Sunday, February 10, 2013

`I Misbehaved Once at a Funeral'

The story goes that Charles Lamb assumed the nome d'arte “Elia” in honor of an Italian-born colleague in the accounting department at the East India House, F. Augustus Elia. In a July 30, 1821, letter to his friend John Taylor, Lamb explains: 

“… Elia himself added the function of an author to that of a scrivener, like myself. I went there the other day (not having seen him for a year) to laugh over with him at my usurpation of his name, and found him, alas! no more than a name, for he died of consumption eleven months ago, and I knew not of it. So the name has fairly devolved to me, I think; and ‘tis all he has left me.” 

The explanation presents Lamb with the opportunity to fashion a good story, his customary reason for offering any explanation, but I prefer the rumor that Lamb chose “Elia” because it constitutes a simple anagram: A lie. Both stories might be true – or false. Think of Lamb as the funnier cousin of Fernando Pessoa, who was a crowd of heteronyms, or as the less Manichaean brother of Flann O’Brien. It’s not so much that Lamb is a divided creature – we all are. It’s just that he can’t help giggling at the division. 

When we say someone has a good sense of humor, we’re referring to two sometimes mutually exclusive qualities. We can mean he finds the world funny, or that he is funny about the world. The former sort laughs readily; the latter make others laugh. From there we can see that the world is inhabited by four sorts of people: Those who see the world as essentially funny and wish others to share their amusement; those who are sober-minded but make others laugh (intentionally, I mean); those who are perpetually amused and amusing; and Noam Chomsky. Lamb, of course, is the prince of the first category and that is the source of his enduring lovability. Lamb is an infallible litmus test for humorlessness, a pandemic scourge among us. In an Aug. 9, 1815, letter to Robert Southey, Lamb, a lifelong bachelor, writes:

“…I am going to stand godfather; I don’t like the business; I cannot muster up decorum for these occasions; I shall certainly disgrace the font. I was at Hazlitt’s marriage, and had like to have been turned out several times during the ceremony. Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.”

Lamb was born on this date, Feb. 10, in 1775, and died Dec. 27, 1834.

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