Friday, August 19, 2005

Discontent and Romance

A family, Dr. Johnson once wrote, is a little kingdom, torn with factions and exposed to revolutions. This is a less than ringing endorsement of family life, of course; and the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose childhood had been as unhappy as Johnson's, would have agreed with this assessment. But Johnson, unlike Ibsen, went on to remark that all judgment is comparative: that to judge an institution or convention rightly, one must compare it with its alternatives. Marriage has many pains, says Johnson in Rasselas, but celibacy has no pleasures.

Johnson saw human existence as inseparable from dissatisfaction. It is man's nature to suffer from incompatible desires simultaneously - for example, wanting both security and excitement. When he has one, he longs for the other, so that contentment is rarely unalloyed and never lasting.

However, most people find it more comforting to believe in perfectibility than in imperfectibility - an example of what Dr. Johnson called the triumph of hope over experience. The notion of imperfectibility not only fans existential anxieties, but also - by precluding simple solutions to all human problems - places much tougher intellectual demands upon us than utopianism does. Not every question can be answered by reference to a few simple abstract principles that, if followed with sufficient rigor, will supposedly lead to perfection - which is why conservatism is so much more difficult to reduce to slogans than its much more abstract competitors.

Wise words from Theodore Dalrymple - channeling the "Great Cham" Johnson - before putting the boot into Ibsen's implicit worldview while admiring his art.

I remember being delighted when I discovered that Rostand wrote my favourite play - the deliriously romantic Cyrano de Bergerac - in part as a reaction against the naturalism of Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg.

A wise man once wrote, "death in Rostand is more cheerful than life in Maeterlinck."

Give me an heroic comedy- in rhyming iambic hexameter Alexandrines - about love, honour, chivalry, swordplay and, yes, baking over Hedda Gabler any day.

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