Thursday, September 11, 2014

`Those Who Esteem Nothing'

Some words and phrases are like motel art, those hideous pictures bolted to the wall above the bed. They are not intended to be appreciated, to convey information or to sooth the tired traveler’s body and mind, but merely to take up space, to fill in the inoffensive emptiness of the wall. They are Muzak. With increasing frequency I’ve been hearing a phrase, usually intoned with conviction and a self-satisfied air of wisdom: “Change is good.” On Wednesday I heard a graduate student use the more emphatic variation, “All change is good.” The idiocy is recognizable to anyone who survived the twentieth century. In fact, the statement’s negation is almost always true: Change is usually horrific, especially when planned on a grand scale (death being the ultimate form of change, at least in the human realm). I recently reread Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), and happened upon a dryly comic and very Pym-ian observation: 

“Belinda was looking around the room to see if she could find some sympathetic person to whom she could say that Dr. Johnson had been so right when he had said that all change is of itself an evil, when she saw Harriet approaching with the new curate.” 

Belinda, Pym’s stand-in, is not profoundly learned but collects scraps of culture, high and low. Here she alludes to a passage in Johnson’s The Plan of an English Dictionary (1747): “…the chief rule which I propose to follow is, to make no innovation without a reason sufficient to balance the inconvenience of change; and such reasons I do not expect often to find. All change is of itself an evil, which ought not to be hazarded but for evident advantage; and as inconstancy is in every case a mark of weakness, it will add nothing to the reputation of our tongue.” 

Phrased gently, change is “inconvenient.” Belinda is a mostly sensible soul, and she knows intuitively the hazards of change. It’s what life has taught her. In his next sentence, Johnson writes: “There are, indeed, some who despise the inconveniencies of confusion, who seem to take pleasure in departing from custom, and to think alteration desirable for its own sake…” Belinda is not among them. She would no doubt endorse the classic, common-sensical formulation found in Michael Oakeshott’s “On Being Conservative”: 

“Changes are without effect only upon those who notice nothing, who are ignorant of what they possess and apathetic to their circumstances; and they can be welcomed indiscriminately only by those who esteem nothing, whose attachments are fleeting and who are strangers to love and affection.”

[A reader shares his favorite Tuscan proverb: Ogni muta, una caduta. That is, "Every change, a disaster."]

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