Sunday, February 25, 2018

`I Stink in the Midst of Respect'

Assessing the balance of good and bad, innocent and guilty, in our natures is always a trial. On all sides a moral inventory is seduced by the charms of self-celebration and self-denigration. We may not be good but we’re seldom as bad as we suspect. Odd to think that others sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. On this date, Feb. 25, in 1824, Charles Lamb writes to his friend Bernard Barton:

“And yet I am accounted by some people a good man. How cheap that character is acquired! Pay your debts, don’t borrow money, nor twist your kitten’s neck off, nor disturb a congregation, &c.--your business is done. I know things (thoughts or things — thoughts are things) of myself, which would make every friend I have fly me as a plague patient. I once * * *, and set a dog upon a crab’s leg that was shoved out under a mass of sea weeds, a pretty little feeler.--Oh! pah! how sick I am of that; and a lie, a mean one, I
once told! —”

This is Lamb, whose conscience is ruled by comedy. There’s no way to gauge how sincere he intends his self-reproach. He makes fun of the notion that goodness consists of adhering to a list of simple rules, my favorite being “not twist[ing] the kitten’s neck off.” That’s “cash-register honesty” – public gestures of virtue that neatly exclude us from culpability. We don’t steal but fabricate tax deductions, and gossip about our neighbors – such are the guilty pleasures of a non-criminal sinner. Lamb goes on:

“I stink in the midst of respect. I am much hypt; the fact is, my head is heavy, but there is hope, or if not, I am better than a poor shell-fish — not morally, when I set the whelp upon it, but have more blood and spirits; things may turn up, and I may creep again into a decent opinion of myself. Vanity will return with sunshine. Till when, pardon my neglects, and impute it to the wintry solstice.”

[Lamb slightly misquotes the line from Pope’s Dunciad: “Sleepless themselves, to give their readers sleep.”] 

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