I am beginning to accept the fact that there are simply too many books for me to read and too many recordings for me to hear in the amount of time I have left to live, even stretching my potential longevity as far as it can be stretched. I'm finding this surprisingly difficult. It was always true, and would have been true even if I had continued to pursue both at something like the rate I was doing it before I devoted the better part of forty years to job and family. But I had in the back of my mind that when I retired I would finally be able to do all the writing and reading and listening that I'd been putting off.
Well, even apart from the fact that I'm only about two-thirds retired, it isn't working out that way. Life still makes a number of demands that I hadn't really considered. I don't mean to sound whiny, because I am thankful every day that I don't have to go off to a job that will, including the commute, occupy at least ten hours of the day. Still, a reckoning with reality must be made, priorities must be set.
I'm saying all this as preface to an admission. I have just done something which as far as I can remember I have never done before, and of which I am somewhat ashamed. I have chosen to skim a book that I chose to read. I suppose I have skimmed a book before--my freshman biology textbook in college, for instance, when I was desperately trying to absorb enough information to avoid failing a final exam. But I don't think I've ever done it with what I am tempted to call a real book, and one that I wanted to read. Now I have.
The book is William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale. As anyone who's ever been anywhere near the conservative movement knows, this was Buckley's first book, written when he was a recent graduate of Yale. I've always had the impression that it's considered a conservative classic. It's been sitting on my shelf for some years, and I decided to check it off my list.
It's a disappointment. If it were not by the man whose initials all conservatives and many liberals recognize, it would probably have been mostly forgotten, and of mainly historical interest. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the book is more specifically about Yale at that moment (the late 1940s) than I anticipated. It's a case study of the state of instruction on religion and economics at Yale--or rather, I should say, the process of secularization and liberalization (in the political sense) at Yale, because that's what Buckley is describing. As such, much of it is far too detailed to be of much interest to me. It includes a discussion of specific instructors, textbooks, events, speeches, and controversies which I would think only a historian or very dedicated Yale alumnus would care about. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone not specifically interested in Buckley or Yale or both.
That said, I am struck by how familiar Buckley's complaints sound. The process by which we arrived at the almost complete domination of leftist thought in the academy was well advanced by 1950. Buckley chastises Yale for pretending to be engaged in a disinterested search for truth but actually having an orthodoxy favoring secularism and statism. By our standards it was relatively conservative, giving lip service to Christianity and opposing communism. Buckley wanted Yale to dispense with the pose of neutrality and to openly favor what I will very loosely call Americanism (not that he puts it that way). Well, he certainly got part of that wish: the pose of neutrality is not fooling much of anyone these days. I wonder if even those who preach it belligerently on their own behalf really believe it. When cant words like "diversity" are part of the mission statement, and institutions insist fervently on their dedication to them, everyone knows what is meant. And every day brings us a new story of some notable incident involving the enforcement of this orthodoxy.
I will say of God and Man at Yale that it is well-written and well-argued, and in general pretty impressive for a 25-year-old. But it's a period piece now.
I referred back there at the start of this little piece to reading and listening. I used two different words for two different things. It might have been handy to have one word. But not at the cost of resorting to a construct I see often, sometimes used by people who I think should know better. I mean the word "consuming," as in "consuming art" in reference to multiple arts. How can anyone write or read that without a shudder? It makes me think of this character, the vacuum monster, from Yellow Submarine, which I had not thought of since I saw the movie ca. 1970.
When I think of something being consumed, I think of it being gone, chewed up and swallowed or otherwise used up. Years ago I read some technology writer predicting the ways--the devices and the media--by which we would "consume infotainment." The phrase comes close to physically nauseating me.
Last week, writing about the film Mother and Child, I meant to mention Annette Benning's performance as Karen, which was one of the best of several excellent performances in the film. And it made me think about acting in general. For much of my life I really didn't have a great deal of regard for the art of acting, for the gifts required to do it well. I just took it for granted that some people had a knack for pretending to be other people, or for creating an appealing screen persona (e.g. John Wayne), and in fact for pretending in general.
I just spent an hour looking for a remark, which I was sure was by Samuel Johnson, which disparages acting. What I recall is that he said it needed only "great plasticity of features" and...something else...I can't remember what.
Well, if Johnson said that, I don't know where. I must have read it somewhere, because I don't think I would have invented that phrase. I've searched an online version of Boswell's Life without finding it, and done a number of Google searches for the phrase and variations of it, with no luck. At the moment I'm suspecting that it wasn't Johnson who said it, but someone else of roughly the same period, and that I read it in The Oxford Book of Literary Quotations. But if so it'll take me a while to find it.
Anyway: when I first read it, I knew, of course, that it was hyperbole, but came close enough to agreeing that I thought it was pretty sharp. At at some point, maybe fifteen or so years ago, I began to appreciate just how difficult good acting must be. The thought crossed my mind during several scenes in Mother and Child when the camera is on Karen's face: for instance, the moment when she is combing her mother's hair and chatting about her day at work. She mentions that a new guy has started there, and that he seems nice.
"Karen, don't get your hopes up," is her mother's response. Karen says nothing, and there is not a great deal visible in her face, but it's enough to say everything about Karen's relationship with her mother and indeed about her life in general.
"Plasticity of features," indeed. Yes, that's required, just as an unusually high level of manual dexterity is required for playing a musical instrument well. But that's just the minimal requirement.
Of course the writer, who was also the director, must get credit for creating the exchange. He's the composer, the two women are the performers who bring it to life.
I'd like to know how these roses came to be here, stuck in a log on the beach. Was it a sad story or a happy one? There were several others here and there, one some distance away as if perhaps it had been tossed.