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Finding a Great Getaway From Our Crazy Time

“You have to be always drunk,” wrote the French poet Charles Baudelaire. “That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.”

“But on what?” Baudelaire asks. With “wine, with poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.”

Though afflicted by some of the normal pains of growing old, I rarely feel the “horrible burden of time” crushing me. The news of the day, however, is another matter altogether. Every morning various online sites bring word of the latest disasters, the triumph of acrimony and misguided idealism over common sense, the political push-and-shove, and the next act of government tyranny.

My work permits no escape from the baying of the media, but two weeks ago I came to the point where I needed to find some means of relief, if only for short periods of time. Consequently, I decided to take Baudelaire’s advice, at least in part, and get really and truly hammered for an hour or so every day.

I gave up all spirits and wine months ago, so Baudelaire’s Door #1 was closed to me, and I had no idea whatsoever how one gets sloshed on virtue. I therefore chose Door #2, selected the vintage bottle of prose rather than poetry as my beverage of choice, and so slipped away into a quieter past.

Though I’d both read and taught Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s Persuasion was new to me. The story centers on love and second chances, with this question hanging over the narrative: Will 27-year-old Anne Elliott, who had broken her engagement with Frederick Wentworth years earlier, find happiness with him when their lives again become entangled?

The plot and the characters were finely done—I was especially taken with Anne’s older friend and confidant Lady Russell—but what appealed most of all was Austen’s language and the subtleties it permitted in conversation and thought. By comparison, we are a blunt spoken crew, a habit which allows for more direct communication, but which also removes some of the emotional padding and sophisticated repartee found in the language of Austen’s day.

As I read, I wondered whether Austen wasn’t simply following some sort of stiff literary convention to dress out these conversations and descriptions, but research for an article took me to William Bennett’s Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches, in particular to the chapter “Love and Courtship.” There I found the founder’s writings in the same exalted language and emotion as Austen’s, who was their contemporary. John Adams, for example, writes to Abigail shortly before their marriage, “You shall polish and refine my sentiments of Life and Manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured Particles in my Composition, and form me to that happy Temper, that can reconcile a quick discernment with a perfect Candour.”

You can’t get more Austenian than that.

On the heels of Persuasion came William Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, which I read 40 years ago. Written more than a century after Austen’s death, Maugham’s prose sounds more familiar to the modern ear, yet eloquence again was what I found most enchanting about this story. With the exception of a long and strange digression on Hindu religious beliefs, the rhythm and voice of Maugham’s sentences sang to me.

The dessert to this feast of fine language came with M. F. K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating. I found this plump volume—it is a five-book compendium—on the cart of giveaways at our public library, carried it home, and immediately discovered why the poet W. H. Auden once wrote of Fisher, “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.” Fisher’s words and sentences glitter like jewels in sunshine or candlelight, and though I’ll never read The Art of Eating from cover-to-cover, I’ll dip into it frequently, taking delight in its sparkling descriptions.

The grace and elegance I found in these books was metaphorically akin to watching a performance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers after sitting through an interminable spectacle of twerks and drag queen shows. Even better, immersing myself in these books, usually during moments snatched from work and other obligations, did indeed lower my blood pressure and raise my spirits.

Try it yourself and see what you think. Read some Dickens or Twain, some George Eliot or Agatha Christie. The experiment’s free of charge, and you can do it in the comfort of your favorite chair. And here’s a guarantee: you won’t once find the words COVID, Critical Race Theory, or transgender anywhere in those pages (though Maugham does give us a scene of scandal in a dirty French café).

We all need some R&R from our crazy age. We can find it between the covers of a good, old book.

Image Credit: Pixabay

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  • Avatar
    Kalikiano Kalei
    September 16, 2022, 12:04 am

    As much as I respect Baudelaire, I believe He was trumped very many centuries ago by Bacchus the Younger, who is reputed (some say, to borrow the popular leftist media phrase) to have opined "(A) Shandy is dandy, but liquor has a quicker kicker!" Cheers!

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  • Avatar
    mary belllingham
    September 16, 2022, 12:41 am

    Ahhhh ….. eloquence of thought and speech… guess you were hungering for same…. it is so absent from the general exchange of language today…. coupled with love and respect in that exchange that echoes our humanity and regard for each other.
    Like you, I prize language and were I marooned on an island being allowed only 2 books, the beside the Bible, I would tote a
    the most hefty and complete dictionary available. Drunk on
    words and their meaning……

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  • Avatar
    Jeff T
    September 16, 2022, 1:06 am

    Thanks for this excellent suggestion Jeff! My wife and I have been immersing in a Larry McMurtry cowboy novel "Lonesome Dove" and although ‘gritty’ it’s character development and exchanges have been like some cooling balm to the soul…and a temporary escape from our current cultural suicide attempt.

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  • Avatar
    Dorothy
    September 16, 2022, 2:23 am

    Excellent advice! I love Austen. You should add all of her books — there are only six — to your list. (A rereading may lower your opinion of Lady Russell, but that’s the fun of rereading.) Try Trollope. Get away from today’s politics to yesterday’s with his Palliser and Barchester novels.

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  • Avatar
    hugh brennan
    September 16, 2022, 4:39 pm

    Beyond the horrors of our current civilizational collapse, this last year has been one of the deepest personal loss.
    I had not been a reader of anything other than history and current affairs for many years. But, in the face of deep sorrow, I found escape, even consolation in novels.
    I forward a few suggestions,

    "Life and Fate" by Grossman. It is an intense and moving portrait of Russian life during WW2 and under Stalin. If nothing else, it contains the most evocative rendering of the Holocaust experience I’ve ever seen in fact or fiction.

    "A Soldier of the Great War," by Helprin. There were moments of description that made tears "spring unbidden" to my tired eyes.

    "Memoirs of Hadrian" by Yourcenar. For those sorrowing and contemplating mortality a moving and deeply erudite rendering of the great emperor’s time, place, and mind.

    Great literature illuminates the soul. Fine writing is, like a delicious morsel, a lovely fragrance, an evocative chord can fill the good hour and create if for a moment, the "bonheur" – the moment of happiness, of pleasure that reconnects us to the good of the world.

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