In the discussion of an earlier post, Marsha Durham of Writing Companion commented, “Given that it’s time for New Year’s resolutions, perhaps we should be replacing rather than renouncing!” We replace unconsciously most of the time, believing we’re valiantly surrendering something, when instead we’re becoming preoccupied by novelty or variety or maybe even by an endeavor previously discarded.
As the years pass, it becomes progressively difficult to commit anything new to memory, but the inspirational epigrams jotted down in childhood are indelible. An example is George Bernard Shaw’s: “As long as I have a want, I have a reason for living. Satisfaction is death.” Of course, as it turns out, the remark is completely removed from its original context, Shaw’s play Overruled. This is an excerpt:
A lady and gentleman are sitting together on a chesterfield in a retired corner of the lounge of a seaside hotel. It is a summer night: the French window behind them stands open. The terrace without overlooks a moonlit harbor. The lounge is dark. The chesterfield, upholstered in silver grey, and the two figures on it in evening dress, catch the light from an arc lamp somewhere; but the walls, covered with a dark green paper, are in gloom. There are two stray chairs, one on each side. On the gentleman’s right, behind him up near the window, is an unused fireplace. Opposite it on the lady’s left is a door. The gentleman is on the lady’s right.
The lady is very attractive, with a musical voice and soft appealing manners. She is young: that is, one feels sure that she is under thirty-five and over twenty-four. The gentleman does not look much older. He is rather handsome, and has ventured as far in the direction of poetic dandyism in the arrangement of his hair as any man who is not a professional artist can afford to in England. He is obviously very much in love with the lady, and is, in fact, yielding to an irresistible impulse to throw his arms around her.
THE LADY. Don’t—oh don’t be horrid. Please, Mr. Lunn [she rises from the lounge and retreats behind it]! Promise me you won’t be horrid.
GREGORY LUNN. I’m not being horrid, Mrs. Juno. I’m not going to be horrid. I love you: that’s all. I’m extraordinarily happy.
MRS. JUNO. You will really be good?
GREGORY. I’ll be whatever you wish me to be. I tell you I love you. I love loving you. I don’t want to be tired and sorry, as I should be if I were to be horrid. I don’t want you to be tired and sorry. Do come and sit down again.
MRS. JUNO [coming back to her seat]. You’re sure you don’t want anything you oughtn’t to?
GREGORY. Quite sure. I only want you [she recoils]. Don’t be alarmed. I like wanting you. As long as I have a want, I have a reason for living. Satisfaction is death.
MRS. JUNO. Yes; but the impulse to commit suicide is sometimes irresistible.
GREGORY. Not with you.
MRS. JUNO. What!
GREGORY. Oh, it sounds uncomplimentary; but it isn’t really. Do you know why half the couples who find themselves situated as we are now behave horridly?
MRS. JUNO. Because they can’t help it if they let things go too far.
GREGORY. Not a bit of it. It’s because they have nothing else to do, and no other way of entertaining each other. You don’t know what it is to be alone with a woman who has little beauty and less conversation. What is a man to do? She can’t talk interestingly; and if he talks that way himself she doesn’t understand him. He can’t look at her: if he does, he only finds out that she isn’t beautiful. Before the end of five minutes they are both hideously bored. There’s only one thing that can save the situation; and that’s what you call being horrid. With a beautiful, witty, kind woman, there’s no time for such follies. It’s so delightful to look at her, to listen to her voice, to hear all she has to say, that nothing else happens. That is why the woman who is supposed to have a thousand lovers seldom has one; whilst the stupid, graceless animals of women have dozens.
MRS. JUNO. I wonder! It’s quite true that when one feels in danger one talks like mad to stave it off, even when one doesn’t quite want to stave it off.
GREGORY. One never does quite want to stave it off. Danger is delicious. But death isn’t. We court the danger; but the real delight is in escaping, after all.
The situation in which the well-known fragment of dialog occurs doesn’t entirely lend itself to the motivational interpretation it has attained on its own. Less is more? Maybe it’s better not to open Pandora’s box—or, rather, Pandora’s jar.
But back to New Year’s replacements…
Never stop learning.