Monthly Archives: May 2018

an illustration of scholarly “good manners”



scholarly good manners.jpg

Crediting any and all findings shared with the writer.

From the introduction by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Professor Joy S. Kasson to the Penguin Classics edition of a Louisa May Alcott novel.

Note the acknowledgment in a footnote of Professor Kasson’s.



In this regard, see my post:

a scholarly rip-off; the real identity of Theodore Dreiser’s chaplain


— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

from an armchair therapist: how many disputes get resolved



You’re on the outs with someone. If you were violent sorts, it could have come to blows.

You argue back and forth until you are blue in the face. A therapist or marriage counselor should have been summoned, perhaps (I wouldn’t actually advise it), but neither one of you has gotten around to it.

You reconnect haphazardly after a day or two of smoldering anger.

You start talking about something or other. You are both into it (because of a substratum of past shared experience and concerns), meaning into whatever topic of conversation happened to come up. It could be something that you started the conversation with: say, “You won’t believe what happened to me the other day.”

The other person is listening with interest. The topic engages you both.

You forget momentarily that you are both supposed to be in a temporary “state of war,” that you have been arguing, on the outs.

You never do get around to addressing the “momentous” issues that were dividing you.

You hang up the phone. You realize that you are feeling better and are experiencing a big sense of relief.

What was so important about the supposed issues? you think. We are back to being friends.

Such a relief.

It’s better to …



— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

caveat emptor


I have learned to abhor so called print on demand booksellers.

They are sort of like cockroaches. If you are looking for a book online — from, or a bookstore/bookseller with a web page — and, say, you enter a search term such as “Theodore Dreiser” or “Sister Carrie,” you will get far more hits than you need or want.

Many of them are for on demand publishers. For instance:

Lightning Source Inc.

Forgotten Books

Trieste Publishing

Andesite Press

I was recently fooled, as it were, by seeing the name Trieste Publishing for a bookseller. I ordered a hard to find book of essays by William Hazlitt from them.

Trieste Publishing sounded like a bona fide publishing house, not an on demand publisher.

The book arrived in no time. It was what in booksellers’ parlance is termed an ex-libris copy, an ugly photocopied book from a public library with marks and stamps on it.

Some time ago, I ordered the lengthy novel by David Graham Phillips Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. It was out of print. It was sold by Indypublish.Com. It came in two volumes with a plain dark blue cover. There were no words on the cover.

The title page simply read Susan Lenox Her Rise and Fall.

They couldn’t even get that right. The novel’s title is actually Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. If you read the novel, you will see that the difference in titles makes a big difference.



Here are some more ludicrous examples.


The cover of Theodore Dreiser’s novel The “Genius,” published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

book cover, The 'Genius' (Create Space).jpg


I was astonished to see the cover of this edition. How could they have a portrait of Albert Einstein on the cover? Dreiser’s novel was based loosely on the life of Greenwich Village artist Everett Shinn, who in no way resembled Einstein appearance wise, and of course was from a totally different world, so to speak. The “publishers” did not bother to ascertain what the novel is about.


The cover of Theodore Dreiser’s novel The Financier (which is based on the life of the American financier Charles Tyson Yerkes), sold by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.


book cover, 'The Financier' (Create Space).jpg


The financier, Yerkes, died in 1905. He was active in the late nineteenth century in places such as Chicago. Dreiser knew of him. In the CreateSpace cover illustration, he is dressed in garb appropriate for Benjamin Franklin.


The cover of an edition of Theodore Dreiser’s Plays of the Natural and Supernatural, sold by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.


book cover, 'Plays of the Natural and Supernatural' (Create Space)


The cover of an edition of Theodore Dreiser’s play The Hand of the Potter, sold by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.


book cover, 'The Hand of the Potter' (Create Space).jpg


The illustrations look like they could have been done by Bruegel or an Italian Renaissance painter.



It’s disturbing, to me, to see books being marketed by firms that have entirely no knowledge of books or their content. A related problem which concerns me is that such sellers clutter up the online market for books, so that one can’t find which editions are in print that are worth purchasing.


— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

empathy II


“Lisha, ain’t you got no heart? can you remember what Hepsey told us, and call them poor, long-sufferin’ creeters names? Can you think of them wretched wives sold from their husbands; them children as dear as ourn tore from their mothers; and old folks kep slavin eighty long, hard years with no pay, no help, no pity, when they git past work? Lisha Wilkins, look at that, and say no ef you darst!”

— Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience, Chapter Sixteen (“Mustered In”)



No doubt some carping reader/critic would not hesitate to ridicule such sentiments today. Perhaps for being too saccharine or weepy.

But true empathy begins with both clear eyed observation of injustices large and small, and PITY. Something in short supply that is often looked upon as being not to the point. By heartless, callous, haughty individuals who think that to show pity amounts to weakness and that to be “above” such sentiments shows they are emotionally or morally superior.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

my refuge


“She was not happy, … and when life looked dark and barren without, she went away into that inner world of deep feeling, high thought, and earnest aspiration; which is a never-failing refuge to those whose experience has built within them

‘The nunnery of a chaste heart and quiet mind.’ ”

(The passage concludes, as above, with a paraphrase of Richard Herrick’s poem “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars.”)

— Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience



Beautiful words. Beautiful thoughts.

They express what I myself always do when depressed, and am now doing (which is why the words seem so to speak to me).

Someone has let me down.

I retreat to that inner world and it sustains me. Now and always.

I always have my books. Writing. Solitary pursuits of the mind.

Others may scoff and invent baseless caricatures of a Silas Marner.

Cruelty becomes them.


— Roger W. Smith

    May 26, 2018

Scotch marriage record of my ancestors (my Smith grandfather’s great-grandparents)


John Gilchrist-Agnes Christie marriage record.jpg


I am one fourth Scotch through my paternal grandfather Thomas Gordon Smith (1885-1967).

Posted here is the marriage record of my grandfather’s great-grandparents on his paternal grandmother’s side.

My grandfather’s great-grandfather on his paternal grandmother’s side was John Gilchrist of Scotland. John Gilchrist married my grandfather’s great-grandmother Agnes Christie. Their daughter Jane (Gilchrist) Smith (my grandfather’s paternal grandmother) emigrated to the United States in 1872.

The marriage of John Gilchrist and Agnes Christie took place in Paisley, Scotland in 1833. “MC” on the marriage record stands for Middle Church. Middle Church describes the area around a parish and also the religious denomination associated with that area. The couple were Presbyterian.

If any family member ever goes to Scotland, they might want to check out Paisley. The newlyweds John and Agnes lived on North Croft Street in Paisley in the late 1830. They later moved to Niddry Street in Paisley, where they were living as recorded in the 1841 Scotch census.

Paisley is where their daughter Jane, my grandfather’s maternal grandmother, was born in December 1834. She died in Boston, Massachusetts in 1907.

Paisley was at one time famous for its weaving and textile industries. Prior to emigrating, Jane (Gilchrist) Smith, my grandfather’s maternal grandmother, was employed as a “winder of cotton.”

Jane’s father John Gilchrist, whose marriage record is posted here, is described as a blacksmith in early records and later as a “boilermaker journeyman.” He was born 1811 to 1815 (a range of years deduced from ages shown on later records). The year 1811 is likely. There was a John Gilcrhis [sic] baptized to a John Gilcrhis and Jean Cameron on 1 Dec 1811 in Paisley (Abbey). This is probably my ancestor.


— Roger W. Smith

    May 2018



See also my post:

“Jane (Gilchrist) Smith (1834-1907)”

Jane (Gilchrist) Smith (1834-1907)

William Handy, Love Swain marriage record



William Handy-Love Swain marriage record


William Handy-Love Swain marriage record


William Handy (1762-1856) of Sandwich, Massachusetts — sea captain, whaler, ship owner, farmer — was the grandfather of my mother’s grandfather Henry Thomas Handy (1845-1916). He served in the Revolutionary War.

He married Love Swain (1779-1857) on August 25, 1796 in Sandwich when he was 34 years old and she was about 17 years old. They had nine children. Love (Swain) Handy was a direct descendant of Daniel Swain, one of the founding purchasers of Nantucket.

Posted here is a copy of the marriage record, which I have transcribed as follows:

August 25th, 1796

William Handy and Love Swain both of Sandwich were married by Revd. Jonathan Burr.

Rev. Jonathan Burr was pastor of the First Church of Sandwich and preceptor of Sandwich Academy.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2018



See also my posts:


William Handy (1762-1856) of Sandwich, MA

William Handy (1762-1856) of Sandwich, MA


“my Revolutionary War ancestor”

my Revolutionary War ancestor

Carl Nielsen, “Homesickness”



Posted are three renditions — one by a tenor, one by a soprano, and one by a mixed choir — of a beautiful song by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Nielsen composed over 290 songs and hymns, most of them based upon verses and poems by well-known Danish authors.

The song “Hjemvee (Underlige Aftenlufte!)” (translated as Homesickness; Odd and unknown evening breezes!) is a setting of a text by the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger. The poem was written in 1805 and was occasioned by homesickness Oehlenschläger suffered during a four-year trip to Germany, France, and Italy.

The lyrics (see below) express the following impressions and thoughts: The homesick poet is watching the sun set behind mountains in a foreign land. The evening breeze makes him think of similar evenings among beech trees in the woods in Denmark, his native land. He wonders, will he ever see them again?

The composer’s tempo instructions are “Sincerely, warmly (not too slowly).”

The Danish lyrics are as follows, followed by an English translation.


— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018



Underlige aftenlufte!
Hvorhen vinker I min Hu?
Milde, lune blomsterdufte!
sig, hvor hen I bølger nu.
Går I over hviden strand
til mit elskte fødeland?
Vil I der med eders bølger
tolke, hvad mit hjerte dølger?

Matte sol! bag bjergets stene
luerød du daler ned,
og nu sidder jeg alene
i min dunkle ensomhed.
Hjemme var der intet fjeld,
ak! så er jeg ude vel,
skal i nat ej barnligt blunde
i min Herthas grønne Lunde.

Norges søn! jeg vel kan mindes,
du har sagt med smeltet bryst,
at i hjemmet ene findes
rolighedens sande lyst.
Schweizer! som paa klippen bor,
du har talt de samme ord.
Hellig længsel drev med vælde
begge til de vante fjelde.

Tror I da, kun klipper ene
præger sig i hjertet ind?
Ak! fra disse nøgne stene
vender sig mit mørke sind.
Synger granens, fyrrens lov!
hvor er Danmarks bøgeskov?
Gustne flod, som her sig krummer,
dysser ej min sjæl i slummer.

Hjemme rinder ingen floder
i en sid og leret grav,
livets kilde, glædens moder
breder sig, det sølvblå hav,
slynger sig med venlig arm
om sin datters fulde barm,
og ved blomsten sig forlyster
på Sjølundas unge bryster.

Stille! stille! hisset gynger
båden mellem siv og krat,
sødt en mø ved cithren synger
i den tavse, lune nat.
Hvilke toner! milde lyst!
hvor du strømmer i mit bryst!
Men hvad savner jeg, og græder,
mens hun dog så venligt kvæder?

Det er ej den danske tunge,
det er ej de vante ord,
ikke dem, jeg hørte sjunge,
hvor ved hytten træet gror.
Bedre er de vel måske,
ak, men det er ikke de!
bedre, tror jeg vist, hun kvæder,
men tilgiver, at jeg græder!

Tager ej min sang for andet
end et ufrivilligt suk!
Længselsfuldt heniler vandet,
aftnen er så blid og smuk.
Mangen sådan aftenstund
sad jeg i min kære lund,
mindet vender nu tilbage,
det var årsag i min klage.

Tidlig misted jeg min moder,
ak! det gjorde mig så ve!
Danmark er min anden moder,
skal jeg mer min moder se?
Livet er så svagt og kort,
skæbnen vinker længer bort,
skal jeg med den sidste varme
slutte mig i hendes arme?


Wond’rous fragrance in the evening!
Something beckons in my mind!
Scent of flowers warmly wafting,
Tell me what your currents find.
Will you drift o’er plain and strand
To my distant motherland?
Will your odours there reveal
What my aching heart conceals?

Feeble sun! behind the mountains
Furnace-red you slowly sink.
Lone I sit by craggy fountains.
Lovely memory I drink.
Mountains are not in my home.
Ah, too long I must have roamed
And shan’t tonight sleep like a child
In my native arbour mild.

Listen! listen! over where
The boat is rocked twixt wood and reed,’
There a maiden plays her zither
In the gloaming mild and sweet.
Melodies with rapture blest!
Gently streaming in my breast!
But there’s something lost and missing
In the pleasant words she’s singing.

Please don’t take my song for other
Than a soft, unwilling sigh.
With a fervent rush the water
Foams beneath the evening sky,
Oftentimes at such an hour
Sat I in my shady bower.
Memory wells up, returning.
Causing all my hurt and yearning.

Early did I lose my mother.
Oh, it caused me woe and pain.
Demark is s my second mother.
Shall I see her once again?
Life, it is so short and weak.
Fortune calls, but does not speak.
Will I at the final gloaming
In her arms find rest from roaming?



Note: Different sites and booklets give varying lyrics and translations. I am not sure if I have transcribed the lyrics as sung with complete accuracy. But, at least the English translation coveys the meaning of the lyrics.



Re an article on amblyopia by New York Times personal health columnist Jane Brody:

“Add Depth to Life, With Early Eye Exam”

By Jane E. Brody

The New York Times

May 17, 2005

My husband, Richard, now 72, was 11 when an eye examination at school revealed that the acuity in his left eye was a mere 20/200, far less than the 20/40 in his right eye.

Though glasses improved the vision in his left eye, they could not restore what he lost – depth perception gleaned from binocular vision – because this defect had not been found and corrected much sooner.

By the time Richard was 11, his brain had learned to ignore the blurry image from his left eye, and he was unable to coordinate the images from both eyes to form a view of the world that clearly shows how near or far objects are. As a result, he could never learn to catch or hit a ball, and he must concentrate hard to navigate highway exit ramps.

Richard was an early and avid reader who excelled in school, so no once suspected his eyes were not functioning normally. But without depth perception, he never would have made it as an airline pilot or interstate truck driver. Also, for unknown reasons, as an adult with amblyopia, Richard is at higher than normal risk of suffering an injury in his good eye and, in effect, becoming functionally blind.

How Amblyopia Develops

The visual cortex of the brain develops rapidly in babies and young children until about age 6. Interference with the image that forms on the retina during this critical time can cause the brain to favor one eye over the other. The great disparity in acuity in Richard’s eyes caused the visual cortex of his brain to rely only on the input from his right eye.

This condition – amblyopia, which is sometimes called lazy eye – can result from strabismus, crossed eyes that turn in or eyes that turn out. When eyes turn in, double vision results and the brain discards the image from one eye to “fix” the problem. When eyes turn out, the brain receives input from only one eye at a time and learns to favor the better eye.

An eye that drifts off center by just a degree is enough to cause amblyopia, but the untrained eye will not notice a disparity until one eye turns in or out by about five degrees.

Other causes of amblyopia include a significant difference in acuity between the eyes (Richard’s problem), an astigmatism in one eye, or severe visual blurring in both eyes caused by nearsightedness or farsightedness. Occasionally, amblyopia is caused by other eye disorders like cataracts.

Despite the great increase in understanding and recognition of this condition since Richard was a child, even now the vision of far too many children remains impaired for life because amblyopia is not detected until it is too late.

Amblyopia is the most common cause of visual impairment in childhood, affecting 2 to 4 percent of children. According to the National Eye Institute, “Unless it is successfully treated in early childhood, amblyopia usually persists into adulthood.”

Dr. David G. Hunter, an ophthalmologist at Children’s Hospital Boston, recently noted in The Journal of the American Medical Association that “amblyopia is an important public health problem, causing unilateral vision loss in 2 percent to 4 percent of the population” and “may be the leading cause of monocular vision loss in children and adults up to age 70.”

Early Detection Is Critical

If a “lazy eye” is not detected and treated at a young age, the vision in that eye gets worse because it is not being used. Chances are, when Richard was a toddler, the acuity in his left eye was better than 20/200, but it lost ground through years of disuse.

Dr. Hunter’s journal article concerned the results of a 49-center study sponsored by the National Eye Institute that sought to determine whether treatment of amblyopia after age 7 might be effective. The study found that some improvement in visual acuity was possible in the “lazy eye” up to age 12, and in some children up to age 17.

But, Dr. Hunter said, it is not yet known whether the improvement will last once treatment stops or whether the loss in depth perception can be reversed.

‘”The sooner amblyopia is detected and treated, the better,” Dr. Hunter said in an interview. “Amblyopia gets less fixable with each passing year.”

Ideally children’s vision should be tested even before they can talk and identify letters on an eye chart. At the very least, during well-child visits, the primary care doctor should perform some basic tests on the eyes of infants and toddlers, he said. Do the child’s eyes look straight and do they reflect light equally when a flashlight is shined on them?

“There needs to be a high index of suspicion in the pediatrician’s office until we finish developing and evaluating instruments for use in a doctor’s office that can measure whether a child’s eyes are in focus,” Dr. Hunter said.

One early detection method, photoscreening, is in use in some places. It relies on cameras designed to get red-eye reflections. One eye may light up red and the other not, suggesting that the child’s eyes are not properly aligned or that one eye is out of focus. But Dr. Hunter said, “This technique does not yet work well enough to become a standard of care.”

Parents, too, can be on the alert for signs of amblyopia in young children. Do the child’s eyes cross inward? (It’s normal for a baby’s eyes to drift out up to 3 months of age.) Does the child tilt his head at a funny angle when trying to see something? Does the child squint to see clearly?

Also, Dr. Hunter said, “if an older sibling has been treated for amblyopia, the child should be examined by an eye specialist who is qualified to work with children.”

The standard treatment for amblyopia is to block the vision temporarily in the stronger eye to force the child to use the weaker one. Two methods are commonly used: an adhesive patch worn over the stronger eye for two or more hours a day or the insertion of eyedrops of atropine, which blur the vision in the stronger eye for most of a day.

Of course, if visual acuity in the weaker eye is abnormal or an astigmatism is present, this too must be corrected with glasses.

The patch or drops are used for weeks, months or even years, until the weaker eye catches up to the stronger one and the child is able to use both simultaneously to produce a united image.

If strabismus (crossed or drifting eye) fails to be corrected with a patch or atropine drops, surgery may be needed to repair the muscular abnormality.

Just a Drop a Day

Multicenter studies sponsored by the Eye Institute have shown that atropine drops used once a day work as well as an eye patch and may increase compliance with the treatment. This is especially so with older children and teenagers, who may resent wearing a patch and having to explain it to others.

An institute-sponsored study also indicated that for moderate amblyopia, patching the unaffected eye for two hours a day works as well as patching for six hours, a change that should also increase compliance.

During the time the eye is patched, the child should do at least an hour of close-up visual activities, like reading, drawing or working puzzles.



A problem with my vision, which turned out to be amblyopia,  was detected early. I was taken frequently to a very good, leading eye doctor in Boston, Carl Cordes Johnson MD, an ophthalmic surgeon who taught at Harvard Medical School. All the “treatments” failed. During summer vacations from school, I had to wear a patch over my good eye. I hated this, and it never did any good. Of course, the idea was to get my right eye to strengthen.



I was very sensitive about my eye problems as a kid. I thought it meant something was wrong with me. The school bully in junior high school, Bob Dudley, called me a “cross eyed monkey” once. A girlfriend I had once whose father, Herbert Katzin, was a prominent ophthalmologist, was constantly bringing up my vision problems and making me feel embarrassed and ashamed of them.

Times columnist Jane Brody’s article says that early detection of amblyopia is critical. As far as I was concerned, this did not seem to matter. My eye condition was detected very early, and I was always making trips to Boston with my mother to visit Dr. Johnson. Every treatment that was tried did absolutely no good.

I can’t help saying that, in my opinion, these personal health writers are often out of their depth.



Jane Brody writes:

The standard treatment for amblyopia is to block the vision temporarily in the stronger eye to force the child to use the weaker one. Two methods are commonly used: an adhesive patch worn over the stronger eye for two or more hours a day or the insertion of eyedrops of atropine, which blur the vision in the stronger eye for most of a day. …

The patch or drops are used for weeks, months or even years, until the weaker eye catches up to the stronger one and the child is able to use both simultaneously to produce a united image.

This was tried on me in my early school years. Wearing a patch was a complete pain. It did NO GOOD whatsoever.


— Roger W. Smith

   May 2018




A discussion with an ophthalmologist, Dr. Ronald C. Gentile, during an eye examination on March 27, 2017 seemed to confirm some of my suspicions about what caused me to develop the condition of amblyopia.

Amblyopia is quite rare and affects a very small percentage of the population. No one seems to know for sure what causes it.

I asked Dr. Gentile about causes. He said it could be caused by various factors, ranging from genetic factors to environmental factors at the time of birth.

I told Dr. Gentile that I was about six weeks premature and that I was kept in an incubator for a long time. I asked him, could this be a possible cause? He said it certainly could. I then did a bit of research on my own on the Internet. It appears that deprivation of oxygen to blood vessels in the eye of a newborn can impair development of vision in the retina. This seems to confirm what I have always suspected, and it also uncannily underlies the antipathy I have always felt over being denied fresh air and confined in spaces with poor ventilation.

on happiness vis-à-vis sadness (and the other way around)


“We are more apt to feel depressed by the perpetually smiling individual than the one who is honestly sad. If we admit our depression openly and freely, those around us get from it an experience of freedom rather than the depression itself.”

— Rollo May, Paulus: Reminiscence of a Friendship (1973)



These thoughts, this post, are occasioned by a film I saw about beleaguered people in a foreign country.

I was transfixed — totally engrossed in the people’s stories and the picture the film gave of their daily lives.

I shared my enthusiasm for the film with someone close to me and suggested that she see it with me.

She said no, she had no interest (despite my strong recommendation) in seeing the film.

“Why?” I asked.

She answered (perhaps she was looking for excuses), “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”

This struck me as patently ridiculous. Since when has it been imperative to avoid things — in life, in art — with the potential to make oneself sad?



It should be obvious that true art mixes joy and beauty with pathos.

In his Poetics, Aristotle developed the theory of catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις, catharsis, meaning “purification” or “cleansing” — the purification and purgation of emotions — especially pity and fear — through art”; as explained on Wikipedia). Note that, as explained in the online encyclopedia article, catharsis represents an “extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration” (italics added).

The film which I saw was a documentary about North Korea entitled Under the Sun. More about this below.



So much for theory. Let’s consider some examples. But first, a digression about happiness in PEOPLE.

To what extent is happiness a desideratum? Can we expect it? Is there even such a thing — is it real? How should we regard others who are, seem to be, or claim to be, happy?

My father, Alan W. Smith, thoroughly enjoyed life, on many levels: an interest in things (including the delight he took in little things, such as observing what happened once to dry ice when he threw a chunk of it over the side of a ship into the water; he wanted us to see it), including intellectual curiosity; a love of music (chiefly as a performer); a delight in people and their company; a delight in little amusements; pleasures such as eating, drinking, and the outdoors (experienced as an everyday citizen, not as a woodsman; e.g., raking leaves in the fall, a walk with his wife or the dog on the seashore, a blizzard). He had a keen appetite for life.

Unlike a lot of adults, he loved his work. He never begrudged, never complained about anything. Welcomed everything and anyone who came his way.

He could loosen and cheer up a group simply by being himself and by virtue of his presence. He didn’t mind looking ridiculous, making fun of himself (or being made fun of), or being regarded as extravagant or incautious.

Oftentimes, he would enter a parlor with people leaning forward in their chairs — tight lipped, looking uncomfortable.

“What’s everybody looking so glum for?” he would say. The complexion of the group would change just like that and people would begin talking and joking. In the words of Louisa May Alcott*, he “pervaded the rooms like a genial atmosphere, using the welcome of eye and hand which needs no language to interpret it, … making their [his guests’] enjoyment his own.”

He took the weather with equanimity, be it a blizzard, a hurricane, or an earthquake.

My father happened to be in the Bay Area, visiting my older brother in the late 1980’s, shortly before the former died, when an earthquake struck. “I’ve always wanted to be able to experience what an earthquake feels like,” he told me afterward. As my former therapist pointed out, such an attitude showed an appetite for life and an eagerness to experience it.

A hot summer’s day? A great excuse for setting off a few fireworks in our back yard, or for a lobster cookout (which both my parents loved) in the front yard of our rented summer house on Cape Cod.

I remember a blizzard in my home town of Canton, Massachusetts when I was in high school. Everything was shut down. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. An idea came to my father. Wouldn’t it be great to toast marshmallows and cook hot dogs in our living room fireplace? There was a problem, however — we didn’t have the ingredients. Such niggling problems never seemed to stand in the way of the fun planned by my father. Come to think of it, how about a walk? We walked, tramped about two miles each way through snowdrifts, found a store that was open, and bought marshmallows, hot dogs, and buns.

There was, of course, another side to him. He could be pensive and gloomy. He could be irascible and had a bad temper. His cheerfulness was only one side of the coin.

When something untoward happened to him — an argument with his second wife, for example — he would say to himself through gritted teeth (as she used to tell me), “I’m not going to let it ruin my day.”

*In Alcott’s novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873).



Phony Cheerfulness

A truism: no one is happy all the time.

There was a nice looking, perky girl in the class a year ahead of me in college: Marie E______.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say this. It will sound petty and perhaps mean spirited. But Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness grated on me.

A friend of mine, who lacked emotional depth and (often) insight into human relationships, was eager to get to know Marie and had several tennis dates with her. The relationship went no further.

“The thing I like most about her,” he told me, “is that she’s always cheerful.” This comment seemed obtuse and fatuous. It nettled me. I would be willing to bet that Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness was her way of dealing with insecurities that she probably felt.



Happiness in a person without an admixture of sadness seems to be inimical to the human condition. One wants to get to know both sides of a person — to hear about their highs and lows from him or herself.

What about my father? you might ask. Didn’t I just wax rhapsodic over his cheerfulness and capacity to enjoy life?

I noted that he had another side that, while it was less often seen, would suddenly be displayed in bursts of anger. And, my father knew profound grief from family tragedies for which he did not bear responsibility but in which he was the chief mourner and suffered the most.

A capacity for joy does not preclude an awareness of sadness, does not obviate sadness.

Who wrote the Ode to Joy? The same composer who in his late quartets, beautifully, incomparably, expresses pathos, sadness.



The film mentioned above is Under the Sun (2015), a documentary about North Korea. It was directed by the Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky.

It is beautifully done and tugs and pulls at the viewer emotionally on many levels. The central person in the film, who is unforgettable, is an adorable eight-year-old North Korean girl named Zin-mi. The plot is ostensibly about Zin-mi going through steps, including school, as she prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union. At the film’s conclusion, she breaks down and cries upon being admitted to the children’s union. She is perhaps crying from relief that the stress of achieving the goal is over and, it seems, from what one would call joy mixed with sadness.

As I noted in a previous post:

re “Under the Sun” (a film about North Korea)

The compelling thing about the film is that you come away caring about the people and touched by the film’s PATHOS — despite the fact that one is aware that the people live incredibly hard, regimented lives in a totalitarian state where they have been effectively brainwashed and reduced almost to automatons (or so it often seems).

The film features beautiful, elegiac music composed by a Latvian composer, Karlis Auzans. It captures the pathos musically, for example, in a scene where you see North Koreans having family photos taken in a sort of assembly line fashion. A couple stands proudly in front of an automatic camera with their children. The photo is taken and another couple poses. And so on. As they stare into the camera, one sees expressions of pride but also feels a great sadness. The music rises to an emotional pitch and captures this. One feels empathy with the people posing, with the North Koreans! One feels that they are people, just like us. That, despite very hard lives, they experience feelings like ours. One feels like crying oneself, but one, at the same time, experiences a kind of joy in contemplating the miracle of human existence, and how this elemental reality links us all, regardless of circumstances.



This got me thinking about pathos in literature and music. About the comment “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”

Anna Karenina ends sadly. Does that make one any less desirous of reading it? It seems that in most operas the plot involves a tragic love affair, often with someone committing suicide, dying of grief. Art (in the broad sense of the word) is full of grief, so to speak, as well as happiness — as depicted by the artist drawing upon a profound knowledge of human life. Would one wish all art to be reduced to the level of a situation comedy?

What about music? Ever hear stirrings of pathos? In Beethoven’s late quartets, in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, and so forth?

Case closed.


— Roger W. Smith

  February 2018; updated May 2018