Imperfect Sympathies

Bruce Floyd | November 1, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

Late yesterday afternoon I pulled from the shelves my copy of Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia, leafed through it, and settled upon the essay “Imperfect Sympathies.” After reading the essay, I am not sure how I should respond to it: whether I should applaud Lamb for his honesty, his eschewing of the easy solution, or whether I should find his views ugly. I am equivocating here. I know exactly how I feel about Lamb’s words in this essay.

He begins the essay by quoting from Browne’s Religion Medici: “I am of a constitution so general, that it consorts and sympathies with all things; I have no antipathy, or rather idiosyncrasy in anything. Those narrow prejudices do not touch me, nor do I behold with prejudice the French, Italian, Spaniard, or Dutch.”

Lamb accuses Browne of being “mounted upon the airy stilts of abstraction.” Lamb admits the can “feel the differences of mankind, national or individual, to an unhealthy excess. I can look with no indifferent eye upon things or persons.” He is, he says, “in plainer words, a bundle of prejudices.” He says frankly that he can be a friend to a “worthy man who upon another count cannot be my mate or fellow. I cannot like all people alike.”

He says, for example, that, though he has tried all his life, he cannot like Scotchmen, and he assumes they cannot like him. He spends several pages explaining, cleverly I might say, his problem with the Scotch.  From what I can glean, Lamb finds the Scotch imperfect thinkers, dogmatic, blind to nuance and irony and humor, absurdly literal. (Here I recall that Dr. Johnson was markedly anti-Caledonian, though one senses in Johnson a bit of acting, as if he feels a need to bolster the notion of himself as a curmudgeon.)

On Blacks Lamb says, “In the Negro countenance you will often meet with strong traits of benignity.” He says he has always felt “tenderness towards some of these faces–or rather masks–” he has met in the street. His comment about masks is a perspicacious one. Then Lamb closes the matter about Blacks: “But I should not like to associate with them, to share my meals and good nights with them–because they are black.” I must say Lamb’s attitude toward African-Americans is much like that of many of the white Southern establishment had during the days of segregation. Men who would never cheat or harm a black man would not share a meal with him. I recall someone’s telling me that if he and a black man were in a room when night fell and the room contained only one bed, he would flip a coin with the other fellow for the right to sleep in the bed but that he would not share the bed.

Lamb, as we might imagine, has no use for Quakers. They are, he says, “given to evasion and equivocation.” Lamb disdains their austere lifestyle. Lamb likes “books, pictures, theatres, chit-chat, scandal, jokes, ambiguity, and thousand whim-whams. I should starve at their primitive banquet.” His appetites are too high for the meager fare the Quakers provide..

I have saved for last Lamb’s appraisal of the Jews. He has, he says, “in the abstract, no disrespect for the Jews. But I should not care to be in the habits of familiar intercourse with any of that nation.” He admits that “old prejudices cling about me.” Standard stuff, right, but then Lamb says something that, considering the sad history of the twentieth century, I had to think about for a while:

“Centuries of injury, contempt, and hate, on the one side–of cloaked revenge, dissimulation, and hate, on the other, between our fathers and theirs, must and ought to affect the blood of the children. I cannot believe it can run clear and kindly yet; or that a few words, such as candour, liberality, the light on nineteenth-century, can close up the breaches of so deadly a disunion.”

Auschwitz would prove Lamb right about the ineptness and essential fraud of a few words, of the liberal hope that progress had led to a burying of hate, to a state of social bliss. Lamb goes on to say that he does “not relish the approximation of Jews and Christians.” He finds it “hypocritical and unnatural.” He does “not like to see the Church and the Synagogue kissing and congeeing in awkward postures of an affected civility.” Lamb drags out the old shibboleth that Jews are interested in only “Gain and the pursuit of gain.” And he genuflects to the notion that Jews are shrewd, intelligent: “I never heard of an idiot being born among them.”

Of course one can take the essay in different ways. Some might say that Lamb is blindly prejudiced and bigoted, accuse him of being a racist, though the charge of “racist” is made so often these days that it sometimes ceases to have meaning and has become little more than a tired bromide. Others might say he is stressing tolerance but abjuring the notion that we must all love one another. “You can expect me,” Lamb might be saying, “to respect any worthy man, but you cannot expect me love every worthy man–or long to associate with him.” He seems to prefer associating with those who are most like him, those who relish in life what he does. The reader will have to decide for himself or herself his or her view of Lamb.

Certainly, my knowledge of Lamb, the kind of man I have assumed him to be, comes into play, and I have a hard time picturing him as a slavering racist or rabid anti-Semite. And yet we have his words, and they contradict that picture of the always slightly bibulous Lamb, always with a ready quip, a congenial man full of bonhomie, the life of the party. Some might say, “Well, he was a complicated man, a man with his quota of flaws.”

I’d wager that every member of the EBF is a complicated person, each one of us too with our quota of taints, some of us carrying too many. I’d wager too, though, that no member of the EBF can read Lamb’s essay “Imperfect Sympathies” and not be mightily troubled, even not, to put it simply, disgusted.

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