Thursday, August 05, 2004

Lytton Strachey is a real card...

So why Strachey? To put it simply and perhaps crudely: he's a hoot. He is more than that, of course; he is a historian, a biographer, a literary observer, but beyond all that, he is damned funny. Go to the bookshelf and pull down Eminent Victorians, Portraits In Miniature, Books and Characters...and (how can we forget?) Elizabeth And Essex or Queen Victoria. Have yourself a good chuckle. Writing humor that lasts more than half a generation is difficult. The funny guys at the local comedy cafe just doesn't make the cut. Their material is too much dependent on the topical. I need someone who can make me laugh by describing absurdity that is dependent not on current politics, movies, or grocery strore frustrations , but humor dependent upon the absurdity of the human condition.

Certain writers can do that. S. J. Perelman is one. And Strachey is another. In The Life, Illness, And Death Of Dr. North Strachey comments upon the memoirs of Roger North, brother to John North who was Master Of Trinity College in the early 17th Century. A portion of Roger North's memoirs include a description of his brother's troubled life. As we read Strachey's brief summary of these troubles , we soon discover something reassuring. No matter how impressive were John North's intellectual and academic achievements, it is immediately evident that the Master of Trinity and Professor of Greek in The University of Cambridge was a kook.

This is happy news to those of us who will never be Masters of Trinity or Professor of Greek in The University Of Cambridge. At least we have our marbles. John North clearly did not.

Strachey sums up the whole absurd story:

In 1677, when he was thirty-two, his career reached its climax, and he was made Master of Trinity. The magnificent appointment proved to be his ruin. Faced with the governance of the great college over which the omniscient Barrow had lately ruled and which the presence of Newton still made illustrious, the Doctor's sense of responsibility, of duty, and of inadequacy became almost pathological. His days and his nights passed in one ceaseless round of devotion, instruction and administration, reading, writing, and abstemiousness. He had no longer any time for the young and the fair; no time for a single particle of enjoyment; no time even for breakfast. His rule was strict beyond all measure and precedent. With relentless severity he pursued the undergraduates through their exercises and punished them for their peccadilloes......And death was always before his eyes; for now a settled hypochondria was added to his other miseries. He had little doubt that he would perish of the stone...he displayed before his embarrassed friends the obvious symptoms of fatal disorder. "Gravel ! Red gravel !" he gasped. In reality his actual weakness lay in quite another direction. One day he caught cold, it grew worse, his throat was affected, his uvula swelled. The inflammation continued, and before long the unhappy doctor became convinced that his uvula would have to be cut off. All the physicians of the University were summoned, and they confessed that the case was grave....Their prescriptions were terrific and bizarre...But it was too late to intervene; the treatment was continued, while the Doctor struggled on with the duties of his office. Two scholars were to be publicly admonished for scandalous conduct; the fellows assembled; the youths stood trembling; the master appeared. Emaciated, ghastly, in his black gown, the extraordinary creature began a tirade of bitter and virulent reproof; when suddenly his left leg swerved beneath him, and he fell in a fit upon the ground. It was apoplexy.

Poor Dr. North. All the diplomas in the world couldn't save him from becoming a nutcase.

The title of Strachey's essay has a message. North's life, his illness, and his death, are all given equal footing. Dr. North struggled to reach to reach Parnassus, and the end result is that three centuries later, those remarkable achievements are obscured by the curious facts, both pitiful and somehow amusing, of his illness and death. So much for studying hard. Where does it get you?

Strachey again:

The past is almost entirely a blank. The indescribable complexities, the incalculable extravagances of a myriad consciousnesses have vanished forever. Only by sheer accident, when some particular drop from an ocean of empty water is slipped under the microscope -- only when some Roger North happens to write a foolish memoir, which happens to survive, and which we happen to open -- do we perceive for an amazed moment or two the universe of serried and violent sensations that lie concealed so perfectly in the transparency of oblivion.

So next time you think you are going to have a nervous breakdown or a stroke, take down Portraits In Miniature from the shelf and read The Life, Illness and Death of Dr. North. You will be reassured that you are not the only one to suffer from nerves or imminent apoplexy. And even if you are about to pop off, in a century or so, no one will remember or care about it anyway.

If that's not reassuring, I don't know what is.

Thanks Lytton.