I broke down and bought that Epstein collection of biographies that I mentioned earlier this month. I also bought a collection of Epstein essays that came out in 2008. It took the latter a week to arrive, but once it did, I eagerly opened it.
I haven’t been disappointed. I hadn’t read Epstein in years. It felt good to jump back into his essays. I had forgotten how much Epstein had inspired me as a younger man.
Actually, I’d forgotten how much he had frustrated me.
Epstein, you see, might be the best essayist ever. Montaigne? You can have him and all the commas that litter my translations. Chesterton? I love him, but he’s in a class by himself, beyond “mere essayist”–plus, his style demands more concentration. Emerson? If there were a saint for complacency, he’s it. Thoreau? Rambling. Mencken? He comes in second, behind Epstein, though he might win if he wrote in the late twentieth century. Dalrymple and Steyn? For style and humor, they run with Epstein, but they don’t display Epstein’s vast quantity of knowledge.
As a young man, I wanted to write like Epstein. I’d forgotten the inspiration (and resulting frustration), but it all came roaring back to me this past weekend. How I had wanted to learn more, so I could sprinkle anecdotes and quotes throughout my essays. I read style books (the best: Style, by F.L. Lucas), studying better methods for turning a phrase (for the masochistically-inclined, the most interesting is Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech), contemplating what it means to be man of letters or, worse yet, an intellectual (for the latter, who haven’t totally abandoned hopes of sanctity, I recommend Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life, though I, lamentable dimwit, never read the whole thing). I wanted to learn genuine self-deprecation, but without the need for genuine humility (I know this in retrospect, now that I’m the king of humility).
I’m now 46, and I can state (kinda sorta) unequivocally that I have put the Epstein inspiration/frustration behind me. My gardening, if you hadn’t guess it, is a sort of resignation. It’s self-survival, yes, and mostly an attempt to attain what Nassim Taleb refers to in his forthcoming book as “antifragility,” but it’s also a sort of resignation to a life of non-letters, of mediocrity, of middling knowledge. Have I really just purchased a grow light system so I can garden in the dead of winter? Yes, and I also know I’ll never finish Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism.
Don’t cry for me. I’m not. Someone once remarked that, after interviewing a string of philosophers, he had concluded that human happiness isn’t possible, but after talking with a few gardeners, had concluded it was. It resonated with me, for I was never happy while reading philosophy. It was like exercise: sometimes exhilarating, often rewarding, always work. You did it like one showers, but like a shower, the good feeling would start to wear away as soon as one put the book down and went back into the dirty air.
Philosophy, by itself, doesn’t sanctify. Of course, nothing, by itself, sanctifies, but few things promise sanctification–or peace of mind, or virtue, or contentment–like philosophy. In that, it’s a false mistress, and leads to a certain amount of frustration. The same goes with writing: when you start, you feel like you’ll attain a measure of happiness if you just write _______________. It’s not true.
Gardening doesn’t promise sanctification. It’s just a way of being self-sufficient. You concentrate on the seeds, the soil, the cultivation, and the harvest. Throughout it all, you find yourself content. Were you seeking contentment? No, but it came. Gardeners throughout history testify to this, including generations of monks, and even including a man like Diocletian, who abandoned imperial duties so he could grow cabbages and, when asked to help heal some serious rifts among his successors that were resulting in bloodshed and instability, said they ought to see the huge cabbages he was producing.
I don’t pretend to understand the mysticism of gardening. Heck, I’m not even sure it is mysticism, or whether I’m really a gardener, or whether my sanity, much less my sanctity, is in place. But there’s something there that wasn’t there when I was aspiring to the Epstein-dom. I’m sure it revolves around the entire sense of “otherness” and “outward-directed attention” required to make a good garden, but that’s hopelessly vague. A well-turned essay requires a similar outer-directedness, but even my best essays never resulted in the quiet contentment of a garden bed put in order right before winter.
Nonetheless, I still think the literary and intellectual lives are worth pursuing, so I will continue to pursue them, albeit in a small way. You can view this essay as my entry back into the waters. I would hope to write one such essay every week, at least during the winter, but don’t count on it. Our aspirations often drown in what Kierkegaard called the “sea of possibilities.” And though that sea still unsettles me at times, it no longer scares me. I won’t become Epstein (from whom I lifted that Kierkegaard phrase–I’ve read one K book my entire life, and I didn’t understand it), but I’ll hopefully become whatever it is I’m supposed to become. A philosophical gardener and man of letters? Possibly, but maybe just a drunken gardener who sits in his backyard and welcomes any passerby who wants to know what the hell that thing in the corner is. It doesn’t much matter:
It is a decisive moment in the growth of a Christian when he penetrates the deceit of all that is called greatness: power, accomplishment, beauty, reputation, mastery of the Joseph Epstein essay. Of course, these things are not evil in themselves, but evil is in them.
Romano Guardini (slightly doctored), The Rosary of Our Lady, Sophia Institute Press, 108Bookmark it: del.icio.us | Reddit | Slashdot | Digg | Facebook | Technorati | Google | StumbleUpon | Window Live | Tailrank | Furl | Netscape | Yahoo | BlinkList
3 Responses to “Thursday”