Sunday, July 22, 2007

Every Man His Own Eckermann

dr: On the evidence of the typographical quirkiness of the initials to the left of the colon, I can already tell what I'm in for.

DR: Oh really?

dr: Really and absolutely. I can tell I'm in for being an unwilling formal constituent of yet another of your tiresome pastiches.

DR: Indeed?

dr: In deed and in word.

DR: Well, with all due deference to your interlocutionary paranoia, I should venture to hazard that a merely typographical pastiche of the idiom of e. e. cummings is a bit too arid an exercise even for the admittedly anaerobic likes of me.

dr: You should know full well by now that I wasn't alluding to the idiom of mr. cummings, inasmuch as the typographical humdrumness of the intials to the left of the colon inaugurating your intervention in this dialogue categorically rule out the emulation of that particular model, and inasmuch as I would surely have availed myself of my last turn to point out that signal divergence from the model, had that model (i.e., mr. cummings's idiom) been the one I'd had in mind.

DR: A fair hit. But what, then/pray, was the model you had in mind?

dr: Why, that illustrious (or is it "notorious"?) literary genre inaugurated and virtually patented by Mr. Glenn Gould: the self-interview.

DR: Indeed? I really do wonder if the world has yet been been graced by a more succinct exemplum of that rhetorically-interrogatively-guised truism "I'm paranoid, but am I paranoid enough?" than that embodied by your last interjection.

dr: Howzzat?

DR: Well, inasmuch as, had you seen fit to think outside the box in the most literal, grain-chafing sense of the idiom, and extended the compass of your self-preservative survey as far as the title of the present post, you would doubtless have sussed out that I have bigger--or, at any rate, other--pastichial fish to fry than that of the Gouldian self-interview.

dr: Let me see here: "Every Man His Own Eckermann"? I must confess to being throughly nonplussed. Well, perhaps not thoroughly--because of course I'm well familiar with Eckermann's handle of "the German Boswell," i.e., to Goethe's Johnson--

DR: --Oh, for heaven's sake, can we keep it above the waist, please, at least for starters--

dr: --You know what I mean. But as to this particular phraseological (and implicitly narcissistic) circumscription of the Eckermannian metiér, why, yes, I am at more than something of a loss.

DR: Very well, then. Let me explain: "Every Man His Own Eckermann" is the title of a short, that is to say, essay-length, piece penned by the long-dead (note well that I did not say late) Edmund Wilson, the Great Cham and Grosser Tatenfuerst (or whatever epithet was bestowed upon Goethe by his contemporaries) of mid-twentieth-century American letters. Mind you, Wilson himself rather resented such comparisons--

dr: --Really, now, this is straying rather far afield of the topic, even for the digressive likes of you. However strongly EW may have resented such comparisons, it is axiomatically clear that he positively, categorically invited them in virtue of his choice of title for this essay-length production; that in so titling it he was, however uncomfortably, settling himself de jure into the Johnsonian-Goethean hot seat, and that, in following his titular lead you are accordingly following his footsteps--

DR: --shouldn't that rather be "conforming to his ass-mold" according to strict metaphorical logic?

dr: Of course it should be, but I trust you will agree that metaphorical logic ought ultimately to yield pride of place to decorum?

DR: I suppose so. I mean, whatever blows your skirt up--

dr: --that's quite enough smut for now, thank you. Anyway: to obviate the whole metaphorical cloverleaf log-jam by recasting my point in strictly literal terms, I don't see how either Mr Wilson or you, his disciple, can avoid the imputation of declaring himself to be a figure on par, in point of contemporarily-merited prestige, with Johnson or Goethe; of setting up shop as the sage of the age, the know-it-all's know-it-all, the arbiter of absolutely everything under the sun-and-moon combined, the--'

DR: --I think I'd better cut you off before you compound that "setting up shop" bit with a second metaphorical strike that's obviously just lurking in the wings--I mean dugout--

dr: --Surely you mean pitcher's mound?

DR: I suppose so, although it'd be hard for anyone or anything to do much lurking in such an exposed space. In any case, it's just as well I cut you off when I did, for it seems to me that, as of now, you've picked up on only half of the allusive resonance of Wilson's title.

dr: Which other half consists in...?

DR: ...It consists in, or is made resonant by, the two words to the left of "His Own."

dr: Viz. "Every Man."

DR: Exactly. Now, the inclusion of these two words at minimum--that is to say, quite apart from their echoic evocation of the most famous English morality play (an evocation that, in virtue of their counterposition to the monographemic "Eckermann," Wilson positively encourages)--suggests a fundamentally democratic bias on Wilson's part. It suggests, in other words, on the one hand, that it was not only such Johnsonian-cum-Goethean figures as himself whom Wilson regarded as standing in need of an Eckermannian interlocutor--that, according to his lights, pretty much everyone and his or her grandmother could have done with the occasional chit-chat with an acknowledged near-equal.

dr: Fair enough (and only enough, as I've a hard time not taking that "acknowledged near-equal" personally), but surely true democracy no less than true charity begins at home. Why did EW of all people, the preeminent literary critic of his day, find himself in need of such an occasional chit-chat?

DR: Presumably because, for all of his Johnsonian-cum-Goethean standing, he felt at least marginally constrained by the editorial exigencies of the periodicals (viz. The New Republic, The New Yorker, and [eventually], The New York Review of Books) in which he was permitted essayistically to hold forth with a greater degree of freedom than was granted to any of his contemporaries--a presumption that is explicitly borne out by his animadversions, within the body of "EMHOE" itself, on the intellectual poverty of contemporary literary and quasi-literary magazines and journals.

dr: Ah, I see. But that was then and this is now. One can't help but surmise that had EW lived on into the present micro-epoch, when he would be permitted to hold forth essayistically ad nauseum at on any topic that struck his fancy, he would have come to disown "EMHOE" as a quaint period-piece. As, for that matter (again to bring it all back home) you by all rights should disown the present dialogue, or at any rate, consign it to the lumber-room of jokey pastichiana, alongside your homage to Boswell. For, after all, you operate here at in the complete absence of editorial exigencies; here, you are the editor: here you call the shots, and need pull no punches.

DR: Why, of course, here I do thus operate: and here, of course, I do thus call and need not pull. But what's it worth to me? And what, for that matter (again to take it all away from home), would the sole editorial proprietorship of have been worth to Wilson? Something of lesser stature and prestige than a hill of beans, I would venture to say. You see, it seems to me that what EW was trying to point up in penning "EMHOE" was a certain crisis--if that's not too hyperbolic a term for the SOA in question--that had come to beset not so much specicifally the professional man of letters as more generally the historiographically-cum-culturally well-informed person of his time; a crisis of ethos that (I would venture to say) has been rather more aggravated than assuaged by the intervening decades and their attendantly emergent fora of expression (e.g., the bl*g).

dr: I'm afraid that, being your mere near-equal, I'm comparatively either unlearned or slow on the uptake, take your pick of the two. In either case, I could do with a bit of elaboration vis-a-vis this "crisis of ethos" you just now alluded to. In fact, to cut the whole assignment into easily-digestible bite-sized pieces, I could do for now with a clear-cut, rough-and-ready definition of ethos, a word whose precise denotation I must confess I've always had a great deal of trouble disentangling from that of such plebian dictionary-entry-headers as lifestyle and job-choice.

DR: As well you might, given that its precise denotation fairly straddles those of your two plebian lexemes; straddles them, I say, and yet at the same time transcends them. You see, vis-a-vis the original heyday of classical rhetoric--wherein it enjoyed a triumviral share of the rule of the rhetorical roost, along with pathos and logos--ethos could be roughly translated into present-day terms as "one's place in the community," the community in question being that of the citizenry of Athens or Rome, and the place in question comprising a pretty hefty catalogue of every office you had ever held and every familial tie a genealogist could either trace or plausibly fabricate. And so you--say Demosthenes or Cicero--would stand there in the agora or the forum exhorting your fellow Athenians or Romans to repel some invading army or quash some internal conspiracy, and your audience would automatically know wherefrom you spoke vis-a-vis the currently-constituted city-state and its history. That's not to say they would equally automatically defer to your credentials on either score--they could always demur that you'd been a lousy consul back in 53 B.C., or that your great-granddad had bilked the republican treasury of a cool 10,000 sesterces to finance the construction of his villa in Cremona or Mantua--'

dr: --Surely for parallelism's sake, that first subordinate clasuse ought to read something to the effect of "could always demur that you'd been a lousy...erm, Field Marshal, in 353 B.C--?"

DR: Surely it should; only, you see, I don't know enough about post-Socratic Athens to supply such a clause; and, in fact, it was only by dint of a quick thumb-flip through my Cambridge Paperback Encyclopedia just now that I managed to fix Demosthenes's dates to the second half of the fourth century, thereby availing you of a slightly less gormless interjection than the "But...phhthhh..." that would otherwise have stood in its stead. Come to think of it, I'm none too sure of the historical verifiability of the first clause: I mean, would 10,000 sesterces really have sufficed for the construction of a villa in 53 B.C.? And while I'm pretty sure Mantua already existed then (Virgil was born there ca. 70, right?), I can't say the same for Cremona...

dr: ...Let's assume for expediency's sake that you can.

DR: Yes, let's. Anyway, as I was saying: while they--your Athenian or Roman audience--might have seen fit to challenge your argument, they would always have a pretty good handle on the means of challenging it, and on the precise range of legitimacy of those means, which range would perforce have been defined by their own collective or individual ethos. They couldn't simply dismiss you ad hominem as some random schlub shooting his mouth off, because no such random schlub would have been granted a hearing in the first place--

dr: --Whereas, in antipodially marked contrast, today, in the agora or forum of the so-called bl*gosophere, such random schlubs abound.

DR: Yes, they do; but that's quite beside the point for now. Let me remind you that our epoch of reference is not the twenty-oughties but the 1950s, or, at latest, the 1960s, when, typographically speaking, the sententiae of such random schlubs were as yet confined to the letters-to-the-editor pages of provincial newspapers. Nonetheless, it was hardly an epoch of ease even for such select schlubs as Edmund Wilson--whence my allusion to an epochal crisis of ethos. As if the semi-millennial era of print had ever witnessed an epoch altogether unmenaced by such a crisis! You see, the whole point of the introduction of ethos as a term in my argument is to drive home the dependence of all subsequent writing (whether expository, narrative or poetical) on this classical rhetorical ideal--the ideal of a respectable citizen addressing his fellow citizens--and of the inherent fragility of this dependence. More specifically, of course, I'm thinking of that literary genre known as the essay, inaugurated in 1570-or-80-something by Michel de Montaigne, and which has served as the genre of choice ever since for not-so-random schlubs harboring slightly more exalted aims than that of merely shooting their respective mouths off--

dr: --Although, of course, it could be argued that old Monty saw himself as just such a random schlub, and harbored no more exalted aims than those justly appertaining thereto.

DR: Why, yes, provided that the predicates of randomness and schlubhood are understood as being duly circumscribed by the supervening predicates of land-ownership, classical literacy, military service, and local officialdom. To be a decorated, Cicero-quoting, ex-mayoral provincial squire of a random schlub in sixteenth-century France was to be one in, let's say, a hundred thousand whose random vocabulary volleys (or "mouth off-shootings" as you would put it) were guaranteed a readership numbering in the tens of thousands, in virtue of the fact that you had a built-in ethos that automatically commanded respect from those who were merely literate in the vernacular. The fact is, you see, that for all the traditional ballyhooing about the "democratization of literacy" brought into being by the printing press, for the first couple of centuries of the age of print, those who were literate by the standards of the old manuscriptural curriculum enjoyed pride of place or rule or rule of the roost in the eyes of the readerly public (which public during these selfsame couple of centuries would not, incidentally, have been exponentially larger than that commanded by your average silver-age Latin poet). The classically-literate country gentleman of 1500 or 1600 or even 1700 may very well have been encouraged, courtesy of the wider and more immediate dispersal of his writings guaranteed by print, to succumb to certain liberties of expression that his Roman patrician antecedent would never have had occasion to be tempted by, and yet for all that he saw no need to sacrifice an iota of the authority guaranteed to him in virtue of his social and intellectual position.

dr: And yet again, I beg leave to emphasize, with well-nigh Krushchevian boorishness, this ur-essayist, Montaigne, at least made a formal pretense of sacrificing that authority wholesale, and of speaking only of and on behalf of himself, i.e., not on behalf of all decorated, classically-literate, ex-mayoral provincial squires. In other words, it seems to me that there is a residue of lowest-common-denominator random-schlubness inherent in the very form of the essay that no amount of ex-post-facto sociological evidence can eradicate; that to set up shop as an essayist is, and always has been, to leave oneself at least theoretically vulnerable to the sling-shot mud-volleys of the nearest minimally-literate troglodyte.

DR: That's a fair point, and one that--at least superficially--is borne out by the practice of the next great exponent of the essay, Addison; I mean, inasmuch as he takes great, albeit brief, pains in the second number of the Spectator to establish his random-schlubberly credentials: he says, "I know this one guy who's a country gentleman, this other guy who's a lawyer, this fourth guy who's a an ex-army officer, this fifth guy who's a foppish man about town--and they're all bosom chums of mine." But mark you well: no sooner has he got the reader hooked with this dramaturgical sop to his plebian amour-propre than he embarks on his original program of telling him exactly what to think about absolutely everything under the sun, and persists in it (with a little help from his decidedly non-schlubberly friends) for 500-and-umpteen numbers in succession. The single significant exception to this program--i.e., the quasi-novelistic collection of numbers centering on the escapades of Sir Roger de Coverley--only serves to confirm the programmatic rule, drawing so masterly-ly as it does on Addison's own firsthand experience of that stratum of society with which he was all too content--nay, smug--to affiliate himself.

dr: So then, what you're saying is that there inheres in the genre of the essay a certain formal tension between its democratic rhetorical obligations (its burden of ethos, if you will) and its fundamentally elitist, didactic end (its entelechic logos).

DR: Even so.