Friday, June 08, 2018

'For the Fun of It'

A reader complains of what she calls melancholy: “Not real depression. I just feel down. I don’t want to kill myself.” She asks me to suggest a book that might lift her spirits. Books are not Prozac, I don’t know this woman well and I’m no doctor, though I do take depression seriously. She referred to something I wrote in Thursday’s post about the Sitwells: “They made life a more amusing place to be.” I’ve never deemed literature a form of therapy, though just the thought of certain writers buoys my emotional state. First, fastest and most effectively, P.G. Wodehouse – the Bertie and Jeeves stories, say, or Summer Lightning (1929).

I also think of a letter the too-little-known Sydney Smith wrote to Lady Georgiana Morpeth on Feb. 16, 1820. Apparently she had made a request similar to my reader’s – an emotional pick-me-up. Smith is a master of tact and empathy. He begins: “Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you.” Then he outlines twenty suggestions at once practical and philosophical, beginning with: “1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books.”

Smith suggests no titles though by 1820 Charles Lamb was already publishing his Elia essays in The London Magazine, and Byron had put out the early installments of Don Juan one year earlier. Smith adds a particularly acute fourth suggestion: “4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea.” That seems critical, as it did to W.H. Auden, who borrowed Smith’s advice for use in the final stanza of the Phi Beta Kappa poem he delivered at Harvard in 1946, “Under Which Lyre,” subtitled “A Reactionary Tract for the Times”:

“Thou shalt not live within thy means
Nor on plain water and raw greens.
If thou must choose
Between the chances, choose the odd;
Read The New Yorker, trust in God;
And take short views.”

Auden must have meant The New Yorker when A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell were on the staff. Some of Smith’s subsequent advice recalls Dr. Johnson’s battle with melancholy. In particular, note 11 and 13, in which the practical and spiritual are merged:

“5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana.”

Briefly, consider point 12. Smith’s advice about avoiding poetry and music is a little too general. In 2018, a dose of X.J. Kennedy and Count Basie might help. Profound is Smith’s advice to avoid “everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence.” Otherwise, it’s nothing but self-centered melodrama. Guy Davenport was a Smith enthusiast, called him “quite simply, a good man, and example of abundant good nature,” and wrote:

“Once at Combe Florey in Somerset, he hung oranges in the trees, for the beauty of it, and fitted his donkeys with felt antlers, for the joke of it, and herded them under his orange-bearing cedars, and invited the neighborhood in for cider and fruitcake, for the fun of it.”

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