One of my long-time readers, one who keeps asking me when I’m going to publish a book (I shudder at the thought), recently described my efforts as ‘delightful, engaging, amusing, hilarious and entertaining, albeit of little real consequence.’ I’ve been thinking about his description for a considerable length of time. One question that popped into my usually over-stimulated brain is how do we measure the consequentiality of any activity or event; after all there’s no metrics known to our species to perform said task.
While my reader no doubt meant his remark as something positive, the question is valid: should I focus my limited attention on weightier matters, those whose effects will be more apparent in real time?
No one who’s paying attention would deny that the results of the forthcoming American ‘mid-term’ elections will have a decided effect on the body politic. Should I venture an opinion, from my safe seat abroad, about what’s going on over there? There are two senate races that I find particularly intriguing. One features a candidate whose resemblance to his fabled namesake is surreal. Another features a contender with a troubled past who would make all abortions illegal, regardless of the circumstances. (Advice to a ten-year-old rape victim: tough it out, baby!) All well and good, except that there is strong evidence that he is a Do-as-I-say-not-as-I do-er. Both of these candidates and their opponents have received more than sufficient attention in the American media. What more would I have to add to the discourse that would be of interest to anybody? Perhaps if I had the talent of a Mark Twain an H.L. Mencken or the filmmaker Preston Sturgess, I might want to give it a shot, but I don’t, and I won’t. Plus, no matter what I wrote, there would be the inevitable backlash: You’re writing this, but how about the other guys, the ones you didn’t mention; they’re just as bad. And my critics may have a point after all! Perhaps there are things better left unsaid and unwritten.
Let us quickly return to the question at hand, how we determine if something is or is not of real consequence. Here’s a bit of writing about something that one might consider the epitome of triviality:
No one perhaps has every felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner. As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of horses, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say, ‘Really I must buy a pencil,’ as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter – rambling the streets of London.
This, the opening paragraph of Street Haunting: A London Adventure, allows the author, Virginia Woolf – in my mind, the finest writer of prose in the English language during the last century – the opportunity to spend several hours and then ten pages wandering, as she promised, through the streets of London until finally, remembering the ostensible purpose of her journey, she makes her way into a ‘stationer’s shop’ and finds the proprietors, an old couple, quarreling. The old man began rummaging unsuccessfully through box after box in search of a pencil, finally calling to his wife, who reentered and ‘put her hand with a fine air of righteous severity upon the right box.’ (My comment: Does this sound typical???!!!) A few lines later, ‘The old man….. reached the box back to its proper place, bowed profoundly his good night to us, and they disappeared. She would get out her sewing; he would read his newspaper; the canary would scatter them impartially with seed. The quarrel was over.’
According to the author, the goal of the essay ‘is simply that it should give pleasure… It should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last.’ Is there anything of consequence in her essay? You may say no, but the fact remains: an object, about which ‘nobody has ever felt passionately,’ has engendered a piece of prose that has brought oodles of joy to at least one reader a century or so after it was written. If that is not a matter of consequence, I don’t know what is – and that’s the truth.