A nice aphorism

I saw a review of a just-published biography of Jann Wenner, founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, and thought I might like to read it, having been a devoted reader from the early 70s through the late 80s. The library had a copy on order so I placed a hold and had it in hand a few days later.

I read the first few chapters, and decided: no, I don’t want to spend the time it will take to read this. It covers a part of the culture that was once part of my life, but I left it behind 35 years ago and have better things to do than reliving those (mostly vicarious) experiences. I took it back last night and I picked up another new book I’m really looking forward to reading. And this morning I ran across a good review of the Wenner biography, which linked to a New York Times article about how Wenner and his biographer had a falling out, and those two more than satisfied my curiosity about the book.

And so we come to the barely-related inspiration for today’s post, the final sentence of the book review. The reviewer, who worked at Rolling Stone for many years and at several points was courted by Wenner to write the biography himself, laments the fact that as good as the biography is it seems to miss something essential about Wenner’s character, a quality that allowed him to assemble a crack writing staff and give them the freedom they needed to blaze important new trails. Since it’s good writing, I’ll quote the whole final paragraph:

A funny thing happens when a part of your life becomes official history. No matter how good that history is, the writer can’t help getting a crucial aspect wrong. All the facts might be correct, but the spirit is lost. The effect is like a body without a soul. Everything we read about the past is bound to be incomplete because, though we might know what unfolded, we can never really know how the experience felt. The story that gets pieced together takes the place of the memory, then becomes the memory. Because this book is so good, its portrait of Jann Wenner will stick in our heads. History is not what happened, but what remains when everything else is forgotten.

This is a good thing to remember when reading any biography. But what caught my eye is that last sentence: History is not what happened, but what remains when everything else is forgotten. No offense to the writer, but it was just too good, so I Googled it and found that it is a variant (perhaps his own) on a cluster of aphorisms that have been around for awhile, the essence being:

Culture/Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything you’ve learned.

I like that because I think it restates a core aspect of character development, namely that the job is not to become skilled at a particular virtue or discipline, but to become a person who embodies it. That is, we work at patience not simply to collect and polish a set of skills to apply in trying situations, but to actually become patient—a state of being which will allow us to meet trying situations those skills aren’t designed to address—we come to understand patience deeply enough to craft new responses on the spot—and will radiate its effects throughout our character by putting us in closer alignment with God’s creation.

I should note that the reviewer’s variation actually repurposes the observation, moving it from one about individuals to one about societies.

And I want to use this as an excuse to repeat one of my favorite anecdotes:

[Vladimir] Horowitz was asked if the number of extremely talented young pianists concerned him. Did he fear losing his position among the stellar performers? He responded no, that he didn’t fear them. They are very talented, he agreed, and they practice like demons, making high demands of themselves, and then they go on stage before an audience and practice some more.

2 thoughts on “A nice aphorism

  1. LOL. I also decided not read the Wenner bio (I wasn’t a fan, and I’m guessing I’m a generation younger than you, but although I thought it could be culturally significant, like you, I decided I didn’t have the time it would take. Although I did fall for the new Joni Mitchell bio — I’m in the queue to get it from the library.)

    Speaking as a professionally trained historian — yeah, history misses a lot. Not just because people and cultures forget and destroy things, sometimes without a trace, but because you really can’t write a historical work without having an idea in your mind before you start researching it. I think sometimes there’s this idea that you can just come to a topic without any preconceptions and then describe it as it was, but it doesn’t work that way. A lot of graduate training in history is concerned with getting you to identify your preconceptions and erase or correct for them, but it’s an imperfect process. (On the other hand, if you don’t have this whole edifice of caveats in your head about how “not” to do something, it’s probably easier to write.) And then there’s the whole question with music history in particular of understanding, reproducing, and communicating how people felt about something. And the two exacerbate each other if the writer has any difficulty with the feelings that his subjects felt. So the very thing that draws someone to a topic can impossibly complicate his/her study and communication of it.

    To your larger point — it’s interesting to think about a character trait as a performance practice (so to speak). You repeat it until it becomes automatic (like certain aspects of playing the piano. This is a big piece of why I am a Jew.) But it’s really hard for many people to get past their emotional disinclinations to things (“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”) One wants to be patient, but does not have the equipment to act patiently, a bit like many people including me want to be thin but without diet and exercise. My response to that is that if I don’t want something badly enough to make the sacrifices, I must not really want it and I should quit deceiving myself. I know you’re planning to write about the way one’s heart must be changed in order to cultivate character traits — but it may be worth considering that many people say they wish to experience / display / live out more of the fruits of the Spirit but when push comes to shove, they really don’t.

  2. Incidentally, a former student talked me into reading this; I got it from the library — and quit at about page 79. It is indeed a book without a soul, and not only because it describes someone who seems incredibly unappealing. I didn’t live through the 60s, but I definitely know that people who did have a memory of the “feel” of the age (or indeed, conflicting memories among different people), but this book is more or less a recitation of who knew whom (and who slept with whom) when. It’s gossip writing without even the spice that makes gossip writing interesting, and what I read of it lacked any attempt to give all this detail any larger meaning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s