29 June 2011

The Fading Inheritance

Obnoxious as modern British culture has become in recent decades - and surely there's no smugness more odious than that which exudes contempt not just of other people but of one's former "stupid" self - yet there is one thing about today's Brits that I continue to enjoy. Unlike perhaps most of us Americans, the British by and large have not yet abandoned the art of writing as if they actually liked words, and took pleasure in them, and saw the point of them. The British, even today, don't seem to write as if they were embarrassed from writing, as if it were something intrinsically effeminate or evasive of real life. They don't write - or maybe they haven't yet mastered the American art of writing - as if the specific words you chose were all a matter of the sublimest indifference, because ultimately having to use words at all was at best a pitiful substitute for actually - well, you know, doing something.

But most importantly for me, somehow the British continue to write - however routinely and indifferently - as if they still had some vague, ancestral notion of words' power, not just to dilute or diminish or obscure, but to enhance and invigorate, one's sense of the living creature being described. And here I mean one's sense, not just of how vivid, and crisp, and cleanly and deliciously itself that creature is, but how loved, and love-able, and able-to-be-delighted-in. Even (when he wants to) by Man. Or certainly, in any case, by the writer. I mean, again, a kind of writer (in this respect not unlike her own Author) so intent on reaching the Heart of the people and things she describes, that the words themselves no longer have to be just traffic jams or temporary roadblocks, or delays or detours due to construction, but can actually become main thoroughfares, maybe even highways and expressways. Or else, at the very least, a long, interminably-winding, yet thoroughly absorbing garden path. (And how much better one that helps us find the shed of the Gardener?)

Best of all, even the most modern- or future-minded British writing may still betray the hint - occasionally - that real creatures, human or otherwise, were made for something better than just human manipulation. It is these latter kinds of suggestion that I especially enjoy, because they contain a subtle reminder to me - however little intended by the writer - that there really are no earthly frontiers, and never have been: that no place on earth is a clean slate; that no frontiers are ever absolute (not even those blazed by hardy Americans); that every earthly place into which we enter is laden with human meanings that preceded ours. And even those few remaining places as yet unsettled by Man are everywhere etched and inscribed with Divine meanings, which once in a while may clash with those cherished significations we'd most prefer to assign or impose.

And so let's by all means try to enjoy today's better British writing where we find it - Charles Moore's weekly column in the Spectator is one instance that comes to mind - and while we can. After all, no writer is indefinitely immune to the inroads of his culture. And in a culture as rapidly and dynamically evolving as modern Britain's, how long, I wonder, before its people one day become thoroughly disgusted with their past selves, and irretrievably infatuated with their present ones? How long, in short, before your average educated Brit has no more use or respect for words than, say, an educated American?

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