Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Geoff Dyer, _Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It_

JUST CHECKED, AND yes, Dyer did attend Oxford University, which I suspected he had given his perfection of the Oxford manner, by which I mean such habits as saying one has never studied Topic X closely but then displaying unusually detailed knowledge about Topic X, or claiming to be a lazy sod who cannot finish anything, a mere wastrel, even while one is producing a lengthening bibliography. The late Christopher Hitchens was a contemporary master of the Oxford manner, but Dyer is no slouch.

The chapter titled "Leptis Magna" has some good examples. "Sitting on the plane, I wondered if there was any limit to my unpreparedness," he muses, only having been able to read a few pages on Leptis Magna, the archaeological site to which he is on route.  Modesty becomes a writer in such circumstances, I suppose, but I had never even heard of Leptis Magna before reading Dyer, and you likely have not either, and it turns out Spellcheck keeps assuming I must mean something else. While you or I might congratulate ourselves on even knowing what Leptis Magna, to say nothing of having the gumption to travel to Libya (!) to see it, Dyer heavily underscores his failure to do his homework

I would go to Leptis not knowing anything about it. [...] I was intending to go further still and put my faith in the power of not guessing but of ignorance as an investigative tool.

Similarly, in the same chapter, Dyer mentions that he has "never had the slightest interest in the physics of the stars, or the myths suggested by the constellations," and that furthermore he visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston and "I felt...nothing."

Dyer has been all over the world and seen a great many wonders that most folks have never even heard the names of, yet his general tone is that of someone who has sedulously avoided anything that looks at all like effort or study.  He not only does he carry his learning lightly, but he would just as soon you assumed him to possess no learning whatsoever.

As I mentioned, Hitchens could do this too, but it goes back at least as far as Cyril Connolly/Harold Acton/Brian Howard, or back to Max Beerbohm, or Oscar Wilde, but I suspect it really starts with Beau Brummell and the dandies, or the dandy as imagined by Charles Baudelaire and Barbey d'Aurevilly, and the need to establish that one was simply born with whatever fine-tuned knowledge and/or sensibility one has and never, ever had to do anything that even resembled work.

The title of Dyer's book encapsulates the whole attitude with beautiful precision.

Someone should bring Ellen Moers's The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm back into print. One cannot understand modern civilization without it.

I hope this does not sound as though I did not enjoy Dyer's book.  Actually, I am a fool for this sort of thing. I own eleven books by Beerbohm. And even a few by Harold Acton. And had Brian Howard ever managed to publish a book, I would have grabbed that, too.

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