Thursday, October 09, 2014

`Their Importance Is from the Past'

As a newspaper reporter, my most happily anticipated interviews were with  bartenders, dairy farmers, coin collectors, piano tuners, store-front preachers, nurses and short-order cooks – that is, non-aligned human beings, susceptible to the same vanities as the rest of us but less likely to speak ex cathedra for some authority, real or imagined. I shunned big shots freighted with prestige and anyone else who deemed himself newsworthy. Better reporters than I could deal with the mayor and captains of industry. Give me the people with nothing to sell except, occasionally, themselves. 

In “Recollections of the South Sea House,” the first of his Essays of Elia, written when he was forty-five, Charles Lamb betrays a comparable taste for the obscure, unrecognized and forgotten. He paints portraits of his fellow accountants at the South Sea House and the East India Company where he worked as a bookkeeper for thirty-three years. Even in life they passed for dead. Most were Bartlebys who, perhaps, preferred not to but never said so. Take the marvelously named John Tipp: “He neither pretended to high blood, nor in good truth cared one fig about the matter.” A promising start. Tipp, we’re told, was “not without his hobby”: “The fiddle relieved his vacant hours. He sang, certainly, with other notes than to the Orphean lyre. He did, indeed, scream and scrape most abominably.” Though musical, our man was that least likely of heroes, a dedicated accountant: 

“…at the desk Tipp was quite another sort of creature. Thence all ideas, that were purely ornamental, were banished. You could not speak of any thing romantic without rebuke. Politics were excluded. A newspaper was thought too refined and abstracted. The whole duty of man consisted in writing off dividend warrants. The striking of the annual balance in the company's books (which, perhaps, differed from the balance of last year in the sum of 25l. 1s. 6d.) occupied his days and nights for a month previous.” 

Elia maintains a delicately modulated balance of tone. Mocking the tedium straight away would be too easy. Instead, he tells us, “the whole duty of man consisted in writing off dividend warrants.” And this: “With Tipp form was every thing. His life was formal. His actions seemed ruled with a ruler. His pen was not less erring than his heart.” Tipp, we’re told, defended the rights of orphans “with a tenacity like the grasp of the dying hand.” And yet: 

“With all this there was about him a sort of timidity -- (his few enemies used to give it a worse name) something which, in reverence to the dead, we will place, if you please, a little on this side of the heroic.” 

Elia’s tone has shifted again, something he does several times within a single sentence. This is one of Lamb’s great gifts as a writer. He is serious but not sententious, and the parenthetical insertion leavens things. He turns nuanced when anatomizing nuance: 

“There is a cowardice which we do not despise, because it has nothing base or treacherous in its elements; it betrays itself, not you: it is mere temperament; the absence of the romantic and the enterprising; it sees a lion in the way, and will not, with Fortinbras, `greatly find quarrel in a straw,’ when some supposed honour is at stake. Tipp never mounted the box of a stage-coach in his life; or leaned against the rails of a balcony; or walked upon the ridge of a parapet; or looked down a precipice; or let off a gun; or went upon a water-party; or would willingly let you go if he could have helped it: neither was it recorded of him, that for lucre, or for intimidation, he ever forsook friend or principle.” 

Elia almost turns Tipp into a hero of mock-Shakespearean proportions. The Hamlet allusion is revealing: “Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument, / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When honour’s at the stake.” In his obscure way, Tipp was an admirable fellow. At the conclusion of this first Elia essay, Lamb asks, “Reader, what if I have been playing with thee all this while?” This isn’t postmodern game-playing. The New Journalism has taught us a New Cynicism. Was Tipp a composite, a distilled essence of accountant–ness? Was he whole-cloth invention? Was he Lamb or Elia (an anagram of “a lie”)? No matter. The best essayists play with such ambiguities. One of their drivers is the tension between the essayist and his stylized mask. Elia calls his inaugural essay a “solemn mockery” and concludes: 

“Reader, what if I have been playing with thee all this while -- peradventure the very names, which I have summoned up before thee, are fantastic insubstantial like Henry Pimpernel, and old John Naps of Greece: -- 

“Be satisfied that something answering to them has had a being. Their importance is from the past.”

1 comment:

Chuck Kelly said...

Are you familiar with Sig Byrd, the Houston Press columnist?