«THE TANNER LECTURES HUMAN VALUES ON Delivered at Yale University February 20-21, 1991 ROBERTSON DAVIES received his B.Litt. degree from Balliol ...»
Now, what about the book which is a direct revelation of reality? W e all have our favorites, and they are the books that accord with the reality life has brought to us. W e cannot hope to [DAVIES] Reading and Writing 81 grasp total, all-embracing reality. For many people these are the great blockbusters — novels like W a r and Peace, Crime and Punishment. T h e Magic Mountain, Middlemarch, Remembrance of Things Past. I have known people who found this sort of revelation in Don Quixote, which I can understand but not accept as my own; I have known others who found it in Tristram Shandy, which I confess puzzles me. One must find one’s own great novels, which seem to illuminate and explain portions of one’s own experience, just as one must find the poetry that speaks most intimately to oneself. For one reader it is Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for another Wordsworth’s Prelude, for another T h e Ring and the Book.
And so it would be possible to go on elaborating and extending lists, because the choice is great and individual preference the final factor in making a choice. And in addition to these milestones on the most traveled roads, the real enthusiast for reading will find byways, like the works of Rabelais, or Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, or the magpie accumulations of John Aubrey. It is absurd to speak of these books as byways, but I do so because I do not meet many people who read in them frequently, or indeed at all.
How dull he is being, you may think, as I draw near to my conclusion. How like a Professor. He is simply parroting Matthew Arnold, with his tedious adjuration that “Culture is the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit.” But I assure you that I mean no such thing, and I have always had my reservations about Matthew Arnold, who was too cultured for his own good; he seems never to have listened to the voices which must, surely, have spoken to him in dreams or in moments when he was off his guard — voices that spoke of the human longing for what is ordinary, what is commonplace, vulgar, possibly obscene or smutty. Our grandparents used to say that we must eat a peck of dirt before we die, and they were right. And you must read a lot of rubbish before you die, as well, because an exclusive diet of masterpieces will give you spiritual dyspepsia. How can you know The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 82 that a mountain peak is glorious if you have never scrambled through a dirty valley? How do you know that your gourmet meal is perfect in its kind if you have never eaten a roadside hot dog?
If you want to know what a masterpiece T h e Pilgrim’s Progress is, read Bonfire of the Vanities, and if you have any taste — which of course may not be the case — you will quickly find out. So I advise you, as well as reading great books that I have been talking about, read some current books and some periodicals. They will help you to take the measure of the age in which you live.
I hope you are not disappointed in the advice I have been giving. Certainly I have not flogged you on to feats of endurance and intellectual stress. Quite the contrary, I have urged you to relax, to read more slowly, to reread books that speak to you with special intimacy, to act out your fictions in your minds, as if you were a great theatrical director with infinite choice in casting, in decor, in all the adjuncts that produce a convincing atmosphere.
I have urged you to allow your poetry to sing to you so that you may hear the authentic bardic voice wherever it is to be found.
This is reading for pleasure, not to become immensely widely read, not to become an expert on anything, but to have read deeply and to have invited a few great masterpieces into your life. Again, I suggest that you should read deeply, rather than widely.
Many years ago — it was in 1960, in fact — a book of mine was published by the late Alfred Knopf, called A Voice from the Attic; it bore that curious title because one of our Canadian poets had described Canada as “one and none, pin and pine, snow and slow, America’s attic,” and I was speaking from that attic. When it was published in England it bore the less provocative, but probably more descriptive title, T h e Personal Art — and that personal art was reading. Its first chapter was titled A Call to the Clerisy, and it said rather the sort of thing I have been saying in this lecture. It proposed that an educated class should recognize itself in North America, and take into its own hands the literary influence [DAVIES] Reading and Writing 83 which had been pretty much abandoned to the universities and the academic critics. By an educated class I certainly did not mean people of substantial means with university degrees; I meant anybody who knew how to use a public library and did so with zeal and devotion. I expressed no enmity toward the academic critics but I did say that I thought their professionalism and the need they had to establish personal reputations made them less-thanperfect guides for the public at large. I called for the rise and self-recognition of a group of readers whom I defined as “those who read for pleasure, but not for idleness; who read for pastime but not to kill time; who love books but do not live by books.” And to that group, the members of which are to be found everywhere, I applied the almost forgotten word clerisy. It is not so aspiring as intelligentsia, which is a word that frightens many people. I once had a friend who was applying for a position in a large financial house — a rather senior position — and when he was being interviewed by the Big Boss, the Big Boss said, rather truculently: “Do you consider yourself a member of the intelligentsia?” “No,” replied my friend, “a member of the intelligentsia is what I aspire some day to be.” I need hardly tell you that he did not get the job. Rich people are usually afraid of an intelligentsia, because intelligentsias have so often been used as stalking-horses for revolutionaries. But clerisy is a mild term, one might almost say a Trollopian term. It could not frighten the most neurotic banker. And the clerisy do not want to take anything from anybody; they merely want to recover what was their own in those distant days before so much of our intellectual life was abandoned to the universities. They want to have a say in the world of books. They want the world of books, through them, to have its influence in the national life — social and political. To return, somewhat apologetically, to Matthew Arnold, they want the history of the human spirit to have its influence in the history of our own times.
The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 84 II. WRITING In the first lecture I talked of reading and now the theme is writing, but of course you understand that the two are inseparable for the purposes of such a discussion as this. With respect to reading, I am only one voice among millions, but in matters of writing I may claim to be one among thousands, for, though it sometimes seems that everybody in the world wants to write, comparatively few really do so in any serious sense.
Like every author who has achieved even a modest measure of success, I get bagsful of letters from aspiring writers who ask me questions that make it plain that they are unlikely to do anything very much in that art — for it is an art when it is practiced creatively, and by that I mean in the writing of poetry or drama or fiction, and in a slightly lesser degree in the writing of philosophy, history, and essays. As you see, I exclude criticism, for although some critics do write admirably in the technical sense, I cannot persuade myself that their work is creative. If they wish to disagree with me — and as a usual thing they do — that is their privilege.
The people who want to be writers are often seekers after a formula, or even a magic spell, which they are hopeful will bring them to their heart’s desire. For they are very serious — serious, that is to say, in their desire to be known as writers, though they are often reluctant, or unaware, in everything that is involved in the actual work of writing. They think that a writer is a romantic creature, widely admired and amply rewarded. So they write to me — and to thousands of other writers, I am certain — asking, “How did you become a writer ?” If I have time I give them an answer, because I take them seriously and think that if they are sufficiently determined to write to me it is common courtesy to reply. But my answer is unlikely to give them comfort, because I tell them that I never became a writer: I was born a writer. My family, even beyond the confines [DAVIES] Reading and Writing 85 of my parents and my brothers, were writers, by which I mean that they were journalists ranging from simple reporters to writers of political comment, essays, reviews, and editorial opinion. Consequently I grew up supposing that everybody wrote; wrote to order, to length, and to time, and received payment for it. I think I must have been at least twelve years old before I became aware that not everybody writes and that indeed many people find it a task of daunting complexity and difficulty. But I was bred to the trade, and at school, and later, I was a great enterer of contests where money prizes were offered for essays. “That’s my money,” I thought, without any particular vanity; I knew I could get it, I delivered the goods, and I got it.
Apart from this confidence, I had other advantages. My parents were strict grammarians, and my brothers and I learned the English language by ear, which is not wholly a good way to learn, because I still have trouble identifying grammatical structures by name, though I know them as matters of usage. Any publisher’s reader can throw me into confusion by asking technical questions.
Not only were my parents grammarians, they were demon pronouncers and enunciators, and often there was a dictionary on the family table, to be a guide in pronunciation and usage, and I well remember the scene of Homeric mirth and derision when my older brother pronounced “truculent” as if the first syllable were “truce.” I think this was a good way to bring up a boy to be a writer.
Acrobats start their children on the high wire as soon as they can walk, and a writer ought to begin before he has graduated to solid food. But as you will see, not everybody has my good fortune, and I can hardly offer the people who write to me Mrs. Poyser’s advice: “You must be born again and born different.”5 I know several writers, and they did not begin as I did. They became writers because that was their destiny, I suppose.
If somebody is truly a writer, he will find it out and he will understand that if there is any romance attached to the vocation, 5 George Eliot, Adam Bede.
The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 86 it is balanced by a number of unromantic circumstances, for the biographies of writers make it clear what a tough and enduring breed they are. There have been writers who have burst upon the world, to its astonishment and delight, but most writers have to establish a reputation over a period of time. That is where the toughness comes in; early discouragement is the rule, and much work is done before important lessons are learned.
Speaking for myself, my great wish was to be a playwright because the theater was, and still is, the chief pleasure of my life.
But I wrote seventeen plays before I found that I was not to be a playwright, because my conception of comedy was not to the popular taste. I was thirty-eight before I turned to fiction and fared rather better, though I swear I was writing my novels from the same source, and in the same vein, as I had written my plays. So I became a novelist and an essayist.
Another question that my letter writers often ask is, “When do you write?” To which the only honest answer is that I write when I can. For the greater part of my life, the luxury of devoting the best hours of the day to my writing has been denied me. I have no one to blame but myself. I have always had a job. For twentyone years I was a journalist, and for much of that time the editor of a daily newspaper. I was then invited to join the faculty of the University of Toronto as — this is ironical for a failed playwright — a specialist in English drama. I was also appointed as the head of a college for graduate students. Thus for forty years I had a full-time job, and I wrote usually at night, when the day’s work was done.
I do not in the least regret it. To begin with, my job meant that I was able to pay my own way as a writer. I have never received a grant to enable me to write, and I value that freedom very highly. I could not square it with my conscience to take money to enable me to do something that I was not sure I could do — and I swear to you that I have never set to work on a book with complete confidence that I would be able to finish it in a way [DAVIES] Reading and Writing 87 satisfactory to myself. I have been criticized for my attitude toward grants to writers. I am told that the modern grant-giving bodies are the descendants of the aristocratic patrons of the past.
My only reply is that Dr. Samuel Johnson seems to me to have said the final word on those aristocratic patrons, and I do not believe that their modern descendants are really indifferent to what happens to the money they hand out. Nothing — including grants — is for nothing. W e hear much high-minded prattle in these days about the writer’s freedom, and I think he best asserts his freedom when he refuses to take money from anybody to do what he himself has chosen as his life’s work. Robert Graves has said that a poet who writes for money will be rejected by the White Goddess, from whom all true poetic inspiration comes. I think this is true of all serious writing and I do not think Graves’s
reference to the White Goddess either fanciful or superstitious:
she is the only real patron and if you are not content with her patronage she will not care. But in the final summing-up, rather than in the royalty statements and the publisher’s returns, it is her patronage that will mark you as an artist or merely a glossy hack.