On Reading Old Books (Part I)
I have increasingly come to despise, loathe, abhor reading contemporary books; contemporary in the most elementary sense of the word. Except for textbooks, notwithstanding their general boredom, which should (nay, must) be constantly updated to keep pace with the changing, evolving, and broadening human knowledge, I would rather read an old book. Present-day writers roughly suffer, at least, one of these deficiencies: they either typically lack the true ingenuity of their masters—unavoidably making them unworthy pupils; or they solely write to themselves, for themselves, and for their own sake (what a useless labor!)—they overwhelmingly disregard, overlook, and exhaust the general readership with their bumbling expressions, unfathomable jargons, pseudo-scientific and opaque language to explain (assuming that they understood in the first to be able to explain) complex concepts. They seem (are) quite happy to trade clarity with vanity, simplicity for the want of pretension (real or affected), and precision for in-group argots: pedantism and impertinence are equally important to them as air and water to any living soul. Or they greedily produce books on déjà vus for the sake of commerce, which is even more inflated by their conscious (but often unconscious) corollaries: modern critics; they inundate us with every day’s trifling so much so that they leave neither room for imagination nor do they wish to allow one. Though Gorge Orwell is right that the best books are those that tell us what we know already, these contemptuous writers share none of his reasons for writing, as he enumerates in “ Why I Write”. They would fill the bestselling lists, nationally and internationally; get the most enchanting praises from their corporate critics; be widely talked about and rarely read, if at all. Since they are bound to keep the business running, they are obliged to write streamingly. Advertising the newly finished (but rarely polished) work would not be enough, no more than it would serve any other business to stop foretelling about its realistic as well as imaginary future products, they deluge us with a limitless list of future publications, which they are bound to respect one way or another. As a writer is destined to write, well or ill, wisely or foolishly, it is pardonable to tell the audience that s/he will be publishing in times yet to come: whether achieved or not, no ill is to spring from that claim for the writer is merely reaffirming what is expected from her/him. But to give a full title, number of pages, table of content, and (why not a summary) of the work yet to be started, with a foreseen date for publication, is gravely and pitifully contemptuous and contemptuously pitiful: such a writer usually meets neither expectations nor quality, nor even a personal satisfaction.
Though a writer may conceivably be sickened for one of these defects yet do little harm, any two combinations of them can be graver than an outbreak of a pandemic. Should they all be present in one soul, then we may be certain of having not a writer, but an all too obvious industrious monster, a wild beast that ought to be kept in a menagerie… I do not intend to question their virtues and merits, though I question their sensibility no less than I cast doubt on their integrity.
With old books, like with their authors, I’m convinced not to be deceived by ill-intention and cunning: the dead cannot deceive the living any more than a child could attempt to dupe its parents on a dinner table. Rousseau, the sentimentalist Rousseau, thought himself witty so as to blind the world with confessional sentiments that “I have entered upon a performance which is without example, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature… I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues”; yet, it would not take us a minute thought to figure out that Rousseau was telling a lie, a deliberate lie, out of vanity for even Fyodor Dostoevsky could see it from his Underground. The search for vanity has gravely prevented this great mind from observing this basic principle: that of the impossibility of the task of presenting the truth, the whole truth, of oneself, even to oneself, with no grains/drops of lies. It is not complicated a task to grasp this principle; even our author from Underground is right that “man is bound to lie about himself”; as it is, even to himself.
What could possibly be more delightful than deliberately listening to a man, who, filled with energy and pitiful contempt, seats himself heavily like a wounded horse, tells you a vast ocean of stories of which you know to be false, yet you wait till he elapses his energy and satisfies himself for having attained his insidious goal before cutting the source of his dead sea, before shaking the ground, the foundation of his store and let him know how aware you are of his lies?
Either because they were too honest to lie or because they were bad liars, old writers present us with pure, clear air of immortality, and sound arguments to their cause. You may dismiss the premise or the whole argument as fallacious, outdated, unpractical, utopian, improbable… yet you would conceive (at least, if one were to be honest with oneself) that there is an unquestionable merit in either or both.
“I have more confidence in the dead than the living” wisely said a witty man about which I cannot agree more. Machiavelli, although widely known as the father of deceitful, derogatory, negative, cruel politics, and his works, alas!—his works—that are today, widely spoken of and scarcely read—the holy books of post-truth politicians whose foundation is based on emotions not policies, division rather than inclusion, hatred not love, segregation not unity, tension not harmony, lies rather than truth, speculation not facts, alternative facts not universal ones, passion not reason, prejudice not impartiality, us vs. them, tells us:
‘The evening being come, I return home and go to my study; at the entrance I pull off my peasant- clothes, covered with dust and dirt, and put on my noble court dress, and thus becomingly re-clothed I pass into the ancient courts of the men of old, where, being lovingly received by them, I am fed with that food which is mine alone; where I do not hesitate to speak with them, and to ask for the reason of their actions, and they in their benignity answer me; and for four hours I feel no weariness, I forget every trouble, poverty does not dismay, death does not terrify me; I am possessed entirely by those great men’.
It is a grave shame that humans only take that which only serves there contemptuous pities for justification and groundness (if their deeds violate and shake all moral principles, they have Machiavelli’s works the justify them!), lest this exceptional mind would not have been misunderstood, nor deceitfully misrepresented.
I fare well with old books if only because these “mighty dead” provide me with a romantic delight, an unhindered source of knowledge and sound judgments, revive the curiosity of my hitherto sleepy minds, and eternally sustain, for eternity, the everlasting power of the giants the world has ever known. This, Machiavelli understood too well; and W. Hazlitt could not have said it in no better words: “By conversing with the mighty dead, we imbibe sentiment with knowledge. We become strongly attached to those who can no longer either hurt or serve us, except through the influence which they exert over the mind. We feel the presence of that power which gives immortality to human thoughts and actions, and catch the flame of enthusiasm from all nations and ages”.
What could ever be more pleasurable than conversing with Machiavelli so that “I am fed with that food which is mine alone”, listen to him justify himself for works, and tell him how it has ever been misunderstood? Imagine one single thing more romantic than having Rousseau or Hugo, Victor Hugo talk to me about romance, sentiment, and delightful love; their origins, their causes, their effects. The one by discussing his epistolary novel “Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse”, the other to reveal everything about women (their secret) and narrate his lifetime casual affairs. If any, I would not interview with Émile Zola for his sordid naturalism; instead, I would call on Balzac the romance, the romantic Balzac!
Enough of that for now, however!