Monday, January 07, 2019

'The Things to Which I Have Grown Accustomed'

“Even if the War shall have taught us nothing else, this it will have taught us almost from its very outset: to mistrust all prophets, whether of good or of evil. Pray stone me if I predict anything at all.”

It’s customary to label Max Beerbohm a minor wit, place him on the bottom shelf and forget about him. He calibrates his ironies so finely, the unwary conclude he says nothing at all. Subtlety is a dead language and our sense of humor has grown coarse. It must be loud and shrill, like our politics, for us to hear it. Beerbohm wrote the essay quoted above, “Servants” (And Even Now, 1920), in 1918. It is very much of its historical moment. In the next sentence he refers to “the War, and that remarkable by-product, the Russian Revolution.”

As it happens, I am reading for review two books by writers, a Pole and a Russian, whose lives were shaped by that war and revolution, and yet another war. Beerbohm is ginger between heavy courses. He is amusing, of course, a relief from so much suffering and death, but at his dilettantish core you’ll find a commonsensical Englishman, a Liberal of the old school, and a gentleman. Later in the essay he drops an astute bit of lit crit:
“Anthony Trollope was not, like ‘Punch,’ a mere interpreter of what was upmost in the average English mind: he was a beautifully patient and subtle demonstrator of all that was therein. Reading him, I soon forget that I am reading about fictitious characters and careers; quite soon do I feel that I am collating intimate memoirs and diaries. For sheer conviction of truth, give me Trollope. You, too, if you know him, must often have uttered this appeal.”

No, Trollope is not as smart and deep as George Eliot, nor as funny or linguistically exuberant as Dickens, but he is trustworthy and attentive to his world. And here is Beerbohm in his final paragraph, sounding like Michael Oakeshott or C.H. Sisson, and making a declaration that is almost political:  

“I am a Tory Anarchist. I should like every one to go about doing just as he pleased — short of altering any of the things to which I have grown accustomed.”

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