amiable misanthropy

I had a very ordinary day yesterday, and by ordinary I mean bad. I dreamed I was at Cala, our local supermarket, buying a large bottle of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, when I caught sight of a couple of people we used to know. What is it with the supermarkets? I woke in tears and spent the rest of the day under a cloud. Grief, like evil, is very boring.

I’m halfway through the second volume of Janet Browne’s Darwin biography. It’s a masterpiece, as witty and engaging as a novel yet far broader in scope. A weird effect: when I read books I think are just very good, I sometimes get resentful and jealous that I didn’t write them. When I read books I think are truly wonderful, like this, and Pride and Prejudice and Mating and A Suitable Boy and A Peace to End All Peace, I get inspired. Why?

It reminds me of that wonderful Hazlitt essay on Hamlet: “Shakespear had more magnanimity than any other poet… he is the most amiable of misanthropes.” Magnanimity – what a choice word! From the Latin magna animus, great-spirited, big-souled, Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes,” the Apostle Mark’s “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Hamlet and Shylock and Beatrice and Benedick and Cordelia and Lear are all just fragments of Shakespeare’s immensely complicated inner self.

Maybe it’s not that my favourite books happen to be generous, but that the quality of generosity is a prerequisite for becoming one of my favourite books. We tell (or co-opt) stories to explain ourselves to ourselves and other people. The best stories encompass multiple points of view and invite explanations in return: Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs. The worst stories characterize Armenians or Jews or Cambodian intellectuals or Bosnian Muslims or Hutus or Tutsis or Palestinians or Israelis as cockroaches.

Culture and genocide come from the same place, one based on courage, the other on fear. When I grow up I would like to be very brave, and to write magnanimous books, and not to have any more bad dreams.

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