Joy and Smelly Orthodoxies
Updated: Jul 3, 2021
The great novelist, essayist, and courageous truth-teller, George Orwell wrote about Charles Dickens,
“He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry – in other words, of a nineteenth century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”
What a portrait of zeal and capability, of championing a code that we aspire to, even if we flail and fail as we seek to exemplify it.
The gravitas oozing Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, passed away recently. His meditation below is profound and a remarkable antidote to the “anti-life” orthodoxies of glum, dispiriting, self-absorption:
“There is the Jewish festival of Purim, when we recall the events described in the Book of Esther. It is the oddest of all festivals. There is rejoicing, which starts a fortnight before at the beginning of the Jewish month of Adar. There’s a celebratory meal on the day itself. We send charitable gifts to the poor and presents to friends. There’s riotous noise during the reading of Esther whenever the name of the arch-villain Haman is mentioned. And it’s the one day in the year when it’s considered a religious duty to drink slightly too much alcohol.
This might fit within the conventional parameters of rejoicing were it not for what the book of Esther records: the most drastic warrant for genocide in Jewish history, Haman’s plan ‘to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews — young and old, women and children — on a single day’. The plan was foiled. Yet it is deeply strange to regard an escape from genocide as an occasion for rejoicing. What I think Purim is, is not expressive joy but therapeutic joy: the joy that defeats fear. You conquer terror by collective celebration. Precisely because the threat was so serious, you refuse to be serious — and in that refusal you are doing something very serious indeed. You are denying your enemies a victory. You are declaring that you will not be intimidated. Someone once summarised the main Jewish festivals in three sentences.
‘They tried to destroy us. We survived. Let’s eat.’
Joy is the Jewish way of defeating hate. What you can laugh at cannot hold you captive."
So, yes indeed, and in summarizing such a compendium of wisdom, slaloming from evading the “orthodoxies” that try to shrivel our minds and souls and take away our freedom to share that which is “true” enough to rankle and to destabilize, to that outpouring of joy which exalts our true human character, we come to poet laureate Seamus Heaney to summarize our foreboding and our fear, as pandemic and social inflection points punctuate our global discourse:
“History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.”
Years ago, that towering gentleman from Virginia, literally “father” of his country, George Washington said the fate of liberty and democracy were
“deeply… finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
Well, the experiment has happily flourished, and moved on, and been “entrusted” to the larger electorate of humanity.
And it is to humanity we must now turn. To pick up the cudgel of intelligent activism. To rally the faculties bequeathed to us. To marshal our spittle, our outrage, but also our insight and our humor. We must see how far we have come, and how far we have fallen. Our wings got singed, but we can find better uses for the fire: it can be purifying, it must once again become Promethean.
The arc of history continues, despite so many corrupting and corroding digressions, to call to us, to challenge us, to demand our better angels and higher selves. We “abandon” such hopes more than we fail in them. And it is not just liberty that requires constant vigilance, so does faith and hope. Whenever we “glimpse” them, and they wait, just there, to be infused with our perspicacity and enlivened by our joys -- we must collectively grasp them and embrace them.
So we need the “generous anger” extolled by Dickens, we need the joy that transcends hate, we need to be attentive to opportunities to extend both lives and livelihood, anchored both in science and mutual compassion. And we must renew that pact, again and again.