Toujours gai: Or, What to do in Hard Times

Toujours gai: Or, What to do in Hard Times July 29, 2020




Donald Robert Perry Marquis was born on this day, the 29th of July, in 1878.

In his long career he was at one time or another a newspaper columnist, a playwright, novelist, and a poet. Today he is mostly remembered as the creator of Archy and Mehitabel.

According to Wikipedia, Archy was a “cockroach (developed as a character during 1916) who had been a free-verse poet in a previous life, and who supposedly left poems on Marquis’s typewriter by jumping on the keys. Archy usually typed only lower-case letters, without punctuation, because he could not operate the shift key. His verses were a type of social satire, and were used by Marquis in his newspaper columns titled “archy and mehitabel”; mehitabel was an alley cat, occasional companion of archy and the subject of some of archy’s verses. The archy and mehitabel pieces were illustrated by cartoonist George Herriman, better known to posterity as the author of the newspaper comic Krazy Kat.”

Me, I especially love the connection to Herriman.

But, here I want to hold up one of Marquis’ poems. It comes to us in Archy’s voice, written in 1927.

this is the song of mehitabel

of mehitabel the alley cat
as i wrote you before boss
mehitabel is a believer
in the pythagorean
theory of the transmigration
of the soul and she claims
that formerly her spirit
was incarnated in the body
of cleopatra
that was a long time ago
and one must not be
surprised if mehitabel
has forgotten some of her
more regal manners

i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
i wake the world from sleep
as i caper and sing and leap
when i sing my wild free tune
wotthehell wotthehell
under the blear eyed moon
i am pelted with cast off shoon
but wotthehell wotthehell

do you think that i would change
my present freedom to range
for a castle or moated grange
wotthehell wotthehell
cage me and i d go frantic
my life is so romantic
capricious and corybantic

and i m toujours gai toujours gai

i know that i am bound
for a journey down the sound
in the midst of a refuse mound
but wotthehell wotthehell
oh i should worry and fret
death and i will coquette
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai

i once was an innocent kit
wotthehell wotthehell
with a ribbon my neck to fit
and bells tied onto it
o wotthehell wotthehell
but a maltese cat came by
with a come hither look in his eye
and a song that soared to the sky
and wotthehell wotthehell
and i followed adown the street
the pad of his rhythmical feet
o permit me again to repeat
wotthehell wotthehell

my youth i shall never forget
but there s nothing i really regret
wotthehell wotthehell
there s a dance in the old dame yet
toujours gai toujours gai

the things that i had not ought to
i do because i ve gotto
wotthehell wotthehell
and i end with my favorite motto
toujours gai toujours gai

boss sometimes i think
that our friend mehitabel
is a trifle too gay

These are hard times. I suspect rather than riding a handcart on our way to perdition we’re more likely on that garbage scow on that journey down the sound. I can smell it…


There is a teaching for us all in this poem.

Of who we are. Of what we might be. And, most of all, how we can meet this moment.

Mehitabel’s story is ours, yours and mine. Mehitable dreams of past lives – but lives in this one. Her motto is “tojours gai,” which she translates roughly as “wotthehell.” Let me hold her up as a model of a possible western Tao, our own Western way.

Throwing heart wide and living full, “i once was an innocent kit/wotthehell wotthehell/with a ribbon my neck to fit/and bells tied onto it/o wotthehell wotthehell/but a maltese cat came by/with a come hither look in his eye/and a song that soared to the sky/and wotthehell wotthehell/and i followed adown the street/the pad of his rhythmical feet/o permit me again to repeat/wotthehell wotthehell.”

Now, I don’t find this calling us to some libertine life. There’s enormous power in all this life of ours, and constraint and respect are enormous parts of the deal.

That said, this little poem calls us to living full.

Full lives. No lights off in the closet.

Mehitabel frames the whole thing deliciously. “i know that i am bound/for a journey down the sound/in the midst of a refuse mound/but wotthehell wotthehell/oh i should worry and fret/death and i will coquette/there s a dance in the old dame yet/toujours gai toujours gai.”

On our way, I am suggesting, we need to bring it all together.

As we ride down the sound on that garbage barge, toward some unknown fate, the terrible and the beautiful are all brought together. Or can be. And as we bring mind and heart together, as we bring body and heart together, a dance does emerge, something beautiful to behold.

Toujours gai.
Toujours gai…

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