Monday, January 02, 2017

Benchley Tonight: Inspiration for the new year in "A Little Sermon on Success"


As I mentioned right before Christmas, in this Holiday-Plus Season I've had it mind to bring back to bring back some of the treasure collection of pieces I presented way back when in the "Thurber (et al.) Tonight" series. As I pointed out, although last year I did in fact resurrect two pieces, both by the great Robert Benchley, "How to Get Things Done" in June and "Comedy Tonight: 'Why We Laugh -- or Do We?': Another 'Benchley Tonight' Resurrection" (in August), not only did we not get to any Thurber, we didn't even get to what's probably my all-time favorite Benchley piece, "A Little Semon on Success." Let's at least plug that gap tonight! -- Ken

Benchley made a bunch of these wacky short films, a number of which I'm pleased to see have turned up on YouTube.

"I take Life as it comes, and although I grouse a great deal and sometimes lie on the floor and kick and scream and refuse to eat my supper, I find that taking Life as it comes is the only way to meet it. It isn't a very satisfactory way, but it is the only way. (I should be very glad to try any other way that anyone can suggest. I certainly am sick of this one.)"
-- Robert Benchley, in "A Little Sermon on Success"

BACK IN 2011 I WROTE BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION: Following our initial foray last night into the, shall we say, singularly dimensioned world of Robert Benchley, "The Five (or Maybe Six) Year Plan," we have now his -- and perhaps, I think, anyone's -- definitive statement on the subject of success, or rather Success, and even disposing (as you can see in the bit I've extracted above) of Life. This is another of those pieces I've spent ages trying to cherry-pick or synopsize or paraphrase. It just doesn't work, though. The piece really needs to be, as it were, swallowed whole. -- Ken

A Little Sermon on Success

by Robert Benchley

A famous politician once remarked, on glancing through a copy of Jo's Boys by Louisa M. Alcott, that he would rather have written Three Men in a Boat than to have dug the Suez Canal. As a matter of fact, he never did either, and wasn't quite as famous a politician as I have tried to make out. But he knew what he meant by Success.

Lord Nelson is quoted as having said to one of his subordinates just before he went into action that there was no such thing as a good war or a good peace; in fact, that he doubted if there was a good anything. Now, Lord Nelson was a successful man in the sense that the world means Success, but he was unhappy because he had on his conscience the fact that he had imprisoned those two little princes in the Tower of London and had been instrumental in having them dressed in black velveteen and wear long blond curls like a couple of sissies. He was a successful man, but had only one eye.

Lord Nelson was unhappy because he had imprisoned
those two little princes in the Tower.

I could go on indefinitely, citing examples of great men who said things. I guess I will.

One hundred and seventy-five years ago General Wolfe Montcalm (sometimes called General Wolfe and sometimes General Montcalm, but always found on the Plains of Abraham) wrote to his adjutant: "I sometimes wonder what it is all about, this incessant hurry-scurry after Fame. And how are you, my dear adjutant? And that bad shoulder of yours? Look out for that. And look out for a girl named Elsie, who may drop in on you and say that she knows me. She doesn't know me at all; in fact, who of us can say that he really knows anyone else? I often wonder if I know myself."

There was a great deal more to the letter, but I have quoted enough to show that the famous general saw through the phantom which men call Success. He won Quebec, but, after all, what is Quebec? He had to pay eight to ten, and even then he had that long hill to climb. His knowledge of what Life really means came too late for him, just as it comes too late for most of us.

There is a tribe of head-hunters who live in the jungle of Africa who reverse the general practice of seeking Success. When they are little babies they are all made head of the tribe, the highest office known in the jungle, and are given great bags full of teeth (the medium of exchange corresponding to our money, only not so hard to get and certainly not so easy to get rid of, for who wants a lot of teeth around the house?).

The idea then is for each young man to spend his life trying to get out of the office of tribal head, to dispose of his legal tender, and to end up in the gutter. The ones who succeed in doing this are counted the happy ones of the tribe, and it is said that they are "successful" men. The most successful man in the history of the tribe ended up in the gutter at the age of seven. But he had luck with him. He lived in the gutter anyway and all that he had to do was to lie over.

Now, perhaps these head-hunters have the right idea. Who knows? Charles Darwin once said that it isn't so much the Little Things in Life which count as the Little Life in Things. The less life there is in a man, the happier he is, provided there aren't mosquitoes in the room and he can get his head comfortable. (If Charles Darwin didn't say that, it is the first thing he didn't say.)

People often come to me and ask what I would recommend for this and that, and I ask them, "This and that what?" And they go away sadly and think me a very wise man. I am not a wise man. I am just a simple man. "Simple Simon" they used to call me, until they found out that my name is Robert. I take Life as it comes, and although I grouse a great deal and sometimes lie on the floor and kick and scream and refuse to eat my supper, I find that taking Life as it comes is the only way to meet it. It isn't a very satisfactory way, but it is the only way. (I should be very glad to try any other way that anyone can suggest. I certainly am sick of this one.)

Once upon a time, in a very far-away land, before men grew up into the little boys they are now (Emerson once said that a little boy is just the lengthened shadow of one man), there was a very, very brave Knight who had a very, very definite yen for a beautiful Princess who lived in a far-away castle (very, very far away, I mean).

Now, there was also in this same land a Magician who could do wonders with a rabbit. People came from far and near to watch him at his egg-breaking and card-dropping, and now and again someone from the country would cry out, "Pfui!" But for the most part he was held to be as good as that feller who came down from Boston once. And, by one of those strange oddments of Fate which so often bring people together from the ends of the earth, the Magician was also in love with the very, very lovely Princess who lived you-know-where.

And it happened that the Knight went riding forth one day on his milk-white charger (or, at any rate, he had been milk-white until he thought it would be comical to lie down and roll in his stall) and set out to find the Princess, whom he still thought the loveliest lady he had ever seen, although he had not yet seen her. He was a little in doubt as to which direction to take, for the Princess' castle, besides being very, very far away, was very, very hazy in the Knight's mind, he having heard of it only as "the Princess' castle" with no mention of its location. That's nothing to go by.

Now, at the same hour, the Magician himself was setting out on a horse he had brought out of a silk hat, bent on the same errand as the Knight -- to get that Princess. And he, too, knew no more of where he was going than did the Knight -- with the result that, after riding about in circles for three years, they both ended up at the same inn, eight miles from the town from which they started.

Now, the Knight was very fond of magic and the Magician was very fond of Knights. So, after a few tankards of mead together, the Magician got out his kit and began to pull paper roses out of the landlord's neck, much to the delight of everyone present except the landlord, who said that it was done with mirrors.

The Magician began to pull paper roses out of the landlord's
neck, much to the delight of everyone except the landlord.

And so the Knight and the Magician became bosom friends and forgot about the very, very lovely Princess, and the Knight took the Magician home with him to his castle, so that every evening he could have another sleight-of-hand show. And the Princess, who by this time had got pretty sick of waiting, went back to her husband -- who, it must be admitted, was a little disappointed at the way things had turned out.

Now, this little fable shows us that Success may be one of two things: first, getting what we want; and, second, not getting what we want.

It was Voltaire who is reported to have said: "Plus ça change -- plus ça reste," meaning, "There isn't much sense in doing anything these days." Perhaps it wasn't Voltaire, and perhaps that isn't what the French means; but the angle is right.

Can you say the same of yourself?

§     §     §


to Thurber Tonight (Including Woody Allen, Robert Benchley, Bob and Ray, Will Cuppy, Wolcott Gibbs, Ring Lardner, S. J. Perelman, Jean Shepherd, and E. B. White Tonight) here.

Labels: ,


At 1:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is great stuff. Thanks for sharing this. He's so dry, and so subtle.


Post a Comment

<< Home