The Autodidact. Part I.

There are 850,000 volumes in the Imperial Library in Paris. If a man were to read industriously from dawn to dusk for sixty years, he would die in the first alcove…”

One of the most intractable problems I face in life is how to approach the overwhelming amount of knowledge available. (Yea, I know, I’ve got it pretty easy.) For those that recognize this as a problem, there are two solutions. The first is to absorb knowledge willy-nilly. This method’s proponents follow authors, trends and movements according to their availability or relevance. The second school demands order. It assails topics comprehensively, systematically. Edmund Wilson favored this approach. When he decided to read a new author, he read everything: complete works, correspondence, biography, commentary. After all, if our aim is to think or write effectively about a subject, why know it imperfectly? Both schools have their merits. The first is more casual, suited for the Zeitgeister. I am, however, a veritable zealot of the second. It’s the one I champion as the basis for the Autodidact project. (Although, I doubt that I’ll ever finish all twelve tomes of Bataille’s Œuvres complètes.)

But now I’ve found a third approach, a synthesis of the two, that’s assuaged my anxieties. It began last month when I started Walter Benjamin’s English-language collection of essays, Illuminations. Benjamin felt a deep ethnic and intellectual kinship with Kafka, and two of the key essays in the collection concern his work. I’ve never read Kafka. (Well, I read The Metamorphosis in high school, but I only remember superficial details.) Benjamin, though, assumes the reader’s substantial familiarity with the author. I read both essays, and even though I learned something about Kafka and Benjamin by reading the essay, my appreciation was compromised. In an ideal world, that is, if my neurosis hadn’t interfered, I would have gone down to the Village Voice bookshop and picked up a few volumes of Kafka. (I’m actually waiting until my German is strong enough to buy this, see?)

But that’s not important. The point is a unique fact about literary criticism that could have a profound impact upon our study habits. When I read Henry James, I learn about Henry James. Yes, I also learn about his (handsome, homosexual) world, its customs, the English language, myself, and so on. But on another level, when I read Benjamin, I not only learn about his world and everything in it, but also about a significant portion of Kafka’s. It’s like reading two books simultaneously, and the ratio of work (amount read) to knowledge (derived from the work) should always be at its most efficient. (Reading in a foreign language provides yet another level; so-called ‘beach reading’ demands its own post.)

I have over twenty books sitting on my desk. I’m in the final chapters of some, just past the introduction of others. The various states of unread are the result of a deficiency between my passion and ability; my eyes were bigger than my brain, if you will. And although starting a new book seems like a wholly positive act, my time is spread nano-thin. My study projects have suffered. Reading only one book at a time might be unbearable for someone as distracted as myself, but it will always be wiser than trying to read twenty at once.

Nonetheless, I treated myself to a slim volume of Paul Valéry’s essays for my birthday. I dipped into it on my recent trip to Scotland. The current essay concerns La Fontaine’s poem Adonis. Recognizing my unfamiliarity with the subject, I accessed the poem on-line, read it, and then returned to the essay. Had I just been browsing a collection of La Fontaine’s poetry, I would have learned about La Fontaine, his meter, French poetry, mythology, and many other things– but never as many as I did reading it in tandem with Valéry’s expertise. Perhaps more importantly (and to preempt keen logicians), I never would have thought to read La Fontaine in the first place. (I mean, look at the guy.)

This is not intended to replace whatever regimen, if any, you might follow. But if you find yourself like me, confounded by the forest of literature before you, this could be a way to identify, with the help of a canny guide, the most rewarding paths. (This is where I stop myself from using the word ‘rhizomatic,’ and I’m right in the middle of an arboreal metaphor!)

I’ll keep this post updated with titles that complement this method. Please make suggestions, too, but in order that it not become merely a list of all literary criticism ever, let’s limit it to authors whose contributions are comparable to those of their subjects:

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations.
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. (I might not otherwise ever listen to Der Rosenkavalier.)
Valéry, Paul. Anthology.
Wilson, Edmund. Literary Essays and Reviews.

For readers that think this sounds like poppycock, I’m preparing a paper right now about the inconspicuous cost-benefit ratio of art consumption. It will explain why questions like this are vital.

Would that same charitable soul… would name those which had been bridges or ships to carry him safely over dark morasses and barren oceans into the heart of sacred cities, into palaces and temples.” – Emerson

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~ by ohkrapp on December 13, 2007.

3 Responses to “The Autodidact. Part I.”

  1. You are blogging like a madman! Gangster!

    This autodidact project…is it in the works yet. Am I still involved in this?

    For my path a combination of the first two methods you described is essential (though I have been admittedly limited in my excursions into the first of these – the *complete works and letters* method, you might say). It is most important for me to have a broad knowledge base, and to understand the history behind and the causes of the zeitgeist. Still, there are a few writers/artists I greatly admire/learn a lot from/etc. and knowing a lot about them is just…you know…GOOD. My first foray in into the CW&Ls method was probably Jim Morrison. Although incomplete, my adolescent education benefited a great deal from learning about Jim. First, expansion of mind, and willingness to embrace new experiences for their own sake. Later I benefited from learning that Jim was essentially a very intelligent adolescent drunk, and did not find happiness through alcoholism, drug abuse and poetry. Both of these lessons can, I think, be commonly gleaned from a CW&L study, and be valuable too.

    Authors I need to get CW&L on…

    George Orwell
    Ernest Hemingway
    Thomas Paine
    Karl Marx (a serious challenge, but definitely worthwhile)
    …more of course, but those come to mind as the big four.

  2. if you like hitchens so much, you should cw&l trotsky!

  3. Which brings us to the Mundaneum, that great Belgian precursor to the internet, or just Wikipedia rather, apparently it exists and looks really cool.

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