May 14, 2016

Source: Bigstock

For a number of reasons I am fond of reading books of essays by literary journalists from the 1880s to the 1930s. First, they are very cheap to buy, since they are not otherwise sought after; second, they are generally very well written and often witty; and third, they are mildly instructive (I have reached the age when I like my instruction mild). They are just what a person needs who is intelligent but not in the mood to overexert his brain, for example when he wakes at three in the morning and finds himself unable immediately to get back to sleep. They will amuse and slightly improve his mind without preventing him from returning to slumber when, or if, the time comes.

Thus it was that I came first to buy (for $1), and then to read, a book by Ivor Brown titled I Commit to the Flames. Ivor Brown (1891″€“1974) was a distinguished though now-forgotten journalist, amongst whose many distinctions was one of the shortest recorded careers in the British Civil Service, which he joined after coming down from Oxford. Asked as his first task to deal with an official request by the constabulary of Staffordshire for more lavatories, he decided that the Civil Service was not for him and resigned his position after two days. In later years he turned to writing about Shakespeare.

I Commit to the Flames was published in 1934. All the essays in the book have as their theme the assault on rationality that was a reaction to the First World War. The first essay in the book begins:

Arson is one of the oldest forms of aesthetic criticism, and is still a favourite exercise; Berlin rekindles the fires of Rome.

“€œIronically, most book burning is to promote sophistry and illusion rather to combat them.”€

One of the consolations of age is an increased richness in the association of one’s ideas occasioned by reading. The first sentence brought two such associations to my mind. I recalled the only professional arsonist I”€™ve ever met in my career as a prison doctor whose motive, however, was not aesthetic. He burnt down factories, warehouses, and other commercial properties not because he found them aesthetically unpleasing, but because their owners were in financial difficulties from which only the insurance money could extricate them. For a share in the profits, they put into his capable hands the task of destroying their property without raising suspicion; and he told me proudly that, though he had been caught once (hence his presence in prison), he had burnt twenty other great premises to a cinder. Moreover, he was an ethical arsonist: He ensured that no one’s life was put at risk by his conflagrations. No doubt it was sentimental of me, but I could not help but conceive a faint admiration for him.

The second of my associations was with not the oldest but the newest form of aesthetic criticism, and certainly a favorite exercise, namely graffiti. I have studied in desultory fashion the epidemiology, as it were, of this popular “€œart”€ form and have come to the conclusion that, besides being a manifestation of inflamed egotism in a society in which it is increasingly difficult to stand out and increasingly psychically important, thanks to celebrity culture, to do so, the scrawling of graffiti is a commentary on the hideous inhumanity of so many modern urban structures. It is seldom that graceful buildings or good surfaces are defaced by graffiti by comparison with horrible buildings or ghastly surfaces. This is not merely because those who find in graffiti their form of self-expression (or -aggrandizement) tend to live where horrible buildings and ghastly surfaces are more common; after all, they often go to great lengths and even danger to reach inaccessible surfaces to daub, and could apply themselves just as well to reaching beautiful buildings. But, on the whole, they do not; therefore, whether they know it or not, their activity is a form of aesthetic commentary.

To return, however, to Ivor Brown and I Commit to the Flames. He points out what he calls the nice irony that the German book-burnings of his time were mainly performed in university towns where:

A bonfire is assembled, the purifying flame begins to rise, and a crier proclaims and expounds the sentence as the literary fuel is flung to the furnace of Teutonic Liberation.

But here an association of ideas suggested to me that the irony is less ironical than at first might appear: For was it not that cool philosopher, David Hume, who wrote in 1740:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.


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