One of the reasons for anger at the theory-ridden English departments of our day is that they sold out the richness of literature for a small number of crude ideas — gender, race, class, and the rest of it — and hence gave up their cultural birthright for a pot of message.
— Joseph Epstein, A Literary Education and Other Essays
I am a complete sucker for brilliant metaphors, apt allusions, clever puns, or, especially, brilliant metaphors wrapped in apt illusions and dipped in clever puns. I would be positively smug if I had come up with this one. So far, I’m greatly enjoying this book, as I have his other essay collections, but it’s funny to think how easily I might have gone without ever checking them out.
A few months ago, while fishing for suggestions from Mr. Dalrymple of other familiar essayists I could read, I mentioned to him that I had read a few of Epstein’s books but had never quite warmed to him due to what I perceived as a certain haughtiness. In what has become somewhat of a predictable pattern with me, though, I almost immediately set about contradicting myself, and have spent the last few months slowly accumulating Epstein’s books of essays while revising my opinion.
Like I said, this happens often. Apparently I have a daimon who exists primarily to whisper to me, “Remember, you might be wrong about that.” Having planted a strong opinion in the turf, the ground beneath it begins to crack and crumble. It’s almost as if, having issued a strong ruling from the bench, I feel compelled to shuck my robe and wig, change into a attorney’s suit, and plead the defendant’s case. Am I just a relativist with a pathological fear of commitment? I don’t think so — in most respects, I’m a creature of near-obstinate habit and routine. Did two years of Mr. Sestina’s debate class in middle school and a few semesters of community-college philosophy with Ms. McCarty (far and away the two best classes I ever took) leave me, like an acid casualty, mesmerized by the shimmering fractals underneath the seemingly-solid surface of things, incapable of making a simple distinction between black and white? Again, I don’t think so — I believe that there’s a truth to be found in any given context and that it’s worth ceaselessly striving for; there’s no honor in abandoning the search to stand proudly in the intellectual nude alongside Walt Whitman, non-sequiturs dangling in the breeze. Could I just be a one-man Hegelian dialectic generator, a mere instrument of the World-Spirit, producing an antithesis for every thesis in order to manifest absolute knowledge of, say, Joseph Epstein’s oeuvre?
I suppose, as in many things, the origin of the tendency doesn’t matter; what’s important is whether you harness it productively. So, let me state for the record that I don’t read much fiction, let alone great literature. I prefer non-fiction. Now, hopefully, having said that, I’ll find myself up to my eyeballs in Shakespeare and Russian novelists by the new year.