Wednesday, October 09, 2019

'I Have Always Preferred Chearfulness to Mirth'

I have a friend who is a great admirer of several writers about whom I’m unable to rouse a comparable pitch of enthusiasm – Lord Macaulay and Mr. Mirth himself, Thomas Carlyle. I admire them the way I admire a vegan diet – theoretically, from a safe distance. Neither brings me joy. About a third writer much prized by my friend I’ve made some progress. I’ve found things to enjoy in Joseph Addison’s periodical essays.

When I was introduced to him as a college freshman, he came as a conjoined twin – Addison and Steele. Together they founded the Spectator in 1711 and the Guardian two years later. Slowly, without a plan, I’ve been reading Addison over the last year or so, when the impulse strikes, and I find myself cozying up to his style and his manner. Clearly, he is among Dr. Johnson’s models, a useful precursor for the author of The Rambler. He is bluff and clear. There’s an easy, natural rhythm to his sentences and paragraphs, he varies sentence lengths and his vocabulary is less Latinate than Johnson’s. We can learn from him. Here is how Addison begins Spectator #381, published May 17, 1712:

“I have always preferred Chearfulness to Mirth. The latter, I consider as an Act, the former as an Habit of the Mind. Mirth is short and transient. Chearfulness fixed and permanent.”

This hints at an acute understanding of human psychology. The cheerful personality tends to be a steady state. An amusing anecdote suggests and imparts cheerfulness; a good joke, mirth. Both are good. One lasts longer. Addison continues:     

“Those are often raised into the greatest Transports of Mirth, who are subject to the greatest Depressions of Melancholy: On the contrary, Chearfulness, tho’ it does not give the Mind such an exquisite Gladness, prevents us from falling into any Depths of Sorrow. Mirth is like a Flash of Lightning, that breaks thro a Gloom of Clouds, and glitters for a Moment; Chearfulness keeps up a kind of Day-light in the Mind, and fills it with a steady and perpetual Serenity.”

We all know unhappy people given to random fits of hilarity. Often, it’s a disturbing sight and we worry about them. I’m reminded of the passage in Watt, Samuel Beckett’s first genuinely funny book, in which he anatomizes laughter:

“The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic [OED: “employing thought and reasoning; intellectual] laugh, down the snout -- Haw! - so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please -- at that which is unhappy.”

When Addison writes, “The vicious Man and Atheist have therefore no Pretence to Chearfulness,” don’t we promptly think of Richard Dawkins? Or Noam Chomsky? A writer much admired by Beckett, Dr. Johnson, writes in his “Life of Addison”:

“Many of these papers were written with powers truly comic, with nice discrimination of characters, and accurate observation of natural or accidental deviations from propriety.”

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