Marching, ambling, waddling with the rest of the world down the Boardwalk of that Atlantic beach I came at last not to wisdom or virtue, of course, but at least to a keener sense of balderdash and the inability of a dime to confer joy.
I saw a vast lady, one of many, so large she seemed unable to walk (as bumblebees are said to be aerodynamically unable to fly) and it struck me she should have sat in profoundest grief. Are we not supposed to grieve when we think what the Honey Bun (which we are guiltily munching) is doing to our heart, our gizzard, and all those other fittings of the body, so wretchedly designed and so susceptible to falling apart?
But instead she moved along with the rest, no more greatly oppressed than Marilyn Monroe in her heyday.
And we passed also a pleasure palace fitted with game machines that light up and go awk and hum madly as if with a thousand volts.
"Come on in," said the sign, "where happiness is."
Not surprisingly, the place was jammed, mainly with 12-year-olds who had heard, no doubt, of happiness and were keen to discover what the flavor might be.
They stood around tense as recruits, dropping in their dimes, paying sharp attention to the lights and buzzes that rewarded them. They found great happiness, as advertised.
Furthermore all the hospitals of the East Coast had abruptly emptied their newborn baby wards so that dozens of the strained-spinach set were being trundled about, chiefly by proud sires with an ice cream cone in one hand and the ship of the future in the other.
So here was the immemorial pageant, more like Disney than Dante, with the grief-weighted lady obviously contented and the happiness-hunting kids grim as hostages in front of their uproar machines, and all the little babies strapped in their strollers wondering what the hell suddenly produced so great a forest of bare legs about them.
Now we who are mature know that happiness is a dayspring between mountains, streaming unpredictably in excessively rare weathers to light (as the wit Hopkins once said) a lovely mile. No more than that.
Lucretius the Roman, who had more sense than to worry about happiness much, hints in his fifth book that wisdom and virture and what he calls a clean breast are all dandy baggage along the road, through he himself went mad and killed himself at the age of 44.
Still, he could have been right, you know, in his analysis even if (as often happens in moral laboratories) it was back to the old drawing board for him personally.
It was god (he used to say) who first led men away from the machines that light up and holler and buzz with so many volts.
A god (he goes on) that first showed life may be lived with what is called wisdom, so that life is rescued from great-billows and thick darkness and moored in so perfect a calm and in so radiant a light.
Big deal. Bully for the wise. But the wisdom machines. like the happiness machines of the kids, always seem not to produce quite the results that are advertised.
During the week I saw the huge lady many a time and she seemed as happy and as wise as anybody else, though I guessed she was not brilliantly "educated" and probably had not attended all that many glittering events in capitals nor been all that close to glory.Some people never taste the love of life in its headier excitements and never have been on the lists of life, so it would be no harm (in the view of Lucretius, who was an authority) if they had never been born.
Still and all, the huge woman appeared to have an inner dignity as great as the average Roman who goes mad and kills himself at 44, I thought.
There must have been some mischiefs she was not eligible to get into and some temptations she was spared. Much of life must have been off-limits to her, and this is commonly reckoned a tragedy.
She would never become a personal assistant to a president of the United States, entrusted with valuable tapes. She would never preside over the national hang-glider club. She would never bask in the glow of a dozen panting lovers. How sad.
But she seemed to have sunk into her affliction without struggling, or without struggling any longer, and she was eating a triple ice cream cone.
How tranquil, how stately and unselfconsciously she moved.
Most of us, Lucretius goes on, desire tranquility and peace and that modest security that holds body and soul together. No more.
But almost all of us soon get anxious and start taking precautions. We have little faith that anybody will take care of us if we don't do it ourselves, and we learn soon enough that the goodness of others is considerably enhanced if they know you are going to pay for it.
So that while we only desire tranquility and a vine and a fig tree to sit under, we start worrying -- what if the dollar becomes worthless? What if it takes a fortune just to get by modestly? Furthermore, what if you eat a shrimp and get a lot of cholesterol and drop dead? What if you eat some barbecue and gain weight and have a stroke and aren't old enough for Medicare and zub-zub-zub.
Thus men set forth on the treadmill and often succeed in achieving that security, that safety, that will allow the simple tranquility everybody desires. Only along the way the treadmill exertions do something to banish tranquility, and toxins are produced that change the cast of mind that once desired peace. The struggle itself intoxicates and, often as not, curdles.
Needless to say, this is the "malaise" that some profess to see in the country now. Formerly only Goulds got carried away with ambition and the huff after money, but now, thanks to wider general education, everybody is in a panic to race ahead before he gets lost entirely. Thus anxiety rises and moonlighting is everywhere except on a tranquil sand beneath a white moon.
But the fat lady, I was almost certain, did not give a fried fandango about getting ahead or even staying in place. Have another ice cream, dear.
She may have sunk so far in her destructive element that she has somehow been sustained, however, precaruously. Most of my own friends who drop dead, come to think of it, have been trim enough. It's tennis, not ice cream, sometimes.
So much of ordinary life may have already been lost to the fat woman that she has found something (surprise) in the emptiness that's left her. I had the awful feeling she was saner than I, for all my careful avoidance of eggs and raw sugar and beef fat.
Sometimes you notice that people's excesses insulate them -- improbably -- from ordinary doom. The secret, I have sometimes specualted, is to stop caring one way or another.
Lay not up for yourself (as I said driving home from the beach) treasures of crab (at $9.25 a pound) or machines that light up go buzz to delight you, for happiness is not found in these things. Money, anxiety, striving, all take it out of you if you get hooked on them.
Entering my house I was greeted by the fine son appointed curator pro tempore of the dogs in my absence and they were all alive despite what I sensed were tremendous pitfalls and near things:
"Your damn hound," he stated, "ate a $10 bill of mine. Just stood up and grabbed if off the table and ate it."
And yet, I reflected privately (for it seemed the wrong time to point a lesson here) all that money had not provided the hound any lasting happiness.
"I pried the jaws open when I saw what was happening, and there was still some green I pulled, but it was too late. Ten bucks, for God's sake." s
But then old Houndbody has not read Lucretius nor for that matter spent time in the pleasure palaces of the Boardwalk, and the mutt has yet to learn that happiness rarely results from just dropping money in.