Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about a columnist whose work she esteems to a point, but which I find insufferable. If I’m being fair, I have to admit that this person has a lot to recommend him. He oozes integrity and wears diligence and passion like a set of (tastefully understated) cufflinks. If it served his ideology, he’d lock his ego in a chastity belt — on that I would bet my very space bar.
Someone once said that when the gods want to be cruel, they punish us for our virtues. Well, this writer I’m thinking of does something far crueler: he insists on punishing me for his virtues. All those good points of his, rare though they are, have served only to pervert his talents and make him into a common scold.
To scold, dictionary.com tells us, means: “ to find fault (with) angrily.” A scold is “a person who is constantly scolding.” And that is pretty much that. Keeping life as simple as possible, the scold divides creation into the praiseworthy and the blameworthy. Then he labels them both, spitting modifiers like a belt-fed machine gun.
They say everyone’s a critic — well, not scolds. Or rather, scolds aren’t very enlightening critics, at least not according to Ben Yagoda. Explaining why he finds Times book critic Michiko Kakutani’s reviews “profoundly uninteresting,” he pinpoints her “evaluation fixation.” The verdict — whether a book is good or bad — though only one part of better-rounded critics’ jobs, is “everything” for Kakutani. “One has the sense,” Yagoda writes, “of her deciding roughly at Page 2 whether or not a book is worthy; reading the rest of it to gather evidence for her case; spending some quality time with the Thesaurus; and then taking a large blunt hammer and pounding the message home.”
Kakutani’s reviews, like the judgment of all scolds, are most memorable and most definitive when negative. Praise from a scold looks as awkward as the left-handed signature of a right-handed person. But negativity itself doesn’t make the scold. The curmudgeon is an even more intensely negative type, but paradoxically, a much more endearing one. Each — scold and curmudgeon — is best understood in comparison to the other, so the two deserve a side-by-side examination.
According to Mr. Dictionary, a curmudgeon is “a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person.” Scolds do; curmudgeons are. That basic distinction goes a long way toward explaining the word‘s connotative meanings. Something about naturally occurring qualities makes them intriguing and attractive. It‘s easy to believe scolds become scolds because they were bullied in high school or drink too much coffee as adults. Curmudgeons? Well, they just rank among God’s wonders, like Arizona sunsets.
In its ease of operation, a curmudgeonly disposition has a lot in common with that other mysterious quality, coolness. An oft-repeated story finds W.C. Fields on his deathbed. Looking pensively out the window, he says to a visiting friend, “I feel bad for those newsies out there in the cold. I’d like to do something for them.” After giving his visitor just enough time to gape at his last-minute conversion, he amends: “Ah, fuck ‘em.”
Not bad for a man with one foot in Hades. A scold would probably have ranted about child labor laws until his friend euthanized him with the nearest pillow. (Given enough time to reverse himself, he’d probably shout that kids today are spoiled and lazy.) No wonder there are books titled The Portable Curmudgeon, but none titled The Portable Scold.
Not all curmudgeons are so unflappable as W.C. Fields. Many have been deeply, and notoriously, dysfunctional. Dorothy Parker — whose review of A.A. Milne’s poetry, “Tonstant Weader fwowwed up,” was nastier than anything Michiko Kakutani could concoct after stubbing a toe –was an alcoholic and depressive. Paul Fussell suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which he’d picked up leading an infantry platoon in Alsace during the Second World War. But curmudgeons’ cynicism insulates them — both from Utopian dreams and from crippling disillusionment. Though they may be politically engaged and socially aware, curmudgeons do not politicize the personal or personalize the political. When Sarah Palin demanded that Rahm Emmanuel resign, to expiate his having used the word “retarded” as a term of abuse, she blackballed herself from the curmudgeon club forever. At the same time, she proved herself a first-class scold.
Though hardness of heart is among the curmdgeon’s signature traits — John Derbyshire broke new records here by recommending that Chelsea Clinton be put to death — their comfort with human imperfection sometimes leads them to identify with dopes and scoundrels. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert serves up a banquet of characters whom we should find repulsive or ridiculous: a ditzy, spoiled housewife; her supine husband; a blowhard of a neighbor He invests them all with just enough gruff, curmudgeonly sympathy to make them readable without being, in the way of a dark sitcom, laughable. A contemporary caricaturist drew Flaubert in a dissection room, standing over Emma Bovary’s body, hoisting her heart on a scalpel. He’s a scientist, we’re meant to understand, not a sadist. No hard feelings.
In Corrections, Jonathan Franzen offers a scold’s view of family life. Read it. No, better yet, don’t.
The line separating the scolds from the curmudgeons can be porous. Joe Queenan, formerly of Spy Magazine, now a film reviewer for the U.K. Guardian, has a curmudgeon’s natural crankiness, but is capable of the scold’s indignation. Reading him can feel like watching a tipsy man undergo a field sobriety test — can he walk that straight line, or not? Equipped with both a gimlet eye and Utopian visions, G.K. Chesterton could have been either a scold or a curmudgeon. It was his dogged pursuit of joy — his determination to find poetry in floods and train stations, and in names like “Smith” — that prevented his becoming either.
It would be interesting to see what would have happened if Oscar Wilde had emerged from prison a hardened curmudgeon, but he didn’t. When he wrote Bosie Douglas that he had no choice but to forgive him, he thought he was acting for the sake of his psychic survival. Nevertheless, through that promise — in fact, through all of De Profundis – runs a bright thread of scoldish self-congratulation. It continues, sad to say, through “Ballad of Reading Gaol” and the call for prison reform Wilde published just before his death. Both advertise his compassion to a degree any curmudgeon could find shameful.
You’d expect scolds to crowd into spiritual writing like moths attacking a flame. There’s no getting around it — they do. Religion and spirituality are all about striving for perfection. That requires the sort of strenuous engagement that lends itself to military metaphors, the furthest thing in the world from curmudgeonly detachment. (Whenever a spiritual writer adopts the first-person plural, as in, “We should all endeavor to…”, it’s time to put on your scold-retardant pajamas.) Nevertheless, because curmudgeons are born, not made, one occasionally turns up at the prayer circle, pen in hand.
The likeliest candidate for curmudgeonhood in Christ is Flannery O’Connor. No surprise there, right? Well, the great ones always make it look easy, but in her case, it can’t have been. Her stories are nakedly didactic — a scold’s trait — and she made no effort to make her characters anything but repulsive. But at least she makes them awful across the board, unlike Ayn Rand, who could be counted on to make some characters beautiful and eloquent, just so’s the reader would know whom to root for. Also, O’Connor employs irony rather than invective. Whether they’re saying or doing something wise or stupid, her characters truly know not what they do. And that’s a very curmudgeonly way of looking at them.
As for me, I’m afraid I’m a scold in curmudgeon’s clothing. What I try to sell as cynicism, too often, is a deep-seated sense of grievance, which marks a scold as surely as a Mongolian fold. Really, there ought to be a law. As soon as I post this, I’m going to scold hell out of myself for that.