“Worse things happen at sea…”

Last week I was very anxious and rather depressed. The sources of my anxiety and depression were varied and would not make for good reading. But from several quarters I have been reminded that my life is much easier and less beset by troubles than most. Naturally, this calls to mind the words of the Epicurean poet Lucretius:

How pleasant it is, when windstorms lash
the mighty seas, to gaze out from the land
upon another man in great distress—
not because you feel delightful pleasure
when anyone is forced to suffer pain,
but because it brings you joy to witness
misfortunes you yourself do not live through.

Perhaps Lucretius over-states his case here. He rightly asserts that pleasure should not come directly from the suffering of others, but only from the awareness that the suffering is not one’s own. Actually witnessing the suffering of others seems thoroughly unpleasant though. The general awareness (without specifics) of others’ suffering is much more palatable, but still is not a source of pleasure for me, only an occasion to put my own problems into perspective.

A more reasonable source of pleasure may be the recollection of personal suffering that is now past. The narrator in Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din speaks not from the perspective of Lucretius looking down on the field of battle and reveling in the fact that he is not in any personal danger. Rather, he speaks from his own experience. He personally endured a great deal of hardship “in Injia’s sunny clime,” but now he is stationed in relative safety. He can look back at the times when he used to drink water that “was crawlin’ and it stunk” and rejoice in the fact that he is now at leisure to “talk o’ gin and beer”. (In the poem itself the narrator does not seem to take much joy in comparing the relative ease of his current life with his past experiences, but there is no reason to think that he couldn’t.)

If life gets tough, remember this: there are people in this world who have no beer and there are people who can’t read poetry. All things considered, you have it pretty good.

Beer of the Week: Golden Eagle – This is the first beer that I’ve ever had from “Injia”. At first, there was something in the aroma that I couldn’t place. It was a certain sweetness but it was a bit harsh in a very familiar way. Then I recognized it: cheap wine. It doesn’t smell exactly like cheap wine of course; there are also hints of honey and malt. The taste really follows the aroma, with the strange sweetness dominating. I really don’t know what to make of it, this beer is so much unlike other beers I’ve had. At any rate, it’s certainly better than Gunga Din’s “pint o’ water-green”.

Reading for the Week: Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling – Kipling, of course, also wrote The White Man’s Burden. Having not conducted any serious study of that work, I will not proffer any interpretation of Kipling’s views on race relations. When reading Gunga Din, let us attempt (if possible) to lay aside the obvious questions of race and focus on the men in terms of their occupations and characters. The narrator has acted brutally toward Din, but Din is steadfast, brave, and loyal despite the abuse from his (military) superiors. For this reason, regardless of skin color, the narrator admits, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

Question for the week: The narrator expects to see Gunga Din in hell, “Givin’ drink to poor damned souls”. Taking for granted that Din is in hell because he is not a Christian, what is to be made of the assertion that he will continue his life’s work in hell? Is bearing water in hell an honor or an added punishment?

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