Monday, November 07, 2011

`The Realm of Hope'

Two emails arrived almost simultaneously on Sunday. The first was from an old friend and former newspaper colleague, Bob Whitaker. Both of us were friends with Chris Ringwald when we worked together as reporters more than twenty years ago in upstate New York. Inexplicably, Chris committed suicide on Sept. 26. Bob was writing to tell me of a college fund set up by another friend for Chris’ three children. At the end of his email, Bob says:

“I know I am still in shock. I just can't quite imagine how this came to be.”

As always, Bob is precise with words: When I think about Chris and his final moments, reality staggers even my imagination. It’s like trying to contemplate a previously unknown color or the experience of my own death, and I can’t do it. In the Life, Boswell asks, “But is not the fear of death natural to man?” and Johnson answers: “So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.”

The second email came from a stranger, Rhoda Koening, a New York-born writer who has lived in England for twenty-five years. She told me about her new book, The New Devil's Dictionary: A New Version of the Cynical Classic (Lyons Press). It’s her reworking of Ambrose Bierce’s vitriolic lexicon, written “to celebrate its centenary,” she said, “and full of peppy pessimism for our times.”

I find Bierce’s savoring of imbecility a little cheap and self-righteous. (He defined "self-esteem" as "an erroneous appraisement.") Even when he’s right, or almost right, his lip-smacking seems indecent. Yes, he spent almost four years in the Union army during the Civil War, fought at Shiloh, Stones River and Chickamauga, and was wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, and thus earned his right to cynicism honestly. But his connoisseurship of human failing too often stinks of Schadenfreude. Here’s his definition of “present,” as in this moment:

“That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope.”

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