Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A New Year At The Jade Sphinx With Aphorist Mason Cooley

Mason Cooley (1927-2002) was an American academic known for his aphorisms.  He was a professor emeritus of French, Speech and World Literature at the College of Staten Island, as well as an assistant professor of English at Columbia University from 1959 to 1967, and adjunct professor from 1980 to 1988.

He wrote the first-ever book-length analysis of novelist Barbra Pym, and penned the introduction to the Barnes & Noble edition of Middlemarch.  His critical analysis of David Lodge also did much to bring that comic writer to the attention of academia.

And he also wrote aphorisms.  Hundreds of them, bound in privately printed little booklets that brought infinite delight to his friends.

I’m happy to say that I was a very close friend of Mason’s during the last 12 years of his life.  He was, in many ways, a remarkable man.  Fewer people had a greater gift for friendship, and he was able to walk into a room crowded with strangers and walk out with dozens of new (and lifelong!) friends.  He was funny – witty, acerbic, and a master of the short form of the well-crafted irony.

Some of Mason’s aphorisms include:  My accomplishments may have been modest, but, then, so were my efforts.  Or Rising from incompetence to mediocrity takes tenacity and work.  Two other favorites include: New York is now the leading world city in every way, including the doubling of the rat population every five years, and the wonderful, Never strike a family member.  Your house will be flooded with social workers, policemen, and lawyers.

On June 1st, 1995, Mason delivered a Commencement Speech to a class of graduating English majors.  It shows his commitment to wit, to brevity, and his deep and abiding love of literature.  There is nothing here that we at the Jade Sphinx do not endorse whole-heartedly, and we thought it an excellent way to start the New Year:

Right off I want to show that I am your friend by telling you that my speech is going to be a minute or so under my allotted 10 minutes rather than over. The most delightful thing about almost any speech is its coming to an end in a timely manner, and if it ends earlier than expected, rejoicing spreads through the audience. I plan to achieve at least that form of success.

Everyone here today is either an English major, or a friend or relative of an English major, that term denominating someone who decided to devote at least a couple of years of study to reading and writing about literature. I decided to be an English major over a half a century ago, and liked it so well that I went on to take an MA and Ph.D. in English and teach it for 45 years.

My choice of occupation is one that I have never regretted. I have always known that the life of reading and writing and thinking about literature, and, of course, teaching, was the life for me.  Sometimes I minded not having more money. Sometimes I was bored and sterile, indifferent and inattentive, but the subject was still full of life and power when I got myself together enough to return to it.

Why this lifelong taste for what we call “English?”--meaning literature written in English or translated into it, and the language itself as we read it and write it.

First, who could resist the opportunity to read one wonderful book after another, first for college credit and later for an academic salary? The books are always there, not digests or textbooks or archival material, but real, honest-go-God books written to be read by people. These books are the primary subject matter of the English major, with, of course, writing about them a close second. They are always there waiting to be read. The student of English is less dependent than almost all other students on the quality of his teachers. A good teacher of Literature brings enlightenment and excitement to the subject, but is by no means absolutely necessary. Even with a poor teacher, or no teacher at all, the books are still there to be read, and that is the center of literary study. Just get hold of the books, and you can give yourself a literary education anytime, anyplace.

English is not just another major, for it branches out into everything else--history, philosophy, art, religion, even science. If you want to learn something about Christian theology, you can learn it in connection with studying Milton. If you want to study the rise of industrialism in England, you can read Dickens, especially HARD TIMES. If you want to find out something about psychoanalysis, you can take a course in psychoanalysis and literature. The core of an English major is literature, but literature involves almost everything else once you begin to study it in any depth.
We read for all sorts of reasons, practical and impractical, for information and for moral instruction, but most of all we English majors read in order to be reading, for the delight of it. Virginia Woolf has written a memorable fancy of Judgment Day in which readers figure.

"Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards--their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble,--The Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them. They have loved reading."

But in addition to reading, English majors, and their professors, have to talk and write about literature. The writing is what causes procrastination (almost universally), lip-biting, headaches, and insomnia. Writing, as someone has said, is the hardest work there is that does not involve heavy lifting. Writing about literature is in particular fiendishly difficult. Why?

The basis for a literary piece is an intense emotional and imaginative involvement with a text--Dickens, Shakespeare, Yeats, whatever. Without that involvement one has not experienced the work and therefore is in a very poor position to write about it. But after the involvement, in order to write, must come detachment and analysis. Literary criticism combines imagination and analytic reason, fancy and fact, detachment and involvement, irony and passion, the conscious and the unconscious. There is in good literary criticism a constant shuttling back and forth between these poles in the course of creating an apparently seamless essay. Writing literary criticism forces one to develop emotional and intellectual agility and resourcefulness.

That agility and resourcefulness, that ability to think from a variety of perspectives without losing coherence, are invaluable in the world beyond the university. It is not true that the only thing English majors can do is teach--though many of us do that for a lifetime and are glad of it. With a broad humanistic education such as English offers, when you go out into the world, you do not find a clearly labelled slot waiting for you, and your first job may be the hardest one you will ever have to find to find. But once you have made contact, you will find that the ability to read and write, and to do the thinking behind reading and writing, are far from common abilities, though they are always much in demand. Particularly, people who write well, have analytical skills, and possess enough emotional flexibility to adapt to changing situations often find themselves going up the professional ladder at a gratifyingly brisk clip.

Goodbye and good luck. Don't forget that as a result of your literary studies, your mind works a little differently from most people’s, perhaps with a little more irony and playfulness, a little more flexibility, a little more agility. Hang on to that difference when you find yourself hedged in by a mighty chorus of things trying to pass themselves off as social and personal facts that must be submitted to without question. Lots of supposed facts and so-called necessities dissolve into prejudice or myth if you walk all the way around them. With and independent and skeptical mind, you might just spot the exit to freedom and invent a life for yourself.

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