Sunday, May 17, 1936

Book-Page Editorial

Note On Charm: In Three Books

By W. J. Cash

The three most charming books I know in the world are Pepys' Diary, Montaigne's Essays, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Mind, I do not say the greatest or the most beautiful [or] the most moving--or even simply the most amusing. If I were going to say the greatest, I should have to name Ecclesiastes and Hamlet and Don Quixote. And if it were the most amusing, I'd fall on Max Beerbohm's The Happy Hypocrite, and Gilbert's The Mikado, and M. Voltaire's Candide--though all of these, and particularly the last, have to be reckoned with on other grounds than that of mere amusement, of course.

But the three I name are in this single quality we call charm quite incomparable. Well, and precisely what do we mean by charm in the connection? I'm not sure that answering that with any exactness is possible. For there are many things in this world which are beyond all analysis--as even a young man (well, a more or less young man) greatly addicted to analysis has now and then to confess. But let us have a try at it, at least. And to do that we had better take ourselves directly to the books.

All of them, I must say, are, as I treat them, anyhow, cut-and-come-again books--books to be kept on the table at the head of one's bed--to be read only when one is between the sheets--and to be read not continuously but at random.

Let us then thus throw open Mr. Pepys. Here he is. A silently pompous young man by his portraits, what with his periwig and his heavy face, relieved only by the bulbous honesty of his eyes. A fellow with the stamp of his destiny as the ablest Secretary of Admiralty in history already upon him. A man who if you met him in the flesh might probably strike you as a politician somewhat better than the run in an age nearly as corrupt as our own, an amiable soul to have a drink with--a pleasant fellow to know, but no more charming than any of a hundred others.

But now here is the Diary--well, he has been thinking too much on the little Turner person, his conscience troubles him, he is uneasy before the glance of his wife, and so this St. Valentine's day he will make a point of not coming into her (the Turner's) company. Yet all the time he knows and duly records that for all his good intentions and resolutions, for all the prickings of his conscience, he will go right on through with the affair and drift with his desire.

Or, again he has got himself drunk by processes about which he is no longer too clear. Or he has made a solemn ass out of himself in lecturing his wife. Or he is disappointed because the new maid his wife has judiciously selected is not pretty. Or he has gone to church in that new periwig, aflutter with self-consciousness, and is a little peaved that nobody seems to have noticed the thing. Or while London burned or the plague raged, he has been concerned before everything else with his new velvet coat. Or he has taken a bribe after the universal fashion of his time and place, and is troubled about--but all the same is resolved not to give it up. Or, his uncle being dead, his mind has been filled mainly with agreeable thoughts of the probable increase in his fortune.

In short, there is no foible, no silliness, no weakness, no vice, no contradiction in him, which he does not faithfully set down. The man is all candor--and all serenity. For having set it down, he leaves it so and rolls magnificently on his way, his essential dignity quite unimpaired in our eyes or his own.

And in fundamentals it is the same with Montaigne and Chaucer. All three of these writers have a marvellous ingenuousness and a marvellous sanity in them. They show us the stuff of our common humanity in its full truth, and yet without bitterness--and without any of the dreadful Freudian convulsions which beset our moderns. Does my lord of Perlgord think in his heart that the pleasures of our youth and the flesh are the only quite genuine ones to which we can lay claim? And that all others are only make-shifts or make-believes to stave off intolerable boredom? Does he think that drunkenness, swinish though it indubitably is, is more than half foregiveable in men who have got too old for bright eyes and moonlight? Then, and though he'll be careful to make his devoirs to Mother Church, to quote you at length everything that has been said on the other side of the matter, in the end he'll out with it--just that way. And without blushing, and without any of that hectic glitter in the eye, without quoting you Havelock Ellis or Dr. Jung or Wilhelm Stekel. And having outed with it he'll hoist himself into his beloved saddle and go loping cheerfully about the countryside in blithe disregard of the fact that the Wars of Religion are waging about him and that he stands an excellent chance of never getting safe home again

As for Chaucer--he sees clearly enough, and reports the corruption, the crookedness, the foolishness of his time--of the men and women about him. But it never makes him sour, he never despises or feels superior to these people. He takes them one and all, limitour and clerk, reeve and wife of Bath, knight and cook, monk and franklin, friar and somnour--mean, generous, brave, snivelling, pious, greedy, modest, bawdy--for what they are, eats, drinks, talks with them all, likes them all, quite obviously feels sympathy with them all in his own heart.

In fine, these men are above all others humanists--not as the appalling and ultra-neurotic pack of moderns which have seized on the name are Humanists, of course, but in the full and proper sense of the word. They reconcile us to ourselves and our fellows. They ease the modern disease of hate for ourselves and hate for mankind. When we have read them an hour, we can turn off the light and fall asleep as we used to fall asleep when we were children--with our hearts calm in our breasts.

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