Saturday, February 03, 2007

A Fist Hammering On Our Skull

In I. A. Richards's Practical Criticism we find the following: "The question of belief or disbelief, in the intellectual sense, never arises when we are reading well. If unfortunately it does arise, either through the poet's fault or our own, we have for the moment ceased to be reading and have become astronomers, or theologians, or moralists, persons engaged in quite a different type of activity." To which the answer should be: No, we have become men. To read great literature as if it did not have upon us an urgent design, to be able to look untroubled on the day after reading Pound's LXXXIst Canto, is to do little more than make entries in a librarian's catalogue. When he was twenty, Kafka wrote in a letter: "If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us."

Students of English Literature, of any literature, must ask those who teach them, as they must ask themselves, whether they know, and not in their minds alone, what Kafka meant.
- George Steiner, To Civilize Our Gentlemen

Ezra Pound at the grave of James Joyce

From Pound's LXXXIst Canto:

But to have done instead of not doing
This is not vanity
To have, with decency, knocked
That a Blunt should open
To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
this is not vanity.
Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered . . .

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