Friday, January 01, 2010

`A Good Cry Is the Initial Aim'

As a public service to those who sickened themselves celebrating the arrival of an arbitrary date on the calendar, permit me to pass along some of Kingsley Amis’ hard-earned advice on how to treat the “Metaphysical Hangover” (M.H.). It comes from Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis (2008), which collects On Drink (1971), Every Day Drinking (1983) and How’s Your Glass? (1984). Consult the compendium for tips on treating the P.H. (physical hangover). I will concentrate on Amis’ literary prescriptions, though he also includes musical therapies. Both “Courses,” as he calls them, rest on “the principle that you must feel worse emotionally before you start to feel better. A good cry is the initial aim.” Amis writes:

“Begin with verse, if you have any taste for it. Any really gloomy stuff that you admire will do. My own choice would tend to include the final scene of Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines 606 to the end, with what is probably the most poignant moment in all our literature coming at lines 624-6. The trouble here, though, is that today of all days you do not want to be reminded of how inferior you are to the man next door, let alone to a chap like Milton. Safer to pick somebody less horribly great.”

Here are the poignant lines from Paradise Lost singled out by Amis:

“So spake our Mother Eve, and Adam heard
Well pleas'd, but answer'd not; for now too nigh
Th' Archangel stood…”

The jig, in other words, is up. As an I.E. (i.e. Imbiber Emeritus), I can’t endorse the palliative powers of Milton from first-hand experience but I know Miltown possesses reliably restorative properties. Amis continues:

“I would plump for the poems of A.E. Housman and/or R.S. Thomas, not that they are in the least interchangeable. Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum is good, too, if a little long for the purpose.”

From Housman let me suggest as a pick-me-up “XLI” in A Shropshire Lad, particularly these lines: “I see / In many an eye that measures me / The mortal sickness of a mind / Too unhappy to be kind.” Despite tee totaling, I feel better already. Now it’s time for stronger medicine, from the poet Bryan Appleyard has called “Laughing Boy.” This is R.S. Thomas “Winter,” from Mass for Hard Times (1992):

“Evening. A fire
in the grate and a fire
outside, where a robin
is burning. How they both
sing, offering a friendship
unacceptable to the hand
that is as vulnerable to the one
as it is treacherous to the other.

“Ah, time, enemy of their music,
reducing fuel to feathers, feathers
to ash, it was, but a moment ago,
spring in this tinder: flames
in flower that are now embers
on song’s hearth.
The leaves fall
from a dark tree, brimming
with shadow, fall on one who,
as Borges suggested,
is no more perhaps than the dream God
in his loneliness is dreaming.”

Feeling better? Back to Amis:

“Switch to prose with the same principles of selection. I suggest Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It is not gloomy exactly , but its picture of life in a Russian labour camp will do you the important service of suggesting that there are plenty of people about who have a bloody sight more to put up with than you (or I) have or ever will have, and who put up with it, if not cheerfully, at any rate of no mood of self-pity.”

At this point, Amis suggests his morning-after regimen has already begun producing results, and that we ought to turn to “stuff that suggests there may be some point to living after all.” He recommends “battle poems” -- Macaulay’s “Horatius” and Chesterton’s “Lepanto.”

“By this time you could well be finding it conceivable that you might smile again some day. However, defer funny stuff for the moment,” Amis writes, suggesting instead “a good thriller or action story” – Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, Gavin Lyall, Dick Francis, Geoffrey Household, C.S. Forester. Here’s where I part company from Amis’ program, but my objection is merely theoretical as I remained out from under the influence last night. From here on I’m a solid partisan:

“Turn to comedy only after that; but it must be white – i.e. not black – comedy: P.G. Wodehouse, Stephen Leacock, Captain Marryat, Anthony Powell (not Evelyn Waugh), Peter De Vries (not The Blood of the Lamb, which, though very funny, has its real place in the tearful category, and a distinguished one). I am not suggesting that these writers are comparable in other ways than that they make unwillingness to laugh seem a little pompous and absurd.”

As a New Year bonus, allow me to add a timely though seasonally belated poem by De Vries, “Christmas Family Reunion,” originally published as part of the novel The Tents of Wickedness (1959):

“Since last the tutelary hearth
Has seen this bursting pod of kin,
I've thought how good the family mould,
How solid and how genuine.

“Now once again the aunts are here,
The uncles, sisters, brothers,
With candy in the children's hair,
The grownups in each other's.

“There's talk of saving room for pie;
Grandma discusses her neuralgia.
I long for time to pass, so I
Can think of all this with nostalgia.”


Jonathan said...

Happy New Year, Patrick.

Where are we going this year? Can't wait to find out!

Buce said...

"And malt does more than Miltown can
To justify God's ways with man."

AE Houseman, slightly adapted.

And thanks for bringing up DeVries, about the most touching book I ever read.