Monday, January 16, 2012

Reading out of doors

Every man who rises above the common
level has received two educations:
the first from his teachers; the sec-
ond, more personal and important, 
from himself. He will not, like the
fanatics of the past age, define the
moment of grace, but he cannot forget
the era of his life in which his mind
has expanded to its proper form and

Inside the dust jacket of my copy of
Edward Gibbon's autobiography I notice
that I observed an on-again, off-again
custom of defacement in this library, of
penning a notation of its place and date
of acquisition. I picked it up on an
autumn visit to my college, from my law 
school, no doubt to attend some party. 
As Mr Gibbon would agree, it isn't what 
you do with a school, it's how you get 
through it that counts.

Gibbon had a gigantically miserable ex-
perience of schooling, of the best sort
his society could offer a child of its
aristocracy. Here, he is arriving on the
threshold of one of the great secondary
educations for which his Century was so
famous, in an era of his planet which is
remembered as its most cosmopolitan. The
finishing wretchedness of Magdalen is at
last behind him. He has come to Lausanne, 
and he is all of 16.

I'm aware that the first sentence,
cited above, is a hideously overtaxed
shibboleth of small minds on the after-
dinner circuit. That's not the least 
of the reasons I admire the next one,
on the bane of our time, the epiphany
of the easily pleased. This is a youth
who paid a call on Voltaire, to ask
him a question.

The text I'm referring to is not his more
famous one, but it bears out a virtue he
considered at length in those volumes,
which he attributes to Cornelius Nepos,
an originator of biography and a friend of 
Catullus ~ His simplicity is elegant, his
brevity copious. You can read the auto-
biography of Edward Gibbon wherever you
like, and be entirely taken away from your
present pre-occupations; but it isn't what
you do with it, it's how you get through
it that counts.

This is a book which illustrates a prin-
ciple, almost, which I remember striking 
me with great force, in the same year in
which I purchased it. I had come to the
garden of a German refugee lady - there
was a time, in the last Century, when
there were many - to dine with her and
her family in daylight savings. Her el-
derly mother was there, as radiantly
refined by age as the clichés of eth-
nicity and means have ever allowed;
the chair was wicker, the pergola was
profuse, and so were the bees. She was,
as I saw her, impervious except to her
text; she was reading her Schiller.

Mr Gibbon's is a book, not unlike some
few you might love, which unfailingly
inspires me to select a place for its
reading. This is not to imitate a sight
I've thought beautiful, but to be close
to the thing that I know. I wonder if 
this is not pretty customary. And so it
was, yesterday afternoon, that I found
myself in a couple of layers of Beretta
windproofing in the sunshine in one of
the pastures here, without my dog, a 
thermos of Balinese coffee standing by, 
reminding myself of how the teenager 
proved to his not promiscuous satisfac-
tion that Cicero's fame had been deserved.

This little foible, of going to a place
to contemplate a text, is the anti-
thesis, I think, of communing for wor-
ship; so I would never make too much of
courting pneumonia, as the secret of
literary recreation, and I would never
purport to recruit a foursome for it.
This little premise, of composing the
space for mental play, is second-
nature to the violist, the surfer,
and is only inadvertently eccentric
to the virtuoso of the playlist. Yet 
recreation, it is, and at a level
which makes sense of the teenager's
response to Cicero by the lake. 

Certain circumstances are so agree-
able as to impose some discernment,
in displacement with anything else.
Gibbon doesn't have to be read in
the pasture, or on a dock at your
summer house. But I don't think I
have to persuade anyone that if he
can be, it's because we think well
enough of pastures and lakes to 
bring them only our better ques-

Edward Gibbon
The Autobiography of
  Edward Gibbon
op. cit.

Peter Quennell
The Profane Virtues
  Four Studies of the
  Eighteenth Century
The Viking Press, 1945©

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