THE GIFT OF FIRE
by Richard Mitchell
I SUSPECT THAT THOSE WHO have read some of my other works will be a little surprised by this one. I am a little surprised by this one.
That, in itself, is nothing new. I have never yet written anything, long or short, that did not surprise me. That is, for me at least, the greatest worth of writing, which is only incidentally a way of telling others what you think. Its first use is for the making of what you think, for the discovery of understanding, an act that happens only in language.
I have habitually found it convenient, and perhaps just a little too easy, to look for understanding by paying close attention to failures of understanding, which always take the form of bad language. Just as there is nothing but language in which to make sense, there is nothing but language in which to make nonsense. So, in my works, at least, the examination of sense and nonsense has ordinarily been a sometimes clever and amusing castigation of fools, who can be shown to imagine that they make sense when they don’t.
The castigation of fools is, of course, an ancient and honorable task of writers and, unless very poorly done, an enterprise that will usually entertain those who behold it. No matter what else we imagine that we believe about the propriety of compassion for the unfortunate, we do like to see fools exposed. It’s funny. And it is not only funny; it is the great theme of Comedy, and a mild, domestic counterpart of the great theme of Tragedy, in which we rejoice, however sadly, to see villains brought down.
So it is that the habitual contemplation of folly, which does not seem to be the worst thing in the world, leads little by little to some consideration of vice, which does seem to be the worst thing in the world. It is troubling to notice that when we are foolish or “only foolish,” as we easily deem it, we find ourselves all the more likely to do bad things. And when we can see, as I think I have so often managed to demonstrate, that some very foolish people are in a position to bring the consequences of their folly not only on themselves but on others, we do have the suspicion that something bad is going on. Surely, if we could certainly pronounce certain persons wise, we would think it a good thing to fall under their influence, and it seems only natural and inescapably right to expect some badness from the influence of fools. So it was that I gradually found, in my own considerations of nonsense, less play and more brooding, less glee and more melancholy, and the growing conviction that the silly mind, just as much as the wicked mind, if there is such a thing, makes bad things happen. And my meditations on foolish language, my own included, grew somber and satirical.
Satire is a cunning, landless opportunist who poaches along the borders of the two great realms of Tragedy and Comedy. The hunting is good, no doubt, for the satirist is nourished by folly and vice, of which there is said to be never any shortage. But, perhaps because I was reared in Comedy’s fair land, I am not convinced of that. Folly is thick on the ground, no doubt, but where is vice? I know, I truly do know and can demonstrate, just as surely as one can provide a proof in geometry, that certain influential persons, especially in the schools, do bad things to other people. But they are not villains. They do not will badness. On the contrary, probably far more than most of us, they deliberately intend to do good things. And I am certain that they would do good things, if only they could make sense.
But all of that, obviously, could be said of any one of us. Outside of the pages of fantastic fiction, there is no one who says in the heart, I will do evil. We all intend the good, and would, at least often, do it if we could. But we don’t always understand what the good is.
That is hardly a new idea. But, while I have known about it for a long time, heard it with the hearing of the ear, as it were, I haven’t truly known it. Between those conditions–knowing about, and knowing–I think there is a very big difference. The point of this book was, for me, the discovery of that understanding. True education is not knowing about, but knowing. It is the cure of folly and the curb of vice, and our only hope of escaping what Socrates once called “the greatest peril of this our life”–not sickness or death, as most of us would say, but the failure to make sense about the better and the worse, and thus to choose the wrong one, thinking it the other.
This is, I’m afraid, a presumptuous book. It is a book about how to live by a man who doesn’t know how to live, but who has begun to learn that he doesn’t know how.