«THE TANNER LECTURES HUMAN VALUES ON Delivered at Yale University February 20-21, 1991 ROBERTSON DAVIES received his B.Litt. degree from Balliol ...»
So what is to be done? Is all lost? Not at all, but the salvation lies not with the government bodies but with individualswith hundreds and thousands of men and women who decide that this diseased concept of democracy shall not prevail. Whenever I talk in this way — and I have been doing so for more than thirty years — somebody is sure to protest that I am proposing the establishment and recruitment of an intellectual elite. My reply is enthusiastic agreement: that is precisely what I am doing. What is an elite? Is it not a body which values the best above that which is less good? Your country has never hesitated to let it be known that it leads the world in certain respects. You do not insist that your national standard of living should be that of your humblest citizens. You do not inhibit scientific research lest some less fortunate country should feel left out and protest that your scientists are elitist. Your moral standards as expressed by your politicians are the wonder of less ethically grandiose folk; I have always thought your invincible morality was a heritage from the Pilgrim Fathers, who were so unremittingly moral that the Old World couldn’t stand them for another minute and kicked them out. You do not conceal the fact that you are the wonder of the world. But The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 68 in matters of intellect you are strangely unwilling to assert yourselves.
I wish you would give it a try. But let me say at once that I am not calling for some great national movement, with a president and several vice-presidents, and innumerable committees, and of course a vast drive for funds, and fortnightly meetings, and prizes for those who recruit the most members, and special prices for the old and the crippled — excuse me, I mean the disadvantaged. Anything of that sort would be wholly against the kind of gentle but insistent change in the national life that I most earnestly wish to see. What I call for is a multitude of revolutionary cells, each composed of one intelligent human being and one book of substantial worth, getting down to the immensely serious business of personal exploration through personal pleasure. Your nation was born of revolution. Don’t I know it! My Canadian forbears were Loyalists, who lost in that war and had to make a run for it to a new country. Why not another and equally decisive American Revolution — a revolution of the intellect? Why are we on this continent so afraid of using our brains ?
Am I preaching to the converted? I wish I thought so, but you will excuse me if I have my reservations. I have known far too many university graduates, in this country and in my own, who, as soon as they have received the diploma which declares them to be of Certified Intelligence, put their brains in cold storage and never use them again until they are hauled away to the mortuary. What, you will say, do you speak thus of our doctors, our lawyers, our — God bless us all — our graduates in business administration? Yes, I do. Surely we all know scores of professional men and women who, apart from their professional concerns, seem not to have enough brains to butter a biscuit. They probably had intelligence once. But when their university had [DAVIES] Reading and Writing 69 given them its blessing, they thought that enough had been done for one lifetime.
Anybody who cares about the matter knows that the intellect requires constant attention and renewal. The notion that someone who has graduated from a university has thereby been victualed for a long voyage through life as an intelligent human creature, is totally contradicted by common observation. And when I speak of intellect, you must not suppose that I mean merely that really rather humble ratiocinative ability — that power to reason about the ordinary concerns of life and to reach conclusions from given facts. I do not even mean that same ratiocinative faculty carried to a higher level, where it attacks complex, but still wholly finite problems. I use “intellect” to include all that vast realm of thinking and feeling that goes beyond the merely puzzle-solving work of the mind and establishes, so to speak, the very fabric and atmosphere in which life is lived and from which it is perceived. And when I talk of education I have no desire to belittle the powers of reason, but only to assert the power of feeling, the power of sympathy in the true meaning of that word, which enlarges our understanding of every aspect of our lives. W e are quick to say that it is man’s power of abstract thought that separates him from the animal world, but how rarely do we say that it is man’s power to feel through a broader spectrum of emotion and sympathy that also makes him human — and, because human, capable of conduct that ranges from the godlike to the villainous.
There are many ways of educating our feelings, but I recommend reading as that which is most ready to hand. W e can all do it. But do we do i t ?
I beg you to pardon me if I seem to stress the obvious in what I am saying. I do so because it is so obvious that it is often overlooked or undervalued. I do not suppose there are many present here who would dispute my statement that literature is an art, and that as an art it is able to enlarge and refine our understanding of life. But do we treat it as an art? Consider the care we take The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 70 when we listen to music. Do we attempt to do so in a room full of people who are talking, and who interrupt us frequently for opinions? Do we increase the speed of the hi-fi in order that we may get through a symphony in time to rush away and do something else? Do we stop a recording partway through a movement because we have to fulfil some demand of ordinary life, then start the machine up the next day at the same place, to finish what the composer was saying? Do we skip here and there on the record or tape, looking for tunes that appeal to us, or rejecting passages of exposition that we find dull? No, of course we do none of these absurd things and would condemn anybody who did do them as a barbarian who had no feeling for music. Why? Because we regard music as an art, and our civilization demands that serious and sometimes almost religious attention be paid to it.
Literature, however, is something quite other. It is the drudge, the unconsidered odd-job man of the arts. W h o among us can say that when he reads he does not rush, and skip, does not stop in improbable places, does not indeed commit the literary sin against the Holy Ghost, which is to gobble a book in order to be able to say that he has read it, without having given the book a fair chance to declare to him why it should have been read ?
I have already agreed that much of the reading we have to do is unworthy of anything beyond superficial attention, but when we take up a book that is a work of art, or is so intended by the author, should we not treat it better? The worst offenders in this realm are book reviewers. I know, because I have been a reviewer myself, and I have been ashamed of the superficiality with which I read books in order that I might be able, within a certain fixed time, to deliver some sort of opinion about them. One’s opinion about a book should surely rise slowly from the impression that the whole book has made, perhaps a considerable time after it has been read. Of course that cannot be the way a reviewer works, but certainly we should bear this fact in mind when we read reviews, which are written often in great haste, to establish the reputation Reading and Writing [DAVIES] 71 of the reviewer, rather than to give a careful assessment of what an author has worked very hard to make as good as he can.
Now I am going to talk about the way in which I think a book should be read, and if what I say seems unbearably simple minded I ask you to hear me to the end. First of all I think it is desirable to put aside some time for reading — perhaps an evening, or an hour, or half an hour, or even fifteen minutes, but a time in which to read and do nothing else and pay no attention to anything but the book.
W e can read any way we please. When I was a boy, and was known to be fond of reading, many patronizing adults assured me that there was nothing I liked better than to “curl up with a book.” I despised them, I have never curled. My physique is not formed for it. It is a matter of legend that Abraham Lincoln read lying on his stomach in front of the fire; you should try that in order to understand the extraordinary indifference to physical comfort that Lincoln possessed. I have read about children who “creep away into the attic” to read, and Victorian children’s stories are full of children who cannot read anywhere except in a deeply embrasured window seat. You have to find your own best place for reading, and for most of us in the Western world it is sitting on a chair with a decent light — though for Lincolnians, of course, firelight is the thing. I have forgotten those people of whom it is said that they “always have their noses in a book.” This makes reading difficult, but as I have said, you must suit yourself.
You then read your book, somewhat more slowly than modern educationists recommend. Remember, you are trying to find out what the book has to say. You are not straining to reach the end, in order that you may read something else. If you don’t like the book, you do not have to read it. Put it aside and read something you do like, because there is no reason at all why you should read what bores you during your serious reading time. You have to read enough boring stuff in the ordinary way of life, without extending the borders of ennui. But if you do like the book, if it 72 The Tanner Lectures on Human Values engages you seriously, do not rush at it. Read it at the pace at which you can pronounce and hear every word in your own head.
I know this is heresy. People who teach reading are dead against what they call “verbalizing.” If you verbalize, you lose time. What time are they talking about? Time is one of the great hobgoblins of our day. There is really no time except the single, fleeting moment that slips by us like water, and to talk about losing time, or saving time, is often a very dubious argument. When you are reading you cannot save time, but you can diminish your pleasure by trying to do so. What are you going to do with this time when you have saved it? Have you anything to do more important than reading? You are reading for pleasure, you see, and pleasure is very important. Incidentally your reading may bring you information, or enlightenment, but unless it brings pleasure first you should think carefully about why you are doing it.
Everybody used to verbalize as they read. Indeed during the Middle Ages people read aloud, and everybody knows the story about the scholar who had to discontinue his studies because he had a sore throat. Because they verbalized — I hate that word, but I can’t find another — they truly took in — drank in, one might almost say — what they read and it was impressed on their minds forever.
Verbalizing is also one of the best critical procedures. If you meet with a passage in a book that seems to you to be, in some way, dubious or false, try reading it aloud, and your doubts will be settled. The trick of argument, or the falsity of emphasis will declare itself to your ear, when it seemed to be deceiving your eye.
Lots of young people come to me to ask my advice about writing.
I haven’t much to give them, and if they think anyone but themselves can teach them to write, they are sadly mistaken. I am fond of a story about Beethoven, who was approached by a young man who asked him how to become a composer. “I cannot tell you,” said Beethoven; “I really don’t know.” “But you have become a [DAVIES] Reading and Writing 73 composer yourself,” protested the young man. “Yes, but I never had to ask,” was the answer. I tell the young people who come to me to try reading their work aloud, to see how it sounds. “Oh, but I’m not writing for performance,” they say. “Oh yes, you are,” I reply, and often they are mystified. But in truth writing is for performance. The great works of imagination — the masterworks of poetry, drama, and fiction — are simply indications for performance which you hold in your hand, and like musical scores they call for skilled performance by you, the artist and the reader. Literature is an art, and reading is also an art, and unless you recognize and develop your qualities as an interpretative artist you are not getting the best from your reading. You do not play a Bach concerto for the solo cello on a musical saw, and you should not read a play of Shakespeare in the voice of an auctioneer selling tobacco.
This business of verbalizing, of reading so that you hear what is read with the inner ear, is an invaluable critical method when you are reading poetry. Much of what passes as poetry is perishable stuff. Not long ago I was making a comparison between the Oxford Book of English Poetry as it appeared in 1900, edited by the late Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, and the latest edition, edited by Dame Helen Gardner. It was an astonishing revelation of change in taste — in the taste of scholars of great reputation who as critics command respect. But I permitted myself — critical worm that I am in comparison with these godlike figures — to wonder if Sir Arthur and Dame Helen had taken the trouble to read aloud all that they offered to the world, with justifiable confidence in their authority, as a survey of the best verse of five centuries. Had Sir Arthur ever really tested “A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot,” on his tongue?1 If he had done so, could he have missed that what he took for honey was saccharin? Perhaps so; there are elements in literary taste that seem not to be things of reason but
most of her readers will applaud, but what will readers say in another seventy years? Modern disillusion is unlikely to last forever, and nothing rings so hollow as the angst of yesteryear.