Wednesday, August 26, 2015

`No Great Relish for Mirth'

In June 1950, Malcolm Muggeridge visited Max Beerbohm at Rapallo. The great essayist was then seventy-seven years old. In Like It Was: The Diaries of Malcolm Muggeridge (1981) he writes of Beerbohm: “His face very old, somehow shaggy, gentle, quite sad; affectionate, gentle, sad eyes; head bald, very browned from the sun. Speaks in a slightly tremulous way, but with perfect lucidity. No clouding of his mind, but a wearying, a slow fading out.” Muggeridge tells us they spoke of interior decorators, the painter John Churchill and newspapers. Beerbohm said he first read the headlines, and if the news was bad he moved on to another story. Muggeridge writes:

“I heartily agreed, and pointed out that [Samuel] Johnson had taken this view. He was glad to know it was Johnson who, he said, was one of the few cases of man of powerful intellect who was also sensible. So many others, he had found, were brilliant, learned, etc., but essentially silly in their attitude to life. In illustration of his point, I quoted Johnson’s remark: `Why is it that the loudest whelps for liberty come from the drivers of slaves?’”

The most rankling thing we can say about intellectuals, the most earnest of people, is that they are silly. Muggeridge, in fact, is often quite silly and duplicitous, though seldom stupid. In a diary entry from 1960, four years after Beerbohm’s death, Muggeridge refers to him as a “sweet, indolent old fraud.” Beerbohm the master ironist was the least fraudulent of writers and men. His love for Johnson was heartfelt. In “London Revisited,” a radio broadcast from 1935, Beerbohm said: “Well, Dr. Johnson had a way of being right. But he had a way of being wrong too—otherwise we shouldn't love him so much.” And I’ve written before about Beerbohm’s “A Clergyman,” his recasting of a well-known incident recounted by Boswell. At least on occasion, Muggeridge shared Beerbohm’s appraisal of Johnson. In a 1957 diary entry, he describes a visit to a Johnson Society meeting at Gough House:

“Somehow very moved to be sitting there thinking about Johnson in very room in which he’d produced the dictionary. Of all Englishmen he appeals to me most—the best, the greatest. Taken with quotation referring to his publisher--`Cave has no relish for humour, but he can bear it.’ Felt this referred to readers of Punch.”

The line Muggeridge misquotes actually was written by Boswell, though perhaps in paraphrase of Johnson: “Cave had no great relish for mirth; but he could bear it . . .” I find a diary entry from 1962 quite moving, though not well written: “Woke up with that feeling of being a castaway which Cowper so exquisitely expressed in his verse. The night still in my head; a sense of being lost and alone in an inhospitable universe. No refreshment from the troubled night hours. Then started reading the Pensées (Pascal), and, miraculously, the clouds all cleared away and my fears dissolved. Such is the power, across three hundred years, of one clear, true mind on another which, however inadequately, is striving after clarity and truth . . . The communion with Pascal was greater than I have ever felt on any previous occasion in reading, or dwelling upon those who went before.”

1 comment:

Brian said...

I have not regretted the considerable time spent reading and listening to Muggeridge. After death, his nearly immediate slide into anonymity reminds me of Christopher Hitchens - so much of their influence was oral with an accompanying force of personality. Mugg's "Chronicles of Wasted Time" is one of the great memoir titles. "All is Vanity" might have been his motto.