In the Know
My own sins are what I am describing. I am not immune to the vanity of range, to the social effects of high-level facility. But the other day I learned that there is hope for me. A letter arrived from a friend in Jerusalem. He is a poet and a scholar, and the most perfect aesthete I have ever known. His apartment in Agnon’s old neighborhood is one of beauty’s best addresses: paintings, drawings, prints, and collages luxuriantly cover the walls, except the looming wall of books, which includes a great library of Jewish works, and in this humble corner of Hebrew Levantinism even the old rabbinical editions seem verdant and voluptuous: Rashi by Bonnard. The fruit and the fish and the wine are always hedonistically vivid. The plantings on the terrace are tropically dense, and the little jungle almost obscures the old lectern, sprung from a synagogue, on which my friend rests his texts. The blessed place is a kind of refuge for forms and flavors. It lifts me up every time. As do my friend’s letters, which are reports on his readings and his tastings; and his recent letter was no different. A comic account of an attempt to arrange a trip to Provence with another poet is followed by a wicked memory of Leonard Bernstein’s appetitiveness in Jerusalem, and then this: “Now I am back to Scève, his Délie perhaps my ultimate-favorite book of poems.” That is what stopped me. Délie, his favorite poems? But I do not know Délie! I have not even heard of it, or of its maker. I experienced a moment of shame. (“What, you haven’t read Scève?”) But then shame gave way to exhilaration, because my horizon had been pushed back, and thereby saved from the assurance that it is wide enough, which is a mark of decadence. Now I was filled with an almost childlike joy that there is more, that there is always more; that the richness is beyond measure. I am still a capacity. Ignorance, I reflected, is a kind of readiness, a kind of youth. Should those who already know Scève envy me the excitement of our first meeting? Shall I console them for the fading of early love and the strain of restoring it? Is there any beauty more beautiful than the beauty I do not yet know?
I trust my friend’s judgment—more, I cherish it; he has brought me so many tidings over the years—“for out of Zion ...”; and I now have Délie, or selections from it, in the original with the emblems that accompanied the poems, wonderfully translated and introduced by Richard Sieburth. Maurice Scève was a prominent humanist in Lyons in the sixteenth century. He published Délie, objet de plus haute vertu, or Délie, Object of Highest Virtue, in 1544. It is a sequence of 450 love poems, the first French canzoniere in the style of Petrarch, and also—this is Sieburth—“the first book of the Renaissance fully to integrate poems and emblems.” Sometime around 1536, Scève fell crushingly in love with Pernette du Guillet, a blond, blue-eyed, and married young poet in Lyons, and his book is the record of his exquisite torments. “Like Mallarmé,” Sieburth nicely observes, “Scève is a poet of meanings and morphemes endlessly pleated and unpleated.” That is a little cold: these masterfully filigreed lyrics are also aching effusions of a desperate heart. But I will say no more. I have only just learned this much. The book is by my bed. I will live with it and see. The condition of knowledge—unlike information, unlike sophistication—is time, which is of course what we, the latest and the smartest, have set out to abolish.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article ran in the September 2, 2010 issue of the magazine.