In Winesburg, Ohio, George Willard, “the Ohio village boy,” suddenly “crosses the line into manhood” when he is pierced by a sense of his own finitude. “The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun.” Sherwood Anderson’s understanding of sophistication was nothing like our own. Like many habitudes in the past hundred years, this one has grown complicated and thin. Our sophistication bears no resemblance to wisdom and no sadness attaches to it. Our sophistication is merely a skill for many surfaces. It is anything but a consciousness of ultimate questions; it is, in fact, a flight from such a consciousness. Its objective is breadth, not depth. It is the talent for speaking confidently on subjects about which one knows very little, on subjects about which one has only heard—a social skill, an exhibition of virtuosity to others—the intellectual aspiration of a dinner guest. Above all, it is a way of avoiding embarrassment. There are people for whom nothing is more embarrassing than to be caught not in the know. To arm themselves against embarrassment, they choose knowingness, which is just ignorance hidden by information. (The electronic media are the supreme instruments of knowingness, of second-hand knowledge. The stench of Google is everywhere.) Of course there is a philosophical problem here: none of us can rely upon observation and experience and study for the entirety of our beliefs. Our lives are more restricted than our interests. We must depend on the reports of others who have covered the wars and witnessed the performances that we ardently discuss. With the past, certainly, there is no direct acquaintance; and very few of us can test the validity of what we assert as true about the natural world. So we turn to authorities, or to pseudo-authorities. And having satisfied ourselves that we have met the current requirements of well-roundedness, that we have gained the competence for the finest and most advanced platitudes, we enter the lists. We exchange, and congratulate ourselves on, the right signs and references. We teach ourselves to become even a little haughty about what we discovered the day before yesterday. (“What, you haven’t seen Osipova?”) And the victims of our intimidation go home to bone up in private, to remediate their out-of-the-loopness and prepare themselves for a role in the on dit—except of course the strong ones among them, who recognize this game for what it is, and prefer something better than sophistication, more specific and more substantive, a parcel of knowledge strenuously acquired and genuinely possessed. Sometimes they, the post-sophisticates, run the risk of being without an opinion, which is of course heroic.
My own sins are what I am describing. I am not immune to the vanity of range, to the social effects of high-level facility. But the other day I learned that there is hope for me. A letter arrived from a friend in Jerusalem. He is a poet and a scholar, and the most perfect aesthete I have ever known. His apartment in Agnon’s old neighborhood is one of beauty’s best addresses: paintings, drawings, prints, and collages luxuriantly cover the walls, except the looming wall of books, which includes a great library of Jewish works, and in this humble corner of Hebrew Levantinism even the old rabbinical editions seem verdant and voluptuous: Rashi by Bonnard. The fruit and the fish and the wine are always hedonistically vivid. The plantings on the terrace are tropically dense, and the little jungle almost obscures the old lectern, sprung from a synagogue, on which my friend rests his texts. The blessed place is a kind of refuge for forms and flavors. It lifts me up every time. As do my friend’s letters, which are reports on his readings and his tastings; and his recent letter was no different. A comic account of an attempt to arrange a trip to Provence with another poet is followed by a wicked memory of Leonard Bernstein’s appetitiveness in Jerusalem, and then this: “Now I am back to Scève, his Délie perhaps my ultimate-favorite book of poems.” That is what stopped me. Délie, his favorite poems? But I do not know Délie! I have not even heard of it, or of its maker. I experienced a moment of shame. (“What, you haven’t read Scève?”) But then shame gave way to exhilaration, because my horizon had been pushed back, and thereby saved from the assurance that it is wide enough, which is a mark of decadence. Now I was filled with an almost childlike joy that there is more, that there is always more; that the richness is beyond measure. I am still a capacity. Ignorance, I reflected, is a kind of readiness, a kind of youth. Should those who already know Scève envy me the excitement of our first meeting? Shall I console them for the fading of early love and the strain of restoring it? Is there any beauty more beautiful than the beauty I do not yet know?
I trust my friend’s judgment—more, I cherish it; he has brought me so many tidings over the years—“for out of Zion ...”; and I now have Délie, or selections from it, in the original with the emblems that accompanied the poems, wonderfully translated and introduced by Richard Sieburth. Maurice Scève was a prominent humanist in Lyons in the sixteenth century. He published Délie, objet de plus haute vertu, or Délie, Object of Highest Virtue, in 1544. It is a sequence of 450 love poems, the first French canzoniere in the style of Petrarch, and also—this is Sieburth—“the first book of the Renaissance fully to integrate poems and emblems.” Sometime around 1536, Scève fell crushingly in love with Pernette du Guillet, a blond, blue-eyed, and married young poet in Lyons, and his book is the record of his exquisite torments. “Like Mallarmé,” Sieburth nicely observes, “Scève is a poet of meanings and morphemes endlessly pleated and unpleated.” That is a little cold: these masterfully filigreed lyrics are also aching effusions of a desperate heart. But I will say no more. I have only just learned this much. The book is by my bed. I will live with it and see. The condition of knowledge—unlike information, unlike sophistication—is time, which is of course what we, the latest and the smartest, have set out to abolish.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article ran in the September 2, 2010 issue of the magazine.