Saturday, May 16, 2009

Charles Lamb

Here I go again, reading old books.
This time it's Charles Lamb, Essays of Elia, first published 1823.

I have a colleague who is struck by the word "notional," which people in government sometimes use. Is your branch actually going to spend $50 million? The answer might be "notionally." But what does this mean? Not quite in reality? Virtually, except that virtual reality now refers to something digital?

One essay, "On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century," contrasts a kind of old-fashioned comedy with what is more up to date in Lamb's time. The old-fashioned kind would create an artificial world in which there was plenty of sinning, but it was all pure fun. No one got hurt, even in the terms of the play, and the play was a real recreational outlet, free from concerns as to whether it would have a good or bad effect. Lamb claims that in more recent years, a kind of heavy moralism has taken over (we would probably say "Victorianism").

"We must love or hate--acquit or condemn--censure or pity--exert our detestable coxcombry of moral judgement upon everything…. [the] specious plausibilities [of a villain], which the pleasurable faculties of our fathers welcomed with such hearty greetings, knowing that no harm (dramatic harm even) could come, or was meant to come of them, must inpire a cold and killing aversion."

Lamb even says the "good" character was often revealed to suffer from self-satisfaction, or perhaps the sin of pride, from which the "bad" character was mercifully free--but in the more recent literature, good must be good, and bad must be bad.

All this to prepare for a long sentence:

"Oh who that remembers Parsons and Dodd--the wasp and butterfly of the School for Scandal--in those two characters; and charming natural Miss Pope, the perfect gentlewoman as distinguished from the fine lady of comedy, in this latter part--would forego the true scenic delight--the escape from life--the oblivion of consequences--the holiday barring out of the pedant Reflection--those Saturnalia of two or three brief hours, well won from the world--to sit instead at one of our modern plays--to have his coward conscience (that forsooth must not be left for a moment) stimulated with perpetual appeals--dulled rather, and blunted, as a faculty without repose must be--and his moral vanity pampered with images of notional justice, notional beneficences, lives saved without the spectators' risk, and fortunes given away that cost the author nothing."

This is subtle and thoughtful writing. The old plays were artificial, but somehow true. (The villains had "specious plausibilities"; until recently "specious" meant superficially attractive or plausible, but not necessarily false. In the Federalist Papers there is a line that a certain argument is specious, but nonetheless false.) The new moralistic plays are in a way more realistic or natural, but false. The morality is "notional."

"A Bachelor's Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People" is funny and true. Married couples with children expect everyone to find their children fascinating, but not too fascinating. Wives are jealous of any friends the husband had before marriage. "Of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis"; out and out beggars have a certain dignity about them that is lacking in people doing menial work, trying to be thrifty, and expecting sympathy. Lamb says it doesn't bother him if the beggars are actually accumulating a certain amount of wealth. This is not the view of a middle-class taxpayer. (Lamb was pretty much always poor enough that he had to work for a living, but he was raised a gentleman with aristocratic tastes and ideas).

In "Imperfect Sympathies" Lamb admits that he is "a bundle of prejudices," and he "cannot like all people alike." Then comes a somewhat politically incorrect discussion: he doesn't like Scotchmen or Jews. He expects the feeling is mutual in both cases. Of the Jews he says:

Centuries of injury, contempt, and hate, on the one side,--of cloaked revenge, dissimulation, and hate, on the other, between our and their fathers, must, and ought, to affect the blood of the children. I cannot believe it can run clear and kindly yet; or that a few fine words, such as candour, liberality, the light of a nineteenth century, can close up the breaches of so deadly a disunion.... I boldly confess that I do not relish the approximation of Jew and Christian, which has become so fashionable.... If they are converted, why do they not come over to us altogether? Why keep up the form of separation, when the life of it is fled? If they can sit with us at table, why do they keck at our cookery?


Leo Strauss wrote somewhere that the kind of anti-Semitism which decent people in general should be concerned about (and of course anti-Semitism is not a good name for it) is really "inordinate dislike of Jews." This implies there is such a thing as an ordinary, every day, quite acceptable dislike of Jews; and Lamb may provide an example.

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