Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fearlessly, or without batting an eye?

In revisiting Mrs Woolf on Joseph Addison, literally over the last few days, the persistent attractions of the very height of a Piedmont Spring struck one as the least awkward of all possible interventions. Whereas, Addison is a silver shooter of superlative finesse, it is grotesque to wring 10 pages of hers from their flux of subtlety with anything like the rake's progress. Interruption for contemplation is one of the few impositions her essays in The Common Reader (1925) share with her novels.

All one can reasonably do, to substantiate her judgments of Addison - armed as one may be, with Johnson's Life of him and most of what he wrote - she manages to do, herself. But that this should seem germane at all at a page such as this, substantiates merely a conception of hers, which all too often falls into the wrong hands. Lightly lamenting a recurrence of prejudices embedded in his time, she argues: it is always a misfortune to have to call in the services of any historian. A writer should give us direct certainty; explanations are so much water poured into the wine. 

A simple double-take reveals that Virginia Woolf is not denouncing historiography, but proposing possibly an oxymoron, the compleat essay on any matter of taste. Yet, far from throwing out a red herring, she offers this vision as a test imposed by a "condescending" reader. At some length, then, she anatomises Addison's gift for taste for the form, itself, in essays which she regards as "pure silver." In this judgment, with which I lack both the courage and any dearth of conviction to differ, she exemplifies the distinction between the idiom, without batting an eye, and fearlessly.

Addison exalts the unruffled elements of the idiom by embracing the unruffling aspects of discretion. She teases this pattern, so that the baggage of his time may fall out, to reach a conclusion fearlessly reviving the vitality of a genius entombed in the Abbey. It is a thrilling, unsettling experience, well fraught with disturbances of pure felicity, for any speaker of English to watch her coax perception from the seemingly impermeable grain of taste.

Virginia Woolf
  Times Literary Supplement
  June 19, 1919
The Common Reader
Harcourt, 1925©


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