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On the Art of Writing / Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge 1913-1914 By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 11656

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


Let us attempt to-day, Gentlemen, picking up the scent where we left at the conclusion of my first lecture, to hunt the Art of Reading (as I shall call it), a little further on the line of common-sense; then to cast back and chase on a line somewhat more philosophical. If these lines run wide and refuse to unite, we shall have made a false cast: if they converge and meet, we shall have caught our hare and may proceed, in subsequent lectures, to cook him.

Well, the line of common-sense has brought us to this point- that, man and this planet being such as they are, for a man to read all the books existent on it is impossible; and, if possible, would be in the highest degree undesirable. Let us, for example, go back quite beyond the invention of printing and try to imagine a man who had read all the rolls destroyed in the Library of Alexandria by successive burnings. (Some reckon the number of these MSS at 700,000.) Suppose, further, this man to be gifted with a memory retentive as Lord Macaulay's. Suppose lastly that we go to such a man and beg him to repeat to us some chosen one of the fifty or seventy lost, or partially lost, plays of Euripides. It is incredible that he could gratify us.

There was, as I have said, a great burning at Alexandria in 47 B.C., when Caesar set the fleet in the harbour on fire to prevent its falling into the hands of the Egyptians. The flames spread, and the great library stood but 400 yards from the quayside, with warehouses full of books yet closer. The last great burning was perpetrated in A.D. 642. Gibbon quotes the famous sentence of Omar, the great Mohammedan who gave the order: 'If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed,' and goes on:

The sentence was executed with blind obedience; the volumes of paper or parchment were distributed to the four thousand baths of the city; and such was their incredible multitude that six months were barely sufficient for the consumption of this precious fuel…. The tale has been repeatedly transcribed; and every scholar, with pious indignation, has deplored the irreparable shipwreck of the learning, the arts, and the genius, of antiquity. For my own part, I am strongly tempted to deny both the fact and the consequences.

Of the consequence he writes:

Perhaps the church and seat of the patriarchs might be enriched with a repository of books: but, if the ponderous mass of Arian and Monophysite controversy were indeed consumed in the public baths, a philosopher may allow, with a smile, that it was ultimately devoted to the benefit of mankind. I sincerely regret the more valuable libraries, which have been involved in the ruin of the Roman empire; but, when I seriously compute the lapse of ages, the waste of ignorance, and the calamities of war, our treasures, rather than our losses, are the object of my surprise. Many curious and interesting facts are buried in oblivion: the three great historians of Rome have been transmitted to our hands in a mutilated state, and we are deprived of many pleasing compositions of the lyric, iambic, and dramatic poetry of the Greeks. Yet we should gratefully remember that the mischances of time and accident have spared the classic works to which the suffrage of antiquity had adjudged the first place of genius and glory; the teachers of ancient knowledge, who are still extant, had perused and compared the writings of their predecessors; nor can it fairly be presumed that any important truth, any useful discovery in art or nature, has been snatched away from the curiosity of modern ages.

I certainly do not ask you to subscribe to all that. In fact when Gibbon asks us to remember gratefully 'that the mischances of time and accident have spared the classic works to which the suffrage of antiquity had adjudged the first place of genius and glory,' I submit with all respect that he talks nonsense. Like the stranger in the temple of the sea-god, invited to admire the many votive garments of those preserved out of shipwreck, I ask 'at ubi sunt vestimenta eorum qui post vota nuncupata perierunt?'- or in other words 'Where are the trousers of the drowned?' 'What about the "Sthenoboea" of Euripides, the "Revellers" of Ameipsias- to which, as a matter of simple fact, what you call the suffrage of antiquity did adjudge the first prize, above Aristophanes' best?'

But of course he is equally right to this extent, that the fire consumed a vast deal of rubbish: solid tons more than any man could swallow,-let be, digest-'read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.' And that was in A.D. 642, whereas we have arrived at 1916. Where would our voracious Alexandrian be to-day, with all the literature of the Middle Ages added to his feast and on top of that all the printed books of 450 years? 'Reading,' says Bacon, 'maketh a Full Man.' Yes, indeed!

Now I am glad that sentence of Bacon falls pat here, because it gives me, turning to his famous Essay "Of Studies", the reinforcement of his great name for the very argument which I am directing against the fallacy of those teachers who would have you use 'manuals' as anything else than guides to your own reading or perspectives in which the authors are set out in the comparative eminence by which they claim priority of study or indicate the proportions of a literary period. Some of these manuals are written by men of knowledge so encyclopaedic that (if it go with critical judgment) for these purposes they may be trusted. But to require you, at your stage of reading, to have even the minor names by heart is a perversity of folly. For later studies it seems to me a more pardonable mistake, but yet a mistake, to hope that by the employ of separate specialists you can

get even in 15 or 20 volumes a perspective, a proportionate description, of what English Literature really is. But worst of all is that Examiner, who-aware that you must please him, to get a good degree, and being just as straight and industrious as anyone else-assumes that in two years you have become expert in knowledge that beats a lifetime, and, brought up against the practical impossibility of this assumption, questions you-not on a little selected first-hand knowledge-but on massed information which at the best can be but derivative and second-hand.

Now hear Bacon.

Studies serve for Delight-

(Mark it,-he puts delight first)

Studies serve for Delight, for Ornament, and for Ability. Their Chiefe use for Delight, is in Privatenesse and Retiring[1]; for Ornament, is in Discourse; and for Ability, is in the Judgement and Disposition of Businesse…. To spend too much Time in Studies is Sloth; to use them too much for Ornament is Affectation; to make judgement wholly by their Rules is the Humour of a Scholler. They perfect Nature, and are perfected by Experience: for Naturall Abilities are like Naturall Plants, they need Proyning by Study. And Studies themselves doe give forth Directions too much at Large, unless they be bounded in by experience.

Again, he says:

Some Bookes are to be Tasted, Others to be Swallowed, and Some Few to be Chewed and Digested: that is, some Bookes are to be read onely in Parts; Others to be read but not Curiously; and some Few are to be read wholly, and with Diligence and Attention. Some Bookes also may be read by Deputy, and Extracts made of them by Others. But that would be onely in the lesse important Arguments, and the Meaner Sort of Bookes: else distilled Bookes are like Common distilled Waters, Flashy Things.

So you see, Gentlemen, while pleading before you that Reading is an Art-that its best purpose is not to accumulate Knowledge but to produce, to educate, such-and-such a man-that 'tis a folly to bite off more than you can assimilate-and that with it, as with every other art, the difficulty and the discipline lie in selecting out of vast material, what is fit, fine, applicable-I have the great Francis Bacon himself towering behind my shoulder for patron.

Some would push the argument further than-here and now, at any rate-I choose to do, or perhaps would at all care to do. For example, Philip Gilbert Hamerton, whom I quoted to you three weeks ago, instances in his book "The Intellectual Life" an accomplished French cook who, in discussing his art, comprised the whole secret of it under two heads-the knowledge of the mutual influences of ingredients, and the judicious management of heat:

Amongst the dishes for which my friend had a deserved reputation was a certain gateau de foie which had a very exquisite flavour. The principal ingredient, not in quantity but in power, was the liver of a fowl; but there were several other ingredients also, and amongst these a leaf or two of parsley. He told me that the influence of the parsley was a good illustration of his theory about his art. If the parsley were omitted, the flavour he aimed at was not produced at all; but, on the other hand, if the quantity of the parsley was in the least excessive, then the gateau instead of being a delicacy for gourmets became an uneatable mess. Perceiving that I was really interested in the subject, he kindly promised a practical evidence of his doctrine, and the next day intentionally spoiled the dish by a trifling addition of parsley. He had not exaggerated the consequences; the delicate flavour entirely departed, and left a nauseous bitterness in its place, like the remembrance of an ill-spent youth.

I trust that none of you are in a position to appreciate the full force of this last simile; and, for myself, I should have taken the chef's word for it, without experiment. Mr Hamerton proceeds to draw his moral:

There is a sort of intellectual chemistry which is quite as marvellous as material chemistry and a thousand times more difficult to observe. One general truth may, however, be relied upon…. It is true that everything we learn affects the whole character of the mind.

Consider how incalculably important becomes the question of proportion in our knowledge, and how that which we are is dependent as much upon our ignorance as our science. What we call ignorance is only a smaller proportion- what we call science only a larger.

Here the argument begins to become delicious:

The larger quantity is recommended as an unquestionable good, but the goodness of it is entirely dependent on the mental product that we want. Aristocracies have always instinctively felt this, and have decided that a gentleman ought not to know too much of certain arts and sciences. The character which they had accepted as their ideal would have been destroyed by indiscriminate additions to those ingredients of which long experience had fixed the exact proportions….

The last generation of the English country aristocracy was particularly rich in characters whose unity and charm was dependent upon the limitations of their culture, and which would have been entirely altered, perhaps not for the better, by simply knowing a science or a literature that was dosed to them.

If anything could be funnier than that, it is that it is, very possibly, true. Let us end our quest-by-commonsense, for the moment, on this; that to read all the books that have been written--in short to keep pace with those that are being written-is starkly impossible, and (as Aristotle would say) about what is impossible one does not argue. We must select. Selection implies skilful practice. Skilful practice is only another term for Art. So far plain common-sense leads us. On this point, then, let us set up a rest and hark back.

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