Friday, January 28, 2011


The art of making bad choices

All the books I read lately seem to consist of morality tales. Characters real and imagined, living with the consequences of their actions.

First, An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin's new novel (Grand Central 2010). I wanted to love it, I really did - I love Steve Martin - I mean, who wouldn't want to be him - novelist, movie star, in a bluegrass band - but the main character of this book was so despicable, with her complete lack of any kind of moral compass, the terrible choices she made, how she treated others. I read it with a bad taste in my mouth. Fortunately, the novel is also a primer on the contemporary art world and how it functions, which is interesting in its own right, considering Martin is an active participant in this world as a collector of art. So, an exposé, in fictional form, worth reading but watch out for that story line, it takes some nasty turns. Very unpretty. See how the mighty become mighty, and see how they fall.

Second, Anthony Bourdain's new collection of essays, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (Ecco 2010). Real-life tales about his further adventures in food. Kinda like Calvin Trillin's The Tummy Trilogy on heroin. Or, no longer on heroin, since Bourdain cleaned up his act twenty years ago. But the vocabulary remains. Despite all the bracingly rampant vulgarity, he, however, certainly does have a moral compass intact and functioning, and writes so well about his experiences with food, celebrity, money, the Food Network, famous chefs, his own disasters and successes, I really loved it. Very worth reading, this naming-names tell-all. See the mighty, from the court jester's point of view.

Third (not really third, because I've read many other books recently, but let's say third for the sake of some kind of continuity here), of course there's Boswell's Life of Johnson. Which I finished last weekend, finally. It's one long morality tale from beginning to end, told by a profligate of the highest order. Because, let's face it, James Boswell made some spectacularly poor choices in life, particularly those involving prostitutes and alcohol. He tells us himself that he was drawn to Samuel Johnson because of Johnson's reputation, his intellect, and above all, his example of piety and conduct of life. To say Johnson was religious would be putting it mildly. Today we might find it strange that a renowned scholar and Truly Great Brain would prostrate himself before his religion to the extent that Johnson did. Not so, in the eighteenth century. Johnson composed prayers, practiced good works, went to church, supported many people more indigent than himself, was, in short, a moral man who feared death and judgment and did not want to be found lacking in the eyes of his God. And yet, was not pedantic or
proselytizing about it. Just tried to be good, within himself (and failed often, in his own eyes).

Johnson on proper conduct of life:

"If (said he), I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman..." (Life Vol II p.124)

"Getting money is not all a man's business: to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life." (ibid p.140)

"Always, Sir, set a high value on spontaneous kindness." (ibid p.417)

"Make an impartial estimate of your revenue, and whatever it is, live on less. Resolve never to be poor. Frugality is not only the basis of quiet, but of beneficence." (ibid p.456)

"The world passes away, and we are passing with it; but there is, doubtless, another world, which will endure forever. Let us all fit ourselves for it." (ibid p.504)

" is very short and very uncertain; let us spend it as well as we can..." (ibid p.616)

"To have attempted much is always laudable, even when the enterprize is above the strength that undertakes it..." (from Johnson's Preface to the Dictionary)

Would that Boswell had taken more of this advice. Not to
proselytize myself, but would that we all could.

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