Wednesday, May 26, 2010

`Ironical Pleasure in the Spectacle of Human Folly'

The least we expect of a writer is that he write well and possess a well-exercised sense of humor of either species -- raucous bawdy or rarified wit. David Cecil, rare for a critic or biographer, was amply gifted with both virtues and so was one of his favorite subjects, Max Beerbohm. Early in Max: A Biography, Cecil says of “the child Max’s daydream world”:

“It was a comic world. Here once more it differs from that of most imaginative children. Children often have a sense of fun, but it is very rare for them to take a predominantly humorous view of life, still less an ironical pleasure in the spectacle of human folly. If humour comes into their daydreams at all, it is as comic relief to thrills and romance. None of these generalizations applied to Max. He was the most humorous of all the humorous Beerbohms; born liking jokes of all kinds, broad and subtle, practical and intellectual, hoaxes and grotesques and puns and comic songs.”

Cecil documents Beerbohm’s undiminished love of comedy and child-like (not childish) capacity for enjoyment and unsullied happiness throughout his eighty-three years. These qualities, as Cecil suggests, are not unrelated, though which comes first is difficult to say. Describing Beerbohm the septuagenarian, Cecil writes:

“His favourite activity was still making jokes. Of all sorts too; he still enjoyed practical jokes. Even when he was over fifty he was not above making an apple-pie bed [in the U.S. we call it “short-sheeting” though I prefer the English term] for his wife’s young niece…A visitor inspecting the book-shelves would be struck by unexpected titles: The Love Poems of Herbert Spenser, for instance, or a slender volume named The Complete Works of Arnold Bennett. Close examination revealed them both to be wooden dummies.”

Beerbohm’s omnidirectional sense of humor, paired with superb prose and a little boy’s ability to enjoy himself, reminds me of no other writer so much as Dr. Johnson, who once described the eighteenth century’s mania for writing as “the epidemical conspiracy for the destruction of paper.” The key text here is Chapter 27, “Humor and Wit,” of W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson. Bate writes:

“…there is the sheer range and variety of his humor – from the playful to the aggressive, from the na├»ve to the intellectually complicated, and from his unexpected talent for buffoonery and mimicry to almost every kind of wit. In other words, it is not a special or minor aspect of his personality but something interwoven with it at almost every point.”

Not surprisingly, Johnson was a great enthusiasm of Beerbohm’s. His account of Johnson laughing in “Laughter” is brief but epical. Cecil writes:

“Max also projected an essay on Johnson. He had come deeply to revere and delight in his personality; and now thought Boswell’s Life the best book of any kind in the English language.”

1 comment:

zmkc said...

Have you seen the picture - - over on the Nigeness blog. Beerbohm is seen with Sickert at Dieppe, I think.