No Novel has made me laugh so much as Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. The humor of Three Men in a Boat is remarkably universal. Comic writing is often the most time-bound and least universal sort of writing. The ridiculous has to do with the concrete; it is bound up with the fact that material. Man’s immortal soul is the form of an immortal body, and he is thus caught up in all the imperfections of matter. Much comic writing turns on the circumstances of embodied human life, the vagaries of culture; it tends to be full of references to particular events, politicians etc. This is what makes Aristophanes so obscure. There is a certain amount of such humor in Three Men in a Boat, but that is not its main mode of humor. What makes Three Men in a Boat so much funnier than its sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, is that the latter is so much more particular, fueled primarily by concrete contrasts between Victorian England and Wilhelmine Germany. Three Men in a Boat on the other hand is fueled by the absurdities of the human condition an sich. The contrasts that it thrives on are the contrasts inherent in human life itself, the contrasts between matter and spirit, between eternal destiny and dependence on the trivial.
There is something very Pascalian about Jerome K. Jerome’s sensitivity to the contrasts of the human condition. It is not just a sensitivity to the absurdity of embodied spirit; it is a sensitivity to the fallenness of the world, to original sin, or, as J.K.J. calls it, “the natural cussedness of things in general.”
Perhaps the most Pascalian scene in Three Men in a Boat is on the morning of the day that the three men set out. Jerome and Harris wake up late and snarl bad-temperedly at each other till they see that George is still asleep:
There he lay – the man who had wanted to know what time he should wake us – on his back, with his mouth wide open, and his knees stuck up.
I don’t know why it should be, I am sure; but the sight of another man asleep in bed when I am up, maddens me. It seems to me so shocking to see the precious hours of a man’s life – the priceless moments that will never come back to him again – being wasted in mere brutish sleep.
There was George, throwing away in hideous sloth the inestimable gift of time; his valuable life, every second of which he would have to account for hereafter, passing away from him, unused. He might have been up stuffing himself with eggs and bacon, irritating the dog, or flirting with the slavey, instead of sprawling there, sunk in soul-clogging oblivion.
It was a terrible thought. Harris and I appeared to be struck by it at the same instant. We determined to save him, and, in this noble resolve, our own dispute was forgotten. We flew across and slung the clothes off him, and Harris landed him one with a slipper, and I shouted in his ear, and he awoke.
The Pascalian element is of course the brilliant juxtaposition of eternal destiny with the habit of diversion. Jerome and Harris cannot propose any alternative to the soul-clogging oblivion of sleep except the waking sleep of diversion.
I have discovered [Pascal writes] that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. [… ] When, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.
I have often thought that Pascal here gives us the key to understanding the monastic life. The monastic life consists in sitting still in one’s own chamber, in facing the misery of the human condition squarely, weeping over it, and watching and waiting eagerly for the coming of the master who frees us from it. Woe to the servant whom the master finds sleeping when he comes!
In his part of the Vita Prima William of St. Thierry writes (n.21) about S. Bernard’s scorn for sleep (rough translation):
What should I say of sleep, which in other men is a restoration after labor, a recreation of sense and mind? From that time till now he was awake more than is humanly possible. For no time did he regard as so wasted as the time of sleep. He held the comparison of sleep and death for very fitting; for as the sleeping seem dead to men, so the dead are sleeping in the eyes of God. Hence he could scarce keep his patience when he saw a religious in sleep who either snored too loud, or sprawled indecently; he thought such a one a carnal or worldly sleeper. The meagerness of his sleep was proportionate to the meagerness of his food; in neither did he indulge his body to satiety, in both he was satisfied if he had any at all. As for night-watches, he considered a watch moderate if he did not spend the whole night sleepless.
At the rare times when he slept he could truly make the words of the bride his own, “I slept but my heart was awake.” (Sg 5:2)