Wednesday, 4 March 2009
I must admit I had never heard of Garret Keizer until I came across this brilliant essay on Home - which prompted me to seek out his other works. So I am now reading (at the usual halting pace dictated by life and eyestrain) his rather wonderful book, Help: The Original Human Dilemma. This is, as one of its reviewers remarks, 'that rarest of all books: one that has never been written before'. It is certainly no self-help manual or short cut to moral uplift; it's about as far from that as The Anatomy of Melancholy is from Ten Steps to a Happier You. I would say it's closer to the works of Thomas Lynch than anything I've read - and both men are clearly in the tradition of Montaigne, inquiring essayists exploring their own and other people's experiences. Help is a set of long essays on the giving and receiving of help, its difficulties and satisfactions, its costs to both helper and helped. Keizer focuses first on that great Christian paradigm of help, the Good Samaritan, and later on Norman Mailer's ill-fated attempt to help the killer Jack Abbott, and the extraordinary tale of how a French village managed to shelter and save some 5,000 Jews from the Nazis. Mixing anecdotes and interview material with quotations from his wide reading and instances from his equally wide experience of helping (he has been a pastor and a teacher), he is continually throwing new, often unsettling, light on the business of help. Never plumping for the easy answer, he is never happy either with the dusty answer, but pushes on to arrive at something like a satisfying picture of the human reality of helping and being helped. And all this in an easy, relaxed, almost conversational style that puts to shame the more pretentious and jargonish dabblers in these waters (I shan't name names). He is, indeed, a pleasure - and an education - to read, and deserves to be much better known on this side of the Atlantic. Seek him out.