
A handful of writers featured in Javier Marias's catty, addictive Written Lives come to mind, though really one need only read D'Israeli to see his point: he tells of many a writer whose well-deserved literary obscurity does nothing to lessen the pleasures of the anecdotes retailed about him.

What makes this essay particularly interesting, however, is where D'Israeli carries his argument in subsequent paragraphs. First he recruits Dr. Johnson, avowed fan of anecdotes, to argue for his side, then he pivots on Johnson's acknowledgment that collectors "are not always so happy as to select the most important" in order to launch into a series of examples of anecdotes that offer little in the way of illumination:
Dr. J. Warton has informed the world that many of our poets have been handsome. This, certainly, neither concerns the world, nor the class of poets. It is trifling to tell us that Dr. Johnson was accustomed "to cut his nails to the quick." I am not much gratified by being informed, that Menage wore a greater number of stockings than any other person, excepting one, whose name I have really forgotten. The biographer of Cujas, a celebrated lawyer, says that two things were remarkable of this scholar. The first, that he studied on the floor, lying prostrate on a carpet, with his books about him; and, secondly, that his perspiration exhaled an agreeable smell, which he used to inform his friends he had in common with Alexander the Great!
It seems to me that D'Israeli gives the game away by that exclamation point at the end, if not by the earlier "I have really forgotten." Try as he might to make an argument that will bring him in line with Johnson and acknowledge a criticism he must surely have heard often from friends and acquaintances, he can't overcome his eye for a story: these tidbits are too good not to share--even when he's trying to select inanities, he can't help but choose entertaining ones.

In the essay's closing paragraph, D'Israeli even seems to acknowledge, if not the spirit of his disagreement with the point he claims to be trying to make, then at least a practical reason to object to overly assiduous weeding:
Yet of anecdotes which appear trifling, something may be alleged in their defence. It is certainly safer for some writers to give us all they know, than to try their discernment for rejection. Let us sometimes recollect that the page over which we toil will probably furnish materials for authors of happier talents.
Which seems worthy of a Friday night toast: to the literary magpies; long may they quest for shiny things in the quietest precincts of our libraries!

No comments:

Post a Comment