Thursday, June 15, 2006

I nurse a not-very-secret passion

for the writings of William Godwin: it's strange, I find him in many ways an absurd and maddening character--he can be completely infuriating, not just occasionally but a lot of the time--and I certainly don't approve of him wholeheartedly in the way I do some other of my favorite eighteenth-century writers and yet he just gets to me.

I've been reading back through The Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin with something near delight (and seriously if I had $840.00 to spare I would so buy those volumes, I have already regretted not buying them before, here are their charming details and in fact Pickering and Chatto offer a 50% discount if you're an academic and the title's in your university library so we're really talking about $420 and yet that still seems more than is sensible, I must just keep on checking the volumes out of library after library).

So: Godwin, not really an admirable character especially in his financially embarrassed later life (and this has nothing to do with what I think about his character, but here are some pictures); there are countless books about Godwin and his circle(s), many of them very good, but one of the first I ever read was William St. Clair's fascinating The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family, and I definitely recommend it if you have a general but not (or not yet--I warn you that they're very compelling) obsessive curiosity about all these people.

Most of what I think about Godwin this time round I must save for my chapter, but it required massive self-restraint not to jump up from the pages & blog his craziest and most striking pronouncements every half an hour. I resisted the urge to stick the volumes full of irrelevant post-its, I am already writing about the broadest questions having to do with character and society and perfectibility and nature and nurture, but I found myself thinking that I must write a non- or at least not-very-academic essay at some point about Godwin and the contours of his thought. (There will certainly not be space in the chapter for this sort of thing.)

Godwin has this strange quality, he is a man of the most compellingly rational intellect--he has a sort of muscular way of thinking that makes you feel as if you are grappling with, oh, a cat that you're trying to pop into a bag--and yet there is a kind of passion and waywardness that makes him go through the chilliest reason to imagination and come out the other side into a strange sunlit forceful rational creativity. He is so cerebral, you can't help but think of his giant brain, and yet really the organ you feel his writing most resembles is a heart, like when you dissect calves' hearts in high-school biology: you can hardly believe their fibrous muscularity. And of course he is seriously interested in education, which is one of my passions.

So I will restrict myself here to a few of Godwin's thoughts on writing and authorship, first of all from an essay titled "Of the Duration of Human Life" in which Godwin suggests that "of the hours that remain when all the necessary demands of human life have been supplied, it is but a portion, perhaps a small portion, that can be beneficially, judiciously, employed in productive literature, or literary composition":

It is true, that there are many men who will occupy eight, ten, or twelve hours in a day, in the labour of composition. But it may be doubted whether they are wisely so occupied.

It is the duty of an author, inasmuch as he is an author, to consider, that he is to employ his pen in putting down that which shall be fit for other men to read. He is not writing a letter of business, a letter of amusement, or a litter of sentiment, to his private friend. He is writing that which shall be perused by as many men as can be prevailed on to become his readers. If he is an author of spirit and ambition, he wishes his productions to be read, not only by the idle, but by the busy, by those who cannot spare time to peruse them but at the expence of some occupations which ought not to be suspended without an adequate occasion. He wishes to be read not only by the frivolous and the lounger, but by the wise, the elegant and the fair, by those who are qualified to appreciate the merit of a work, who are endowed with a quick sensibility and a discriminating taste, and are able to pass a sound judgment on its beauties and defects. He advances his claim to permanent honours, and desires that his lucubrations should be considred by generations yet unborn.


An author ought only to commit to the press the first fruits of his field, his best and choicest thoughts. He ought not to take up the pen, till he has brought his mind into a fitting tone, and ought to lay it down, the instant his intellect becomes in any degree clouded, and his vital spirits abate of their elasticity.

Godwin suggests that most writers will be able to spend only two or three hours before the intellect clouds and the author "no longer sports in the meadows of thought, or rvels in the exuberance of imagination, but becomes barren and unsatisfactory," though he supplements this with further thoughts in the succeeding essay titled "Of Human Vegetation":

[T]he intellect cannot always be always on the stretch, nor the bow of the mind for ever bent. In the act of composition, unless where the province is of a very inferior kind, it is likely that not more than two or three hours at a time can be advantageously occupied. But in literary labour it will often occur, that, in addition to the hours expressly engaged in composition, much time may be required for the collecting materials, the collating of authorities, and the bringing together a variety of particulars, so as to sift from the mass those circumstances which may best conduce to the purpose of the writer. In all these preliminary and inferior enquiries it is less necessary that the mind should be perpetually awake and on the alert, than in the direct office of composition.

(It's funny, I have always found something exactly like this to be true, I expect there are exceptions and some writers have superhuman powers of concentration but I find two or three hours of actual writing is the most I can ever manage, I hit about 1500 words if it's fiction or perhaps more like 2000 if it's academic stuff and I'm working from notes and quotations and I can just feel my attention lagging, it's time then to turn to reading and note-taking and editing if it's academic stuff or just general staring-blankly-at-the-wall if it's fiction--one of the reasons I find fiction-writing far more of a torment, that forced downtime/recharging is so boring compared to what you get to do when you're working on a massive academic project!)

And one more piece of sensible advice from Godwin (this is good for novel-writers and dissertation-writers alike--and Godwin is after all one of only a handful of major philosophers who also wrote novels, it is part of his appeal for me, there are philosophers who write like novelists--Hume! Derek Parfit!--but this is a different thing altogether) in an essay that I find equal parts ridiculous and appealing, "Of Self-Complacency":

[I]f we would enter ourselves in the race of positive improvement, if we would become familiar with generous sentiments, and the train of conduct which such sentiments inspire, we must provide ourselves with the soil in which such things grow, and engage in the species of husbandry by which they are matured; in other words, we must be no strangers to self-esteem and self-complacency.


We cannot perform our tasks to the best of our power, unless we think well of our own capacity.

But this is the smallest part of what is necessary. We must also be in good humour with ourselves. We must say, I can do that which I shall have just occasion to look back upon with satisfaction. It is the anticipation of this result, that stimulates our efforts, and carries us forward. Perseverance is an active principle, and cannot continue to operate but under the influence of desire. It is incompatible with languor and neutrality. It implies the love of glory, perhaps of that glory which shall be attributed to us by others, or perhaps only of that glory which shall be reaped by us in the silent chambers of the mind. The diligent scholar is he that loves himself, and desires to have reason to applaud and love himself. He sits down to his task with resolution, he approves of what he does in each step of the process, and in each enquires, Is this the thing I purposed to effect?

In conclusion, to make an already lengthy post even longer, I have been generally virtuous but notaltogether able to resist the call of light reading:

I first heard about Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (which turned out to be a remarkably good read, I highly recommend this one--it's written in alternating chapters, boy and girl voices, by the male and female co-authors, and while I found the girl's voice more compelling the counterbalance between the two is extremely appealing) at the very good mostly-young-adult-fiction blog Bookshelves of Doom. And when a copy happened to come my way some weeks later I just sucked it down, what an enjoyable read--it lasted me exactly the Amtrak trip from New York to Philadelphia, it was horribly early last Saturday morning and only a really good book would have kept me from trying to get a little more sleep.... Also I see the book has an ingeniously designed promotional website, go and look and marvel.

And in small bites along with meals (which is singularly inappropriate given its subject matter) I have been consuming the also quite excellent My Sister's Continent by Gina Frangello (Carrie Frye recommended this to me, and she was quite right, it's just the kind of novel I love; it was one of the Litblog Coop picks recently and there's some good stuff at that site). Extremely well-written (it's a sort of reimagining of Freud's Dora case, set in contemporary Chicago--a story of twins), deeply engaging, quite dark in sensibility. Interestingly covers remarkably similar ground to Marcy Dermansky's Twins (here were my thoughts on that book last September, if you scroll down); and yet the two books could not be more different, it is an appealing example of the way writerly temperament or sensibility colors every sentence of a book. (However I will add that though I really, really liked both novels and highly recommend them I now want to read a novel about female twins that does not feature parental abuse, anorexia, etc. etc. and instead depicts them as more or less happy and functional in the way that most people we know in life seem to be! It makes me think the twin thing in most novels is far more a literary conceit than a naturalistic depiction of the particular and peculiar aspects of the relationship between identical twins, this strikes me as a pity. Any recommendations on more realistic twin novels?)


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  2. Thanks for the great blurb on my wife's book! Check out her blog if you are interested.