Foxes and Hedgehogs

The novelist, Linda Proud, was once told by the poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, that she was 'too old to read novels'. This struck me, reading it, akin to my favourite 'silly' remark of Kathleen's namely that the novelist, Patrick White, had 'written himself out'. This may have been true, as his last 'Three Uneasy Pieces' are aptly titled (and the whimsical notion of tracking a potato's feelings as it is peeled doubly so) but rather off the point. If you were one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth (or any) century, you can be forgiven for either running out of steam or falling into another direction. Whatever we think of Tolstoy's 'Resurrection' (or indeed his religious writings), it does not detract from the achievement of 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina'! It is like telling off Dostoyevsky for not having finished 'The Brothers Karamazov'!

I was thinking of this as I was finishing Theresa Whistler's biography of Walter de la Mare. Here was a man of insatiable curiosity and a wondering spirit that felt the presence of meaning and was touched by it yet he always remained reticent about shaping or defining a truth out of it. Let us see might be his motto and he went adventuring in life and beyond life. He was, to use Isaiah Berlin's nomenclature in his essay on Tolstoy's philosophy of history, a fox, one who knows many things but refuses to assume an over-arching truthful narrative. Kathleen, whom I knew and loved, was a hedgehog - one who articulates an abiding, securing vision of the truth of things.

When I was young, I was deeply drawn to the sensed and actual security of an abiding vision and I recall sitting in Kathleen's beautiful living room in Chelsea partaking of a way of measuring the truth of things, rooted in neo-Platonic vision, that was initiatory and haunting. I cannot imagine being the person I am without having 'been there'. However, as I grow cheerfully older, deeply as I respect the truth bearers, I found myself irresistibly drawn to foxiness, to a deep appreciation of our complex enterprises after knowing that are always provisional, that resonate with particularity and context and the messiness of being just so. It is a bit like inhabiting novels and stories rather than treatises or texts.

This is why I have an instinctive scepticism about imagining that novel reading might pass, after all the curiosity of story dwelling seems to be an intrinsic part of what it means to be human and that being human, uniquely this person rather than that, utterly, is finally the invitation of the Gospel.

You will not be 'saved' in the Christian tradition unless one is absolutely Nicholas and an education in what that might mean is the function of the continuous exploration of stories (of which the Gospels, and not only the canonised ones, are exemplars).


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