December 8: Apologia pro vita sua

De Quincey's school days (artist conception).

The Harvard Classics Bummer December reading event continues! Here's a typical sentence from today's Thomas de Quincey:
Every slave that at noonday looks up to the tropical sun with timid reproach, as he points with one hand to the earth, our general mother, but for him a stepmother,—as he points with the other hand to the Bible, our general teacher, but against him sealed and sequestered;—every woman sitting in darkness, without love to shelter her head, or hope to illumine her solitude, because the heaven-born instincts kindling in her nature germs of holy affections which God implanted in her womanly bosom, having been stifled by social necessities, now burn sullenly to waste, like sepulchral lamps amongst the ancients; every nun defrauded of her unreturning May-time by wicked kinsman, whom God will judge; every captive in every dungeon; all that are betrayed and all that are rejected outcasts by traditionary law, and children of hereditary disgrace,—all these walk with Our Lady of Sighs.
It gets worse, as this Our Lady of Sighs (not an officially sanctioned Our Lady, I hasten to add -- it's a personal Our Lady, like the woman by Shea Stadium who had visions) has two sisters, of whom she, apparently, is the peach. Basically, De Quincey's apprehension of human sorrow is so strong he needs four supernatural beings to personify it (the fourth being names Levana, a Roman goddess here pressed into service in De Quincey's droopy army):
If I say simply, “The Sorrows,” there will be a chance of mistaking the term; it might be understood of individual sorrow,—separate cases of sorrow,—whereas I want a term expressing the mighty abstractions that incarnate themselves in all individual sufferings of man’s heart; and I wish to have these abstractions presented as impersonations, that is, as clothed with human attributes of life, and with functions pointing to flesh.
That's another single sentence there. That's value; the magazine reader got what she paid for in De Quincey's day. (Also note: De Quincey uses comma plus dash, -- which is considered bad form nowadays. Good on the Harvard Classics for being too cheap to clean that up.)

Obviously I find this a bit over the top. ("...through the treble veil of crape which she wears, the fierce light of a blazing misery, that rests not for matins or for vespers, for noon of day or noon of night, for ebbing or for flowing tide, may be read from the very ground.") Over the top, but, also, true. De Quincey's right: the world is full of sorrows and anxieties and regrets about roads not taken, even though you suspect that odds are it would have been same shit, different road. And that just describes those of us with internet access, as our gigantic fat haunches squat on the rest of world.

All this is true, and all this is why I love comedy -- because comedy is (or, perhaps more accurately, can be) a refusal to roll over accept the wickedness of the world. I privilege comedy over tragedy because the fact that life is tragic is not news, whereas comedy is a sandcastle that defies the bitter, undrinkable ocean that's coming for us all. De Quincey defied it with opium and overheated prose; I like the occasional cocktail and a good punch line.

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