Thursday, April 13, 2006


Custards in a blind alley

You have be in the right mood for Jonathan Swift--otherwise his savage indignation can grow petulant and grating. Yet Cyril Connolly, in an excellent essay I was just reading on the sofa in my glamorous bathrobe, argues that even Swift was compensating for a soft, compote-like center. He writes: "For it is obvious that everything which was considered most heartless and cynical in him can be viewed as the attempts of a man with a terrible capacity for suffering to escape from it... The misanthropy of Swift is, in fact, one side of the romantic dichotomy. No one is born a Diogenes, or enters the world complaining of a raw deal. One cannont hate humanity to that extent unless one has believed in it; one must have thought man a little lower than the angels before one can concentrate on the organs of elimination." Huzzah! Anyway, this is all a preamble to a little quote from a letter Swift wrote to his friend Charles Ford in 1708. He noted that
men are never more mistaken than when they reflect upon Past things, and from what they retain in their memory, compare them with the present... So I formerly used to envy my own Happiness when I was a Schoolboy, the delicious Holidays, the Saterday afternoon, and the charming Custards in a blind alley; I never considered the Confinement ten hours a day, to nouns and verbs, the Terror of the Rod, the bloddy noses, and broken shins.
Charming custards in a blind alley! The story of my life. I would add that Swift was only 41 when he wrote that letter. Certain writers behave like grumpy old men from the moment they set pen to paper, especially knee-jerk misanthropes, whose disgust for the human race might seem unfounded coming from a relative youngster. As for myself, I try to sound like an eternal 39-year-old--just like Jack Benny. (For a look at Swift's death mask, click here. If you scroll down, there's also a snapshot of George Bernard Shaw's backyard privy. Really.)

I'm trying to recall which wag once suggested that Swift and Sterne should swap names...but the big question remains: where can I get one of those Glamorous Bathrobes?
As one intimately familiar with outdoor facilities, I found Shaw's set-up charming.

-- H. Bunter
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