Leaving things out

Last year I wrote a short post about proportion in the arts, inspired by an offhand answer Jerry Seinfeld gave about turning down $5 million per episode for one more season of “Seinfeld.” There, I quoted the great poet, critic, and translator of Dante John Ciardi, who in the notes to his Inferno wrote that:

Poetry is, among other things, the art of knowing what to leave out.
— John Ciardi

A side note: Is there another phrase that evokes quite what “leaving things out” does? It suggests making things manageable—in all kinds of ambiguous ways. What I’m driving at in this post, of course, is leaving things out to get at the true shape of something, rather as I’m leaving things out of my diet right now to return to what I hope is a truer shape of me.

When I learned that the great historian of modern Europe and Churchill biographer John Lukacs had died a few weeks ago, I revisited a short book—a bound essay, really—he wrote for ISI’s Student Guide series, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History. There, in a passage describing the simple version of the historian’s process of preparing and gathering material, I read this footnote:

No matter how detailed and assiduous, your research will never be complete. The nineteenth-century monographic ideal was that certifiable historian who, having read every document and every writing related to his topic, is able to produce a complete and definitive history of it. This is no longer possible—because of the possibility that new documents, new treatments, and more publications about his topic, many in different places and languages of the world, may yet appear. (Of course some histories are more “definitive” than others. But never absolutely so.)

And then, on the next page, as Lukacs begins to explain the triage of sorting the material an historian has collected, he includes this wonderful parenthetical:

It is a great mistake to use everything.
— John Lukacs

Precisely because everything is not up to the same standard, is not relevant, is not part of the story you’re trying to tell. This is a succinct warning away from the kitchen sink approach, which every one of us has encountered at least once in some 800-page book, fiction or non-fiction.

Which brings me back to Ciardi: the art in poetry and history, as in so much of life, from cookery and dieting (see above) to marriage, is in choosing. This entails constraint (adherence to form), restraint (rejection of self-indulgence), and commitment (sticking with it even though you’ve just made it harder on yourself), and these in turn entail a certain amount of courage (say what you mean!) and discipline (mean what you say!).

Leaving things out—choosing—shapes both you and your art and will create order. And contrary to the modern suspicion that order only crushes creativity, it will in reality “give room for good things to run wild.”

Take a moment to read this detailed LA Times obit for Lukacs. He led a remarkable life, from surviving the Holocaust in Hungary to working as an historical adviser on Darkest Hour. And pick up one of his books sometime. I recommend The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler, which I’ve recommended here before along with a few of his other books.