January 10, 2009

Dickens and Dostoevsky, Bottum & Neuhaus

Two of my favorite writers both happen to work/have worked for First Things. And yet Joseph Bottum and Richard J. Neuhaus seem to embody different archetypes. Perhaps everyone can identify with one or the other, just as most people are more right-brained or left-brained. Reid Buckley, the brother of WFB, puts it this way:
Coleridge famously divided human beings between Aristolelians and Platonists - that is, between inductive and deductive thinkers, between those who move easily into abstractions and those who prefer dealing with particulars....The creative verbal imagination - most of us agree - is torn between polarities: the polemical and the Dionysian. There is that eximious infatuation with language, the sheer, lush love of the sound for the sound of it, sense be damned.
I can identify with Bottum or at least I could before middle age (or my job) made me more deductive and less inductive. Bottum seems the Beethoven to Neuhaus's Mozart and so it was fitting to read of their literary preferences from Neuhaus in a recent First Things:
Readers of long standing will recall that for a few weeks each summer at the family cottage in Quebec, across the Ottawa River from Pembroke, Ontario, where I was born and reared, I attend to a particular project, usually a re-reading of familiar texts. Last year it was the epistles of Paul, but the texts are usually of a literary nature; for instance, the tragedies of Shakespeare, the complete Joseph Conrad, and, time and time again, Dostoevsky. Any Dostoevsky, but most particularly The Brothers Karamazov, to which I think I will return next year. It is new on each re-reading, and I have long since learned to be patient with friends so obtuse as not to recognize it as the greatest novel ever written.

But this year, at the urging of many, such as my colleague Joseph Bottum whose literary judgment I trust, I returned to Charles Dickens. Against my inclinations, I admit, for I have repeatedly found Dickens a bit too much: too much in his broad caricatures; too much in his melodrama; too much in his sentimentality; too much in his sheer prolixity. Yet it is my experience that ages of life are differently attuned to different authors and, after giving him a rest for ten years or more, I was persuaded to have another run at Dickens. So it was that I packed a bundle of his novels to see if or how he or I had changed over the years.
Is Bottum from Dickens and Neuhaus from Dostoevsky? And if so does that reflect their personalities? This is all quite a stretch likely, but isn't that what blogs are for? It's somehow not surprising that the former inclines towards a writer in English, choosing not to suffer the aesthetic indignities invariably perpetrated in translations, while for Neuhaus meaning is king. Neuhaus had a great relish for argument and philosophy which Dostoevsky provides in his studies of the knife-edge of belief and unbelief, doubt and faith, life and death, while Dickens allows us to escape into the world of characters so rich they become almost caricatures.

5 comments:

dylan said...

I have to slip "eximious" into conversation somehow.

that eximious infatuation with language, the sheer, lush love of the sound for the sound of it, sense be damned

Yep, that's me. And anyone else who spent his/her teen years marinating their brains in the collected poems of Dylan Thomas!

Jim Curley said...

"Dostoevsky provides in his studies of the knife-edge of belief and unbelief, doubt and faith, life and death, while Dickens allows us to escape into the world of characters so rich they become almost caricatures. "

Boy, you hit that nail right on the head. I appreciate Dostoevsky and wish I could enjoy him like I do Dickens.

TS said...

I appreciate Dostoevsky and wish I could enjoy him like I do Dickens.

Me too. My friend Ham of Bone's is all Dostoevsky while I'm definitely in the Dickens line.

JB said...

Oh, how Richard would have loved this comment--and would have enjoyed teased me about it. So much is lost, now. Jody

TS said...

My sympathies Jody as I heard on EWTN's "World Over" how close you were to him. It is quite a loss.