My own great expectation of the arts is an accident of birth, in San Francisco in 1935 in a household filled with books. At the age of six, attracted to the Rockwell Kent illustrations in the Lakeside Press edition of Moby-Dick, I persuaded my mother to read the novel aloud by agreeing that if on any subsequent evening I couldn’t remember where it was that the story had been left off—Queequeg sharpening his harpoon, Ahab steadfast in his quest for vengeance—she would close the book and move on to the travails of Peter Rabbit. The reading took the better part of the same year in which the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and by the time we’d come to the end of it—the Pequod sunk, Ishmael tangled in the shroud of the Pacific Ocean—I could imagine, sometimes almost see, if not the great goddess on the page, the looming of the great white whale in San Francisco Bay.
My early meeting with Melville’s prose dates the formulation of my idea of what was to be construed as literature. Both at home and at school in the 1940s, I kept company with authors in whose writing I could hear the music in the words, in the novels of Joseph Conrad, Edward Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire, the poems of Coleridge and Kipling. I’m still subject to the predisposition. On first opening a book that I’m not obliged to read for professional reasons, I’m content to let it pass by unless I can hear some sort of melodic line, even if the author offers to name the man who shot Jack Kennedy. With authors of great reputation, I blame myself for whatever fault can be found, and after a decent interval of years I return to the book in question in the hope that I’ve learned to hear what is being said. When I was twenty I didn’t know how to read Ford Madox Ford or George Eliot. By the time I was fifty I no longer could read J. D. Salinger or Ernest Hemingway. I’ve yet to learn how to read Finnegans Wake.
Regarding myself as neither art historian nor literary critic, I escape the chore of having to discern zeitgeists and deconstruct paradigms. At liberty to indulge my enthusiasms without apology or embarrassment, I’m free to take as much pleasure from the novels of Raymond Chandler and John le Carré as from the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Because I look for the value of the human currency (“very strong and very weak very bad and very good”), I don’t much care whether an author chooses for her mise en scène the court of Henry VIII or the roof of a Harlem tenement, whether the artist draws a bandit on the beach at Yokohama or paints an angel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In Goya’s etchings of the Napoleonic Wars, I discover an enlarged state and sense of being of the same order as the one met with in the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27 or in the sequence of images on exhibition in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” “Feelings, the most diverse,” follow from the awakening of more than one mind to the excitement of simultaneous discovery, which is the means of communion that distinguishes the making of a work of art from the passive and singleminded consumption of a camera angle or an applause track.