Advice Notes

(James Campbell, Waiting for Legal Advice: Walker Art Gallery)

Writing to Hugh Kenner on 30 March 1970, Guy Davenport remarked: ‘Strategy to be recommended to any bright young mind: stray, wander, and meander, and pay attention to what things look like not only from here, but also from there.’[1]

Paying attention – that’s pretty much always sound advice, and not subject to today’s date on the newspaper. Sarah Bakewell, noting that Plutarch’s Moralia was translated into French in the same year that Michel de Montaigne began writing his Essays, observed that, on the question of how to achieve peace of mind, ‘Plutarch’s advice was the same as Seneca’s: focus on what is present in front of you, and pay full attention to it.’[2]

Many of us are far readier to proffer suggestions and recommendations than to accept them from others. But of course – who knows us better than we know ourselves? Answer: it varies, from practically nobody to practically everybody. Continuity is a good thing – except when it’s not. To a young woman writer who sought her advice, Colette responded: ‘When you are capable of certifying that today’s work is equal to yesterday’s, you will have earned your stripes. For I am convinced that talent is nothing other than the possibility of resembling oneself from one day to the next, whatever else befalls you.’[3] And Joan Didion commented: ‘I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.’[4]

Perhaps the best advice—if, practically, the most unhelpful—was Elizabeth Bishop’s take on Pascal. Writing to Robert Lowell (30 March 1959), she commented on John Keats that, ‘Except for his unpleasant insistence on the palate, he strikes me as almost everything a poet should have been in his day. The class gulf between him and Byron is enormous. As Pascal says, if you can manage to be well-born it saves you thirty years.’[5]

‘If you can manage’ – this to Mr Lowell of Boston, where a good many people were familiar with the famous verse by John Collins Bossidy:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.

A nice sense of humour, Ms Bishop had.


Notes

[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1300.

[2] Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (London: Vintage 2011), 32.

[3] Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000), 409

[4] Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), 106.

[5] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 372.

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