Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Sober yourself up (Rambler No. 2)

Dear H,

As many authors have already told us, man's mind is never satisfied with the things immediately in front of it.  It's always breaking away from the present to lose itself in plans for the future.  We forego the only time in our power right now to plan enjoying things which, in all likelihood, we may never even get to.  And as this practice is an easy target for raillery to the jokesters and of preaching to the serious, it's been ridiculed with all the best barbs wit has to offer, and exaggerated with all the high-blown words of oratory.  Every historical example of its absurdity has been studiously collected.  It's been mocked profusely; and a hundred over-used sayings have been called out to battle against it. 

This being understood, condemning things is common because it always implies some kind of superiority.  Men please themselves with imagining they've made a deeper search, or taken a wider view, than their neighbors.  They think maybe they've detected faults and follies the average man hasn't; and the fun of playing the wrecking ball on common topics is so tempting to a writer that he can't pass it up too easily.  A train-load of generally accepted ideas allows him to shine without working, and to conquer without a contest.  It's too easy to laugh at the life-miser who lives only in his imagination, refuses immediate comfort for distant pleasure, and, instead of enjoying the best things in life, lets life glide away in preparation to enjoy them.  There are too many chances, in short, to point out the uncertainty of human existence, to rouse mortals from a questionable dream, and remind them how quickly and silently time slips away -- a principle which writers are more willing to share than examine, and thus an easy and flowery one to follow.  But is an easy path necessarily an honest path? 

This tendency to look far into the future seems the unavoidable condition of our species.  Our movements are gradual, and our life is progressive.  As our powers are limited, we use means for the attainment of ends, which means we intend first what we perform last.  By continual advances from our first stage of existence, we're constantly varying the horizon of possibility.  We discover new reasons to act, new things to fear, and new things to chase.  Thus the goals that summon our efforts at present are found, oftentimes, when gained, to be only one of the means to some further-off goal.  The natural flights of the human mind aren't from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.

The man who directs his steps to a certain point has to frequently turn his eyes to his goal.  Whoever puts himself through the pains of working has to take cheer, when he's worn out, by thinking about the things he gets with his paycheck.  In agriculture, one of the most simple and necessary jobs, nobody turns up the ground unless he thinks of the harvest -- which blights could easily intercept, which floods could quickly sweep away, or which death or disaster could keep him from reaping.

But, as few truisms are widely accepted or remembered without some conformity to both truth and to nature, we admit that this caution, against keeping our view too far in the future, isn't without its wisdom -- even if it's been quoted with too much levity, or enforced with too little distinction.  Ignoring that hotness of desire that presses through right and wrong until it gets what it wants, or that anxiousness blamed for an outright distrust of heaven, it oftentimes happens that by dreaming too surely of success, we forget the measures necessary to secure it.  We let imagination run wild in the possible, and the possible becomes impossible because we missed the time to obtain it.       

There would, however, be few enterprises of hard work or hazardous conditions undertaken, if we didn't magnify the good things we persuade ourselves to expect from them.  When the knight of La Mancha tells Sancho Panza the adventures he's going to go on, and how kings are going to call him to defend their empires, and how he's going to be asked to marry a princess, and have riches and honors to spare, and even an island to give to his squire, very few readers, in the throes of laughter or pity, can deny they've also had dreams of the same sort.  They might not have expected equally strange things, or overrated their abilities to the same degree.  But when we pity him, he brings to mind our own disappointments; and when we laugh, our hearts remind us that he's about as ridiculous as we are -- except that he says in public what we've only thought in private.

Even if wild hopes are necessary to great accomplishments, a hearty, boistrous man's judgment could be easily spoiled by a too-luxurious indulgence of dreaming -- like some plants are burned up by the sun, which otherwise gives vegetation their life and their beauty.

Maybe no class of people needs more caution against this wild hope than those who hope to be authors.  A man of lively thoughts no sooner finds a hint lurking in his mind than he makes big announcements to the whole world; and, with a little encouragement from flattery, pushes forward into future ages, dreaming about the honors people will pay him -- when envy's influence has long gone extinct, and factions are long forgotten, and those lesser writers, who have friends in high places but little talent, will have given way to a whole new class of soon-forgotten nobodies.   

Those of us who've already gone so far, and appealed to the tribunal of some future time, are not likely to be cured of their delusion. Nevertheless all efforts ought to be used for the prevention of this disease.  In its acute stage, you can't even find a cure in the gardens of Philosophy -- however She boasts her medicines for the mind.

I will, with this in mind, while I'm only lightly affected with this writer's disease, try to fortify myself against the infection -- not without some weak hope, that my vitamins and preventative measures can extend their usefulness to others, whose dreams expose them to the same contagion.

It's the good advice of Epictetus that a man ought to think often on what's most shocking and terrible. That way, by these kinds of thoughts, he might be saved from wishing for too many good things, and from too much depression from real-life evils.  As such there's nothing more dreaded to an author than being ignored, compared with which outright disapproval, hatred, and opposition are preferable.  But yet, even this worst and meanest writer's fate is feared by everyone who dares to write. 

It might not be a bad idea, for anyone who makes an entrance into writing, to suspect his own abilities.   And to suspect them so far, in fact, as to believe himself worth ignoring -- that nature may not have qualified him to enlarge or embellish our knowledge, nor made him superior enough to regulate the thoughts and behaviors of everyone else.  That, even if we admit the world is ignorant, he's neither destined to dispel this cloud, nor to shine out as one of the great lights of life.  Every library gives evidence to support this suspicion.  One look will find it crammed with names of men who, though now almost entirely forgotten, were at one time no less hearty and confident as himself, as equally pleased with their own writings, equally caressed by their own patrons, and also flattered by their friends.

Even if in some cases an author really is exceptional, remember that his talents may pass entirely unnoticed, huddled in a variety of things, and classed among the general miscellany of life.  Whoever seeks after the fame of a writer seeks out the affections of the masses -- who are fluctuating in pleasures, immersed in business, and many times without time for intellectual amusements.  He appeals to judges already caught up in their own passions, or corrupted by prejudices, which keep them from celebrating any brand-new performances.  Some are too lazy to read anything until its reputation is established.  Others are too envious to promote the fame of others -- which pains them when it grows.  People who don't like learning object to new ideas simply because they don't want to be taught.  And what's well-known is rejected, because they don't consider an obvious truth: that adults need to be reminded more often than they need to be informed.  The "educated" and "learned" are afraid to announce their opinions early, at the risk of hazarding their reputations.  And the ignorant think that rejecting something, on some level, is proof of their cultured taste.

A man who finds his way to fame through all these obstructions, an honest man at least, has to admit owing less to his hard work, his learning, or his wit, and much more to other less impressive causes.

Your father,

PS: As mentioned earlier, any essays with "Rambler" in the title are translations of Samuel Johnson, a man whose writings I think are perfect, but are almost unintelligible to modern readers.  The intellectual content here is his.  The words, at least many of them here, are mine.

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