Friday, August 10, 2012

A Peck of Dirt

Twenty years ago, the University of Utah Press published Reading and Writing by Robertson Davies, volume 13 of the Tanner Lectures in Human Values. Unfortunately, volumes before 25 seem to be out of print, though the book is not hard to find used.

. A paragraph of "Reading" came to mind recently:

  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 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 tis kind if you have never eaten a roadside hot dog? If you want to know what a masterpiece The 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.
 The mention of longing for the commonplace and vulgar recalls J.V. Cunningham's epigram on his book Doctor Drink, which concludes
The trivial, vulgar and exalted jostle
Each other in way to make the apostle
Of culture and right living shudder faintly.
It is a shudder that afflicts the saintly.
It is a shudder by which I am faulted.
I like the trivial, vulgar and exalted.

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