Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Officially, I shouldn’t like Kingsley Amis’s anthem to alcohol, Everyday Drinking. And unless you relish the sight of a man dying for his muse, neither should you. The book is an unsettling mixture–a witty, lighthearted view of what turned out to be a long, boozy death spiral. Amis ostentatiously drank himself if not to death then decidedly well along the way and apparently enjoyed himself massively as he went.

Christopher Hitchens, a friendly partisan of alcohol if there ever was one, said plainly that booze eventually robbed Amis of his best gifts, especially his wit. Amis’s own son, Martin, recalled deeply affectingly how he tried near the incoherent end of his father’s life to remind him how he had once written mordantly about people who lost the ability to recall ordinary words, an ability Kingsely appeared to have drunk right out of his own head.

whisky bottleSo is it wrong to look back fondly on Amis’s drinking life, much as one might recall the life of a fallen mountaineer? Yes, it was the thing that killed him, but let us remember what it meant to him and how much joy it brought, in its own way. When someone dies with a complicated moral accounting sheet, we indulge this tendency to say wryly of their flaws, that’s just “who they were.”

The thing is, Amis knew exactly what he was getting into. His novels are filled with clever, drink-sodden characters caught in the act of thinking up reasons for not stopping while they’re ahead. There is a whole section in Everyday Drinking about mitigating the downsides of overindulgence. Various small tricks comes into play, but Amis is able at least in principle to grasp the heart of the matter: “If you want to behave better and feel better, the only absolutely certain method is drinking less. But to find out how to do that, you will have to find a more expert expert than I shall ever be.”

I have my own reasons for reading Everday Drinking as a serious morality tale, and I will come to them in a moment, but it would be puritanical of me to camouflage Amis’s main attraction with a lot of philosophizing: Everyday Drinking is bitingly humorous throughout and sometimes even fall-down funny, as I found this passage to be:

HANGOVER READING: Begin with verse, if you have any taste for it. Any really gloomy stuff that you admire will do. My own choice would tend to include the final scene of Paradise Lost . . . . The trouble here, though, is that today of all days you do not want to be reminded of how inferior you are to the man next door, let alone to a chap like Milton. Safer to pick someone less horribly great. . . . Switch to prose with the same principles of selection. I suggest Aleksandr Soltzhenitzen’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It is not gloomy exactly, but its picture of life in a Russian labor camp will do you the important service of suggesting that there are plenty of people about who have a bloody sight more to put up with than you (or I) have or ever will have, and who put up with it, if not cheerfully, at any rate in no mood of self-pity.

It is possible to read Everyday Drinking straight through, never slowing down to contemplate its subtext of moral what-ifs, such as, “Shouldn’t Amis have tried a bit harder to be a more expert expert at moderation?” Below its sparkling surface, Everyday Drinking is a chronicle of unsullied obsession. And unsullied obsession is something that almost all of us can relate to. Who has never given themselves over passionately to some unbidden thing that rose to command their entire will? The list of standard obsessions is a familiar one–exercise, money-making, childrearing, religious devotion, writing, affair-seeking, and of course, various kinds of chemical addictions. We can all learn something from Amis’s singlemindedness.

Milan Kundera opens The Unbearable Lightness of Being with the lapidary observation that human lives, occurring only once, cannot be made the subjects of empirical experimentation. We cannot compare our current life, fully lived, with earlier versions to probe for insights or advantages. Nor can we fine tune our future lives based on what we will have learned through full commitment to this one.

Taken as a whole, Kundera captures the existential bind as well as it has been captured, I believe. It seems plainly true that I cannot go all out in my quest for familial-bourgeois happiness this time around in confidence that I will be able to take my turns later at a fully epic, or bohemian, or scholarly life, then pick or choose the best fit after a thorough review. Even if I could, which me would be the real one–the one supposedly perfected by repeated experiment? But isn’t it part of being human that we commit fully to this life without recourse to metaphysical fantasy (or Freudian wish)? Whatever I choose, I do so in something like Kierkegaard’s mode taking a blind leap of faith. I do it without recourse.

Well, there is a certain amount of faith involved in making one’s life commitments, but blind faith? Kierkegaard himself thought it was possible to simulate a consciously chosen life through an exercise of total commitment to one thing. He wrote a book about it, whose title I borrowed for this essay. For Kierkegaard, the “life-form” exercise took a religious tone, but it need not. You can change up the terms of the experiment as you see fit. The design of the “experiment” is roughly as follows: live for only one principle, and, if your commitment is pure, you will learn along the way which parts of your life are mere distractions, or diversions as Kierkegaard called them.

Read Amis with this Kierkegaardian idea in mind, and you see what sorts of things are made into diversions by the alcoholic’s purity of heart–friends, family, good digestion, and so forth.

Like many of Kierkegaard’s ideas, willing-one-thing can only be put fully into practice if you are a narrow-minded egotist. You can’t expect a lot of friends, colleagues and loved ones to wait patiently while you experiment with self-inflicted obsessive-compulsive disorder. Try to make it a thought experiment, not a practical one.

Orwell had his own thoughts about singleminded asceticism. Pointedly, he thought we humans should not think of ourselves as failed saints. He meant that it is silly even to run Kierkegaard’s experiment, or Amis’s boozy variant of it. We are a tissue of conflicting desires, impulses and loyalties, and if literature, biography and history have shown us anything, they have shown how fruitless it is to try to live as if humans were meant to perfect one or another ideal. This way lies madness. Some forms of the madness are much less pleasant than others (but who’s to say which forms?–Kierkegaard lived a short, anxious life; Amis had a very jolly time before self-harm caught up with him, and you could even say he knew the hazards he courted), but the strategic error is the same one in all cases: we are not meant to be pure of heart in the sense Kierkegaard had in mind.

I had a picture of the conflicted personality clearly in mind as a boy, well before I had seen the real article abroad in the world. In one of Frodo Baggins’s last scenes with his inseparable friend and comrade Sam Gamgee in Lord of the Rings, Frodo explains to the faithful Sam that a sort of Valhalla-like heaven awaits the two of them. It’s the reward for an epic adventure and the solace for a deep metaphysical wound they share. But Frodo, wounded deeper, will be starting out for his final reward first, without Sam. Sam must stay behind and find the joy he is meant to find as a family man. Heaven will wait on this mission. In words that I have remembered for almost four decades now, Frodo tells Sam that he (Sam) is meant to be whole and that he cannot always feel torn between life at home as a husband and father and life abroad as an epic adventurer.

Lord of the Rings is a wonderful book for children, or course, and in many ways it is a good book for adults. But Frodo is wrong about Sam, just as he is wrong about all of us. We live and die with conflicted desires, impulses and loyalties, and we do so without recourse to the fantasy of multiple lives or human perfectability. Orwell sends off the problem of ascetic devotion with what seems like a quip: “No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.” Orwell’s contention, of course is not that we can just dissipate our lives because nothing matters in the end, but that we should let no fantasy lead us into fanaticism. Read Kierkegaard for a dour but bracing rendition of this kind of fantasy; read Amis for a rather more enjoyable one, but bear in mind they both play with fire.

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