Tuesday, June 10, 2014

`The Secret of Happiness in This Century'

“-- I, too, count myself a mostly happy person, an ebullient pessimist –” 

Like other good writers, Terry Teachout tucks some of his best lines between dashes or within parentheses, so they come to resemble Groucho’s asides to the audience or W.C. Fields’ more amusing mutterings. This one is drawn from Terry’s post on Monday, an inspired convergence of his mother’s life in Missouri and Stefan Zweig’s in Mitteleuropa and beyond. What I admire is the near-oxymoronic quality of “ebullient pessimist,” a distinction that places equal stress on modifier and noun. The more common species of pessimist is the crank smitten by his own gloominess. He is spiritually lazy, usually easy on himself and unforgiving of the world, an adept at Schadenfreude. He’s a disappointed lover who turns rebarbative, and has learned that he can get a lot of attention by raining on picnics. 

The writer who embodies ebullient pessimism is Evelyn Waugh in his manic phases. To be ebullient is to be boiling and, figuratively, “gushing forth like boiling water; bubbling over, overflowing, enthusiastic.” One can be an animated crepehanger – rare but valued companions. The conclusions Waugh reaches about the state of the world are grim but brightly and amusingly articulated. V.S. Pritchett referred to “the beauty of his malice.” To call Waugh a killjoy or wet blanket is to radically misunderstand him. Here he is in a 1951 review of Stephen Spender’s World within World (collected in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, 1984): 

“At one stage of his life Mr Spender took to painting and, he naively tells us, then learned the great lesson that `it is possible entirely to lack talent in an art where one believes oneself to have creative feeling.’ It is odd that this never occurred to him while he was writing, for to see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.” 

This works because anyone familiar with Spender’s poetry already knows it to be leaden, clumsy and dull. And there’s the line from Scoop (1938) a newspaper editor I worked for in Indiana enjoyed quoting at staff meetings: “News is what a chap who doesn't care much about anything wants to read.” But Waugh is more than one-liners. For sheer ebullience, nothing beats his tour de force on what it means to be a conservative in Robbery Under Law (1939). Here's a piece of it to be read with Syria and Nigeria in mind: 

“Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on. There is no more agreeable position than that of dissident from a stable society. Theirs are all the solid advantages of other people’s creation and preservation, and all the fun of detecting hypocrisies and inconsistencies.” 

And in May 1962, four years before his death, he writes (The Diaries Of Evelyn Waugh, 1976):
Abjuring the realm. To make an interior act of renunciation and to become a stranger in the world; to watch one’s fellow-countrymen, as one used to watch foreigners, curious of their habits, patient of their absurdities, indifferent to their animosities—that is the secret of happiness in this century of the common man.”

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