Thursday, August 24, 2017

`The Nostalgic Present'

“Primitive and essential things have great power to touch the heart of the beholder. I mean such things as a man ploughing a field, or sowing or reaping; a girl filling a pitcher from a spring; a young mother with her child; a fisherman mending his nets; a light from a lonely hut on a dark night.”

The tone of “The Golden Drugget” (And Even Now, 1920) is unusual for Max Beerbohm. The essay is not conspicuously comical and the irony quotient is low. He writes in 1918, near the close of the Great War, and the conflict shadows his essay. The title is a reference to an inn near his home in Rapallo (he writes in England). The OED defines drugget as “a coarse woollen cloth used as a floor or table covering.” A humble fabric, in contrast to silk or fine linen. Beerbohm avoids the elegant. “The Golden Cashmere” wouldn’t work. Because of wartime lighting restrictions, he assumes the light the inn casts at night has been dimmed. His thoughts are with the prewar past:  

“But on a thoroughly dark night, when it is manifest as nothing but a strip of yellow light cast across the road from an ever-open door, great always is its magic for me. Is? I mean was. But then, I mean also will be. And so I cleave to the present tense--the nostalgic present, as grammarians might call it.”

Nostalgia, variously nuanced, is not unusual in Beerbohm but bald sentimentality is. He is too self-policing a writer to indulge it, at least in print. He often treats sentimental subjects unsentimentally. His inn represents sanctuary. He goes on to call it “this one calm bright thing.” It reminds me of George Ault’s Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946) and Edward Hopper’s Rooms for Tourists (1945).

“The Golden Drugget” is densely but delicately written. Almost every sentence flips a switch, as in “Nature is only interesting because of us.” How obviously true but seldom articulated. The ending is sublime. Beerbohm never enters The Golden Drugget. To enter would disappoint writer and reader. The promise must remain unrealized:

“`Stranger, come in!’ is the clear message of the Golden Drugget. `This is but a humble and earthly hostel, yet you will find here a radiant company of angels and archangels.’ And always I cherish the belief that if I obeyed the summons I should receive fulfilment of the promise. Well, the beliefs that one most cherishes one is least willing to test. I do not go in at that open door. But lingering, but reluctant, is my tread as I pass by it; and I pause to bathe in the light that is as the span of our human life, granted between one great darkness and another.”

Beerbohm was born on this date, Aug. 24, in 1872.

1 comment:

Finn MacCool said...

The last quotation reminds me of the famous analogy of Venerable Bede:

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”