restricted access Views and Reviews [IV]
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[ 281 Views and Reviews [IV] The New English Weekly, 8 (7 Nov 1935) 71-72 The art of the occasional or periodical commentary is one to which I have given some attention, and I know enough of its difficulties and failures to be, I think, some judge of its success. It is an art which, if practised at all, must be practised sedulously, regularly and often. The ideal commentator must be attentive to current events, with an amused attention to the faits divers,1 as well as to the headlines, and must be sensitive to the symbolic importance of the petty, as well as to the insignificance of the sensational. He should enjoy the bioscope of contemporary history as a spectacle, and at one moment criticise events with fixed principles and convictions in his mind, and at another illustrate some principle from some passing object of notice. I have known two accomplished commentators in my time: Charles Whibley and A. R. Orage;2 and I mention them together not in order to compare them, for to compare two such different men would be to the advantage of neither, and would be irrelevant to both; but as a reminder of the great possibility of variety in this one form. I am not going to write a review of Orage’s Selected Essays and Critical Writings: first, because I know enough about the art of the commentator to know that it is not the art of the review. Too many persons called upon to comment have used the subterfuge of a slightly trimmed-up review. And second, because this book is not a collection of Orage’s writings solely in this kind; the editors appear rather to have tried to choose Orage’s most substantial critical writings, and therefore include some things which have not the form of which I am talking. His memories of Katherine Mansfield, for example, or his essays on Love and Religion, are outside my scope.3 Impressive as the book is, it does not, for my present purpose, supersede Orage’s own Readers and Writers (1917-1921), published by Allen & Unwin in 1922. Nevertheless it contains a good many specimens of the kind of writing I mean; and one of the readiest examples is the passage on page 14, headed “The Style is the Man.” It is a note on something that Augustine Birrell has said about Burke; and in exactly four pages Orage manages to say something worth saying about Burke and something worth saying about Birrell; and the two things are perfectly united, because it is Birrell that Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1935 282 ] enables Orage to say what he has to say about Burke, and Burke that enables him to say what he has to say about Birrell. You cannot say that he is talking about one rather than the other. It is a remark of Birrell’s about Burke that gives the opportunity.4 Burke of course is a writer who will always be worth talking about; but it is a rule of the commentator’s game to find the topical excuse for talking about the permanent. Birrell was a figure of some interest in his time, but the really first-rate commentator does not talk about the merely topical.OrageisabletotickoffBirrellbywhatthelattersaysaboutBurke;and in so doing, not merely is able to give his remarks about Burke immediacy, but is able to make Birrell the subject of something worth saying.5 One kind of contrast in commentary may be obtained by skilful sequence of widely differing subject matter, with a preference for the unexpected . This was not Orage’s method; and the space at his disposal for commentary purpose in one weekly issue did not make this method possible. But a reading of his successive “Readers and Writers” shows that versatility , and ability to surprise by pouncing here or there at will, which the able commentator possesses. He could talk of Longinus or the Mahabharata with the enthusiasm that most journalists are only able to display about some paltry contemporary; and of everything with that tone, which I much admire, of one who has discovered these things for himself.6 This gave a freshness at the time, and it is a freshness which has not faded. How instantaneously one distinguishes between the observation of a man who has adopted a view second hand, and of one who has found it for himself; and how fresh the observation of a man who has found a...