Compromises/The Gayety of Life

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Grief is the sister of doubt and ill-temper, and, beyond all spirits, destroyeth man.—Shepherd of Hermas.

In the beginning of the last century an ingenious gentleman, Mr. James Beresford, Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, diverted himself and—let us hope—his friends, by drawing up and publishing an exhaustive list of the minor miseries of life. It is a formidable document, realistic in character, and ill calculated to promote the spirit of content. No one would ever imagine that so many disagreeable things could happen in the ordinary course of existence, until the possibilities of each and every one are plainly and pitilessly defined. Some of these possibilities have passed away in the hundred years that lie between King George's day and ours; but others remain for our better discipline and subjection. Political discussions at the dinner-table rank high among Mr. Beresford's grievances; also weak tea,—"an infusion of balm, sage, and rosemary," he calls it,—and "being expected to be interested in a baby."

A great deal of modern literature, and not a little modern conversation, closely resemble this unhappy gentleman's "black list." There is the same earnest desire to point out what we would rather not observe. Life is so full of miseries, minor and major; they press so close upon us at every step of the way, that it is hardly worth while to call one another's attention to their presence. People who do this thing on a more imposing scale than Mr. Beresford are spoken of respectfully as "unfaltering disciples of truth," or as "incapable of childish self-delusion," or as "looking with clear eyes into life's bitter mysteries;" whereas in reality they are merely dwelling on the obvious, and the obvious is the one thing not worth consideration. We are all painfully aware of the seamy side, because we are scratched by the seams. What we want to contemplate is the beauty and the smoothness of that well-ordered plan which it is so difficult for us to discern. When Burke counselled a grave and anxious gentleman to "live pleasant," he was turning him aside from the ordinary aspects of existence.

There is a charming and gracious dogma of Roman Catholicism which would have us believe that all good deeds and holy prayers make up a spiritual treasury, a public fund, from which are drawn consolation for the church suffering, and strength for the church militant. A similar treasury (be it reverently spoken) holds for us all the stored-up laughter of the world, and from it comes human help in hours of black dejection. Whoever enriches this exchequer should be held a benefactor of his race. Whoever robs it—no matter what heroic motives he may advance in extenuation of the deed—has sinned heavily against his fellow men. For the gayety of life, like the beauty and the moral worth of life, is a saving grace, which to ignore is folly, and to destroy is crime. There is no more than we need,—there is barely enough to go round. If we waste our little share, if we extinguish our little light, the treasury is that much poorer, and our neighbour walks in gloom.

The thinkers of the world should by rights be the guardians of the world's mirth; but thinking is a sorry business, and a period of critical reflection, following a period of vigorous and engrossing activity, is apt to breed the "plaintive pessimist," whose self-satisfaction is disproportionate to his worth. Literature, we are assured by its practitioners, "exists to please;" but it has some doubtful methods of imparting pleasure. If, indeed, we sit down to read books on degeneracy and kindred topics, we have no reason to complain of what we find in them. It is not through such gates as these that we seek an escape from mortality. But why should poets and essayists and novelists be so determinedly depressing? Why should "the earnest prophetic souls who tear the veil from our illusory national prosperity"—I quote from a recent review—be so warmly praised for their vandalism? Heaven knows they are always tearing the veil from something, until there is hardly a rag left for decency. Yet there are few nudities so objectionable as the naked truth. Granted that our habit of exaggerating the advantages of modern civilization and of modern culture does occasionally provoke and excuse plain speaking, there is no need of a too merciless exposure, a too insulting refutation of these agreeable fallacies. If we think ourselves well off, we are well off. If, dancing in chains, we believe ourselves free, we are free, and he is not our benefactor who weighs our shackles. Reformers have unswervingly and unpityingly decreased the world's content that they might better the world's condition. The first part of their task is quickly done. The second halts betimes. Count Tolstoi has, with the noblest intentions, made many a light step heavy, and many a gay heart sad.

As for poets and novelists, their sin is unprovoked and unpardonable. Story-telling is not a painful duty. It is an art which, in its best development, adds immeasurably to the conscious pleasure of life. It is an anodyne in hours of suffering, a rest in hours of weariness, and a stimulus in hours of health and joyous activity. It can be made a vehicle for imparting instruction, for destroying illusions, and for dampening high spirits; but these results, though well thought of in our day, are not essential to success. Want and disease are mighty factors in life; but they have never yet inspired a work of art. The late Professor Boyesen has indeed recorded his unqualified delight at the skill with which Russian novelists describe the most unpleasant maladies. He said enthusiastically that, after reading one of these masterpieces, he felt himself developing some of the very symptoms which had been so accurately portrayed; but to many readers this would be scant recommendation. It is not symptoms we seek in stories. The dullest of us have imagination enough to invent them for ourselves.

"Poverty," said old Robert Burton, "is a most odious calling," and it has not grown any more enjoyable in the past three hundred years. Nothing is less worth while than to idealize its discomforts, unless it be to sourly exaggerate them. There is no life so hard as to be without compensations, especially for those who take short views; and the view of poverty seldom goes beyond the needs of the hour and their fulfilment. But there has arisen of late years a school of writers—for the most part English, though we have our representatives—who paint realistically the squalor and wretchedness of penury, without admitting into their pictures one ray of the sunshine that must sometimes gild the dreariest hovel or the meanest street. A notable example of this black art was Mr. George Gissing, whose novels are too powerful to be ignored, and too depressing to be forgotten. The London of the poor is not a cheerful place; it is perhaps the most cheerless place in Christendom; but this is the way it appeared in Mr. Gissing's eyes when he was compelled to take a suburban train:—

"Over the pest-stricken region of East London, sweltering in sunlight which served only to reveal the intimacies of abomination; across miles of a city of the damned, such as thought never conceived before this age of ours; above streets swarming with a nameless populace, cruelly exposed by the unwonted light of heaven; stopping at stations which it crushes the heart to think should be the destination of any mortal,—the train made its way at length beyond the outmost limits of dread, and entered upon a land of level meadows, of hedges and trees, of crops and cattle."

Surely this is a trifle strained. The "nameless populace" would be not a little surprised to hear itself described with such dark eloquence. I remember once encountering in a third-class English railway carriage a butcher-boy—he confided to me his rank and profession—who waxed boastful over the size and wealth of London. "It's the biggest city in the world, that's wot it is; it's got five millions of people in it, that's wot it's got; and I'm a Londoner, that's wot I am," he said, glowing with pride that was not without merit in one of mean estate. The "city of the damned" appeared a city of the gods to this young son of poverty.

Such books sin against the gayety of life.

All the earth round,
If a man bear to have it so,
Things which might vex him shall be found;

and there is no form of sadness more wasteful than that which is bred of a too steadfast consideration of pain. It is not generosity of spirit which feeds this mood. The sorrowful acceptance of life's tragedies is of value only when it prompts us to guard more jealously, or to impart more freely, life's manifold benefactions. Mr. Pater has subtly defined the mental attitude which is often mistaken for sympathy, but which is a mere ineffectual yielding to depression over the sunless scenes of earth.

"He"—Carl of Rosenmold—"had fits of the gloom of other people, their dull passage through and exit from the world, the threadbare incidents of their lives, their dismal funerals, which, unless he drove them away immediately by strenuous exercise, settled into a gloom more properly his own. Yet, at such times, outward things would seem to concur unkindly in deepening the mental shadows about him."

This is precisely the temper which finds expression in much modern verse. Its perpetrators seem wrapped in endless contemplation of other people's gloom, until, having absorbed all they can hold, they relieve their oppressed souls by unloading it in song. Women are especially prone to mournful measures, and I am not without sympathy for that petulant English critic who declined to read their poetry on the plea that it was "all dirges." But men can be mourners, too, and—

In all the endless road you tread
There 's nothing but the night,

is too often the burden of their verse, the unsolicited assurance with which they cheer us on our way. We do not believe them, of course, except in moments of dejection; but these are just the moments in which we would like to hear something different. When our share of gayety is running pitifully low, and the sparks of joy are dying on life's hearth, we have no courage to laugh down the voices of those who, "wilfully living in sadness, speak but the truths thereof."

Hazlitt, who was none too happy, but who strove manfully for happiness, used to say that he felt a deeper obligation to Northcote than to any of his other friends who had done him far greater service, because Northcote's conversation was invariably gay and agreeable. "I never ate nor drank with him; but I have lived on his words with undiminished relish ever since I can remember; and when I leave him, I come out into the street with feelings lighter and more ethereal than I have at any other time." Here is a debt of friendship worth recording, and blither hearts than Hazlitt's have treasured similar benefactions. Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson gladly acknowledged his gratitude to people who set him smiling when they came his way, or who smiled themselves from sheer cheerfulness of heart. They never knew—not posing as philanthropists—how far they helped him on his road; but he knew, and has thanked them in words not easily forgotten:—

"There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world, which remain unknown even to ourselves, or, when they are disclosed, surprise nobody so much as the benefactor. … A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than a five-pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of good-will; and their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been lighted."

There is little doubt that the somewhat indiscriminate admiration lavished upon Mr. Stevenson himself was due less to his literary than to his personal qualities. People loved him, not because he was an admirable writer, but because he was a cheerful consumptive. There has been far too much said about his ill health, and nothing is so painful to contemplate as the lack of reserve on the part of relatives and executors which thrusts every detail of a man's life before the public eye. It provokes maudlin sentiment on the one side, and ungracious asperity on the other. But, in Mr. Stevenson's case, silence is hard to keep. He was a sufferer who for many years increased the gayety of life.

Genius alone can do this on a large scale; but everybody can do it on a little one. Our safest guide is the realization of a hard truth,—that we are not privileged to share our troubles with other people. If we could make up our minds to spare our friends all details of ill health, of money losses, of domestic annoyances, of altercations, of committee work, of grievances, provocations, and anxieties, we should sin less against the world's good-humour. It may not be given us to add to the treasury of mirth; but there is considerable merit in not robbing it. I have read that "the most questionable thing in the American manner is excessive cheerfulness," and I would like to believe that so pardonable a fault is the worst we have to show. It is not our mission to depress, and one recalls with some satisfaction Saint-Simon's remark anent Madame de Maintenon, whom he certainly did not love. Courtiers less astute wondered at the enduring charm which this middle-aged woman, neither handsome nor witty, had for her royal husband. Saint-Simon held the clue. It was her "decorous gayety" which soothed Louis's tired heart. "She so governed her humours that, at all times and under all circumstances, she preserved her cheerfulness of demeanour."

There is little profit in asking ourselves or others whether life be a desirable possession. It is thrust upon us, without concurrence on our part. Unless we can abolish compulsory birth, our relish for the situation is not a controlling force. "Every child," we are told, "is sent to school a hundred years before he is born;" but he can neither profit by his schooling nor refuse his degree. Here we are in a world which holds much pain and many pleasures, oceans of tears and echoes of laughter. Our position is not without dignity, because we can endure; and not without enjoyment, because we can be merry. Gayety, to be sure, requires as much courage as endurance; but without courage the battle of life is lost. "To reckon dangers too curiously, to hearken too intently for the threat that runs through all the winning music of the world, to hold back the hand from the rose because of the thorn, and from life because of death,—this is to be afraid of Pan."