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A Backward Glance At Wilson's Mind

By John A. Pope

Despite its title, Edmund Wilson presents several pieces of his mind in this latest work, and some of them are more palatable than others. For here, as elsewhere in his work, the author's determined rationality sometimes becomes oppressive; his assertions of the intellectual clarity of his own position antagonize even sympathetic readers, and create the suspicion that in his quest for a concise and unified point of view the author has sometimes ignored important considerations.

But antagonism is in many cases a more productive response than admiration. Disagreement with a thinker and writer of Wilson's calibre demands of the reader a serious and fruitful consideration of his own beliefs, and this is certainly close to the optimum effect that an essayist can hope to achieve. If he cannot convince, he can at least force the reader to scrutinize his own opinion, and perhaps to modify it. In this, Wilson succeeds admirably.

But although the rightness of the author's position is not, in this sense, a measure of the book's value, he is seldom seriously at fault. The topics covered by these reflections covers a wide and intriguing range: Religion, Sex, The United States, Europe, Russia and--in the most personally compelling of the essays--a retrospection on the lives of the parents.

Yet despite the almost presumptuous scope of his remarks, Wilson seldom takes a position lightly. In one of the book's most infuriating passage, he describe pragmatically the superiority of the American bathroom to the Gothic cathedral as a mental stimulus: "But the bathroom, too, shelters the spirit, it tranquillizes and reassures, in surroundings of a celestial Whiteness, where the pipes and the faucets gleam and the mirror makes another liquid surface, which will render you, shaved, rubbed and brushed, a nobler and more winning appearance... It encourages self-dependence and prepares one to face the world, fortified, firm on one's feet, serene and with a mind like a diamond." There are two possible reactions of disgust to this sort of things in Wilson's writing: First, that he has reached the point where he has been blinded to the sins of one-sidedness by his own sense of self-importance; or second, that he has tried to use calculated absurdity and insult as a stimulus to the reader, and has failed for lack of that sympathetic gusto with which H.L. Mencken forgave even as he condemmed.

Neither reaction, I think, is quite correct. As a considerate thinker, Wilson is quite conscious of the extremity of this position as stated. But he does not desire or expect a reaction of disgust from anyone interested in reading his essay in the first place; the dogmatic force of his statement creates resistance in the reader, who, in examining the idea for its real weaknesses, comes more fully to understand understand the author's meaning.

Wilson cannot imagine that some of his remarks will be swallowed easily. In his essay on sex, after propounding the wisdom of selective breeding through artificial insemination, he closes: "Do not say that you turn in distaste from a selection so calculated and conscious, which does not depend on 'the heart.' In how many marriages and liasons in the society we actually inhabit does no calculation enter or the heart play a cardinal role?" This is necessarily repugnant to those of young enthusiasms--perhaps of healthy emotional enthusiasms. But Wilson does not demand that it be eaten; he asks only that it be tasted.

This is not to say that all the ideas expressed in this book are likely to upset the reader. On the contrary, it is only at the moment when one disagrees with them that Wilson's views suddenly appear too extreme. He is generally convincing, always interesting, and filled with fascinating bits of information gleaned from a long lifetime of looking into all the various areas of human activity. His explanation of the "mystery" of the Russians, however valid, offers new points of view on a topic that is of deep interest today. The section of the book devoted to the Jews is likewise designed to provoke new insight into a subject deeply complicated and much obscured. And if these insight seem impossibly clear, they are, again, purposely so.

It is this search for clarity which is most basic to Wilson's work, both in regard to thought and expression. It is his intense concern with the most accurate possible correlation of the world and the thought which provides an understanding of his intellectual method. In his remarks about religion, Wilson is concerned by the fact that there is no longer any valid correlative for the time-honored distinction between human and animal has led to a degeneration of meaning in the word "soul." These verbal failures lead in turn to the confusion and failure of thought about religious concepts.

Languages as a tool of thought, the crucial importance of an understanding of semantic problems: these concept are fundamental, and Wilson displays his deep concern with them in his discussion of the horrible deficiencies in the current teaching of English in America. In speaking of his own education, by contrast, Wilson says, "He drilled us in sentence structure, grammar, the device of 'rhetoric' and prosody, as if we had been studying a foreign languages; and we were made to take very seriously--as I have never, indeed, ceased to do--the great Trinity: Lucidity, Force and Ease."

The essays in this book are another product of this serious devotion. If Edmund Wilson's brilliance is circumscribed, he speaks at least with the authority of a man of candor, skill, and high intelligence

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