Wednesday, September 25, 2013

`Innocent Vanities, and Jests, and Irony Itself'

One of the lasting pleasures of reading Charles Lamb is the dreamy logic of his essays and letters tempered by the precision of their digressive prose. Lamb’s Muse is Whimsy – for most writers, a death sentence. From phrase to phrase he abruptly shifts voice, tone and persona. He revels in put-ons, confidence games and aliases. Despite his cherished archaisms, Lamb seems more our contemporary than his fellow English Romantics. A gin-addled Fernando Pessoa with a sense of humor, a less savage Flann O’Brien, Lamb christens his alter ego Elia -- “a lie” anagrammized. Helen Rittelmeyer gives a close and sympathetic reading to Lamb, his drinking and work, specifically “Confessions of a Drunkard,” dating from 1813, a decade before the great Elia essays, though retrofitted by Lamb into his masterpiece. Rittelmeyer writes: 

“The `Elia’ essays, on which Lamb’s reputation as a writer rests, are light-hearted musings on very ordinary topics like how dull one’s friends become when they marry. It is almost enough to point out that the title of the most well-known Elia essay is (what could be more benign) `A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig.’” 

Well, yes and no. “Light-hearted musings on very ordinary topics” is about half-right, mostly because Rittelmeyer’s words are more suggestive than precise. Critics and readers long ago pigeonholed Lamb as a folksy purveyor of gentle good humor. In this mode he often skirts insufferability, and a prudent writer would no more try to imitate Lamb than he would Laurence Sterne. Such voices are too invitingly inimitable. “Musings” suggests cracker-barrel inanities. I hear a residue of condescension in Rittelmeyer’s reference to “very ordinary topics.” Lamb had a horror of pretension, of the big ideas of the day, which is why he found his friends Coleridge and Wordsworth, and most of all Hazlitt, so inexhaustibly silly, while admiring them extravagantly (in Lamb, everything is balance). In a letter to Southey, Lamb writes: “I was at Hazlitt’s marriage, and had like to have been turned out several times during the ceremony. Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.” Lamb could never have written an op-ed piece. He could never muster sufficient portentousness. 

That Lamb sometimes drank to excess, that he was a tippler, a toper, a tosspot, seems inarguable. That he was an “alcoholic” is less certain. As a noun, the word entered the language after Lamb’s death. Its veneer of medical respectability accrued slowly across the next century. The disease concept of alcoholism is useful and widely accepted but remains contentious and unproven. Like cancer, alcoholism seems multivalent. There are as many “alcoholisms” as there are drunks. The matter is made even more complicated by Lamb being the sort of writer he is. “Confessions of a Drunkard” has been read as straight autobiography, but I’m not certain anything Lamb ever wrote can be so described. The language of the essay is inflated to mock-pomposity, as in the opening sentence: “Dehortations from the use of strong liquors have been the favourite topic of sober declaimers in all ages, and have been received with applause by water-drinking critics.” This sounds familiar to any longtime reader of Lamb. To label it a “recovery memoir” – a marketing phrase – is laughable. Lamb is creating a character, telling a story and giving his narrator a voice that resembles his own in the same sense that a parody resembles the original text – exaggerated but close enough to fool us. 

In A Portrait of Charles Lamb (1984), Lord David Cecil writes of the essayist’s drinking: “It may not have, in consequence, been very good for his health but it did not impair his efficiency. Neither did it change his personality for the worse: no description of him in his cups presents him as disgusting or quarrelsome or embarrassingly sentimental. Rather, he was an exaggeration of his sober self in high spirits—drunk with an airy elfin drunkenness that grew ever more freakish and fantastic, more prone to extravagant unexpected talk and actions, punctuated by sudden fits of falling asleep.” Again, every alcoholic is idiosyncratic. Of “Confessions of a Drunkard,” Cecil says, “though we can recognise some of it as drawn from his experience, in the main it is fiction.” I think this is close to the case, though Rittelmeyer counters, in part: 

“It has little in common with the two standard addiction narratives of its era, the maudlin cautionary tale popular in temperance tracts or the Romantic panegyric on the spiritual benefits of intoxication. It is clear-eyed, unsparing, and full of insight—and after setting down such a perceptive first-person account, Lamb tried a dozen different evasions to avoid being credited with it.” 

True enough, but we can’t read “Confessions” as unambiguous case study. In A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb (2003), Sarah Burton describes “Confessions of a Drunkard” as Lamb’s “most controversial piece of writing as far as his autobiographical work [already stacking the deck] is concerned,” and writes: “Widely believed to be a gross exaggeration of the facts—if not outright fiction—it nevertheless represents a major inconvenience to those who have argued that Charles’s drinking was not a problem.” 

His gift as a writer will always eclipse his drinking, but Lamb is a special case. As with Dr. Johnson, readers, including this one, have difficulty segregating writer and man. Lamb was a good man and a great writer. His devotion to his sister Mary suggests saintliness. In “New Year’s  Eve” he writes: 

“A new state of being staggers me. Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fire-side conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself—do these things go out with life?”

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