Once I sat down to read Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir. After I had read a few chapters, my landlord strolled into the room (his library), opened the humidor, selected a combustible, lit it (he smoked as one having authority), and glanced at the cover of my book.
“I see that you are reading Stendhal,” he said. “Yet life is short. Behold the paradox.”
He then emitted a solitary smoke ring, watched it until it had dissolved, and exited the room slowly, as one well acquainted with the vicissitude of things. I tried subsequently to return to the book, but found that his late apothegm had insinuated itself between every other pair of lines, and further progress was impossible. I tossed the book aside and went out for a walk.
A fair mind must allow that he had a point. What is more, if one studies its implications, it is obvious that we might be well advised to take half of our activities with a grain of the same seasoning. One person takes to parasailing because he likes the rush of it, another to paddleboarding because its tranquility is just the needful corrective to his day job in the Seals, and a third to online poker because his friends’ wives all prefer that they stay home on Monday nights.
None of these amusements possesses recommendations sufficient to deflect from itself the criticism which Emerson cast at smoking, that it causes us to believe we are accomplishing something while doing nothing. Pace Emerson, no activity (better yet, inactivity) is truly so loathsome as all that until we fetishize it and build it an altar massive enough to claim the center of the larger temple of our daily affairs. And barring the intrusion of that peculiar impiety, we might also consider whether tranquility, or the occasional quixotic departure from routine and the taedium vitae, or a dozen hands of cards every week are not in fact worth the going cost. I wonder if any of us is so self-sufficient as to keep the soul free from all drab accretions without the aid of at least one form of pointless entertainment.
Maybe I ought to have forged ahead with the Stendhal. Even so, I would be loathe to dismiss smugly the observation which spoiled my first enjoyment of the book: “My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass.” To keep thus much in mind, and simultaneously to care whether that miserable little snot Julian Sorrel prospered in his ambitions is an equation difficult to balance. And it is everywhere. It is only with difficulty that a mind naturally philosophic can send the thought into permanent exile, and even to a mind like my own, one not habituated to notice the nihil semper floret-ude of daily life, the discipline does not come easily.
If the condition deserves a diagnosis, let me offer this: to take account of and to enjoy the million manifold blessings of which the world is the cornucopia and thesaurus in so short a spell as our allotted three score and ten is a natural source of bewilderment. It is common to mortality. Adam and Eve must have been ignorant of the sensation felt by the sultan to whom the wise men gave the ring inscribed, “This too must pass,” but then their fall put the rest of their descendents on the same timetable, one not long enough to appreciate fully every last vista on the tour. But again, the business of life amounts to more than tourism, as it did even before our common ancestors found it necessary to contrive skirts and excuses. They had their garden to tend, as do we all, albeit with weeds more resilient.
We all have our duties then, and these seek us out mostly where we do not look for them and do not suspect the ambush. To feel occasionally overwhelmed in the face of responsibilities, which are gregarious and rarely come alone, is a sensation to which no permanent relief comes, though the humility requisite to confess that you are of the weary and heavy-laden company to whom Our Lord promised rest is a tonic more desirable than mere competence. Otherwise Pelagius’ mantra – “If I must, I can” – for all its stoic firmness, would intoxicate us all and seduce us into a false estimation of our own capacities.
The burdens of the world become lighter when we concede that to bear them needs a better set of shoulders than any one of us can boast of. It is then that the sweet superfluities regain our delight without staining it. We grow more comfortable with a reduced picture of ourselves, and learn to laugh at our previous arrogance, which like the Devil, flees from us. Our weaknesses appear in a fairer light. Ten beers consumed in two hours as an aid to forgetfulness and a sop to failure can only be deleterious, but ten beers in two hours at the bachelor party of a friend as the fuel of exuberance and good cheer ought to gladden the heart of even the most principled Southern Baptist. All waters flow into the sea, yet the sea is not filled. Neither should lakes of less catholicity be too ready with their supercilious judgments. Malvolio is entitled to his own opinion in the matter of cakes and ale, but to proscribe them for the sake of his neighbor’s soul is magnificently pusillanimous.
To say the that “the world is too much with us” is to say too much. The statement would be more truthful if it were two words shorter, for that is plain to anyone who is not so sandblind as to miss the pulvis et umbra of which the modern church and our own imaginations seldom remind us. The world is simply too much, thank God. That the pleasures we derive therefrom are left to our own will’s election is a blessing shot through, like every blessing, with a thousand caveats, each of which demands its due respect. Having payed it, select what you will. The horn of plenty shows no signs of exhaustion.
Frugality is fine in its way, but the reflexive self-denial that is not pertinent to some rare vocation but is instead worn as a badge and a symbol that the wearer has risen into that arid pleroma which the Gnostics coveted – in short, that which sets him apart as a “spiritual” individual – is always a token of soullessness. The best of life – distinguishable from breathing and bill-paying – does not exist to be admired by non-committal window shoppers. To pick one’s poison is not an option but a necessity.
As for myself, I began Stendhal again the other day, and happily leave the next man his parasailing or his yoga, doing my best not to judge. But whatever tune you whistle, to drown life’s own soundtrack out entirely is impossible, and try as I might, I cannot banish what remains, at day’s end, a flamboyant paradox:
I am reading Stendhal, and life is short.