As I enjoy my daughter and son-in-law orbiting around their wonderful three-month-old sun, Raya, I remember when Bob’s and my life revolved around Joel’s and Leslie’s demands. Back then, Bob and I instituted a weekly coffee date with each other. There were two rules—no talking about kids, and no talking about work. The result: we sipped our lattés in silence.
So Bob started bringing along a book of poetry to read to me. And that tradition continues through all these years.
On our coffee date this past Saturday morning, he read an excerpt from Samuel Johnson’s Rambler 4. Johnson speaks of building characters that are appealing who have more virtues than flaws, so that they are “instructive,” probably a terrible word to writers. He didn’t think writers should make characters with vices appealing. In his essay he claims that Jonathan Swift thought that humans’ virtues and vices come out of the same passion—for instance, gratitude and resentment. We may feel grateful for a favor of a friend, but can also resent the debt, resent the way the person gave the favor, resent the unequal footing it may put our friendship on.
Johnson, it seems, aimed his Rambler, not at the people who simply react from emotion impulsively, but at those who think first and used the great eighteenth century noun, “reason.” When we pause and think, we’ll speak from our more virtuous self, Johnson suggests, so in our literary work, we should make our protagonists examine themselves to learn their vices and virtues and, ultimately, act the finest that they can.
Today we might think that Johnson’s approach is preachy and that his characters are inauthentic. But just in the past 3 decades, not 3 centuries, tastes in characterization seem to have changed. A lot of my students, Gen Ys and Millennials, don’t like the sentimental or moralistic tone of the past. Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, wants to write The Little Engine that Couldn’t.
The essay over coffee this week got me thinking of Jonathan Francens’ characters in Freedom. They seem to have almost equal parts good and bad, which might explain why many friends my age don’t like the book, and so many a generation younger seem to love it.
I loved Freedom for the humor, for the original writing, for the vice and virtue of the word freedom, the disparity often between individual freedom and the common good. And I enjoyed his characters, though they’re are usually what people criticize most in the book. Guess I found all my own hypocrisy in them, though my inconsistencies aren’t expressed as humorously.
Well, wonder what Bob will bring to read this coming Saturday.