Friday, September 23, 2016

`First of All, the Tone Amuses'

Mundanity has its charms. If I could meet, say, Aristotle, or Dr. Johnson, I wouldn’t waste time with grand philosophical questions. I’d want to know what they had for lunch and their strategies for dealing with bores. And what they use for toothpaste, and how often they brush. And whether they have successfully treated flatulence, dandruff and acne. And how much a loaf of bread costs at the neighborhood bakery. Here’s the sort of account I have in mind:

“So by water home and to my office, whither by and by came my brother John, who is to go to Cambridge to-morrow, and I did give him a most severe reprimand for his bad account he gives me of his studies. This I did with great passion and sharp words, which I was sorry to be forced to say, but that I think it for his good . . .”

That’s from Samuel Pepys’s Diary on this date, Sept. 23, in 1663, and we acknowledge an immediate human connection – the nagging of a brother for his wayward junior. There’s comfort in recognizing human universals, like the urge to meddle and our mild regret for doing so. Pepys is wise not to leave out the daily stuff. We read him because we appreciate his unvoiced recognition that the dull and unromantic are also important. Auden called Trollope “the poet of the actual,” and the epithet fits Pepys nicely.

I didn’t expect to find a Pepys admirer among the modern French poets. In Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-79 (trans. Tess Lewis, Seagull Books, 2013), Pepys is almost the only English-language writer mentioned by Philippe Jaccottet. In an entry from 1973 he writes:

“Samuel Pepys’ Diary. First of all, the tone amuses. It is the completely neutral tone of a schoolboy carefully composing his lessons. Pepys’ era was certainly less sentimental than ours. Today, we become indignant at the harshness with which Madame de Sévigné speaks about people of modest means. Pepys attended the torturing of men Charles I had condemned to execution without evincing the least horror; he simply notes that from his vantage point he could see on one side of him the heads of the two condemned men displayed in a corner of the  roof and on the other side, a very lovely view. Then he goes to eat and drink as usual, large amounts, in other words.”

Jaccottet writes admiringly of Pepys, in a tone that resembles wonder: “You can’t help but think that men of that time had stronger constitutions than we do now. Pepys often got up very early, at four or five in the morning, which did not seem exceptional to him, and went to bed late. His menus included enough for three meals today. Bribes are par for the course: Pepys never refuses them, he simply pretends not to notice them.”

There is no moral progress. We are no better, and perhaps a little worse, than our ancestors. Pepys is a man of world, in no way outstanding except in his dedication to documenting his days. In him is no moral preening, no pretensions to enlightenment. Jaccottet likens him to characters in Molière, perhaps Monsieur Jourdain in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme:

“His efforts to educate himself, his vanity in dress and his dreams of living in high style are pure Jourdain. And this confirms that we have here the portrait of a world that could have been found in London as easily as in Paris.”

[Go here to read Tess Lewis’ review of C.H. Sisson’s On the Look-out: A Partial Autobiography.]

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