I discovered this book in a very roundabout way. A few months ago I posted the title essay from Alec Waugh’s 1926 book, On Doing What One Likes. I didn’t recognize the name of the publisher–Cayme Press–but admired the book’s construction and wondered what else Cayme might have published.
This quickly led me to Charles Duff’s A Handbook on Hanging, originally published in 1929 but reissued as one of the early NYRB Classics, with an introduction by the late Christopher Hitchens. Hanging is very much in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,”–in this case, reflecting upon the many advantages of an aggressive policy of capital punishment. Duff advocates, for example, to reintroduce the practice of public hanging on the basis of the economic benefits (ticket sales, film rights, concession sales).
Hanging was one of three books published “Uniform with this volume,” as noted on the fly-leaf. The other two titles, one can easily deduce, are variations on Duff’s satirical tract: The ‘Young Person’s’ Complete Guide to Crime, by Charles Garfield Lott Du Cann, and The Toady’s Handbook, by William Murrell. The ‘Young Person’s’ Complete Guide to Crime took the format of an earnest guide to a worthy subject such as art (or, as Benjamin Britten did some years later, the orchestra) and turned it into tongue-in-cheek tour of the upside of crime–which has, throughout history, proved a profitable venture–at least for some.
The third book, The Toady’s Handbook is a celebration of the benefits of artful obsequiousness. “Toadyism,” Murrell writes, “may accurately be defined as that art which deals with life in terms of its own vanity.” The vanity he refers to is the vanity of others: “the Toady is he who most per-, con-, and insistently administers to our vanity”–and as such, he argues, “should be and is nearer to us and more fervently to be embraced than our own blood brothers.” Indeed, the English word “toady,” he notes, “comes from the Spanish mia todita, my servitor. And what more honourable function than that of service?” [My Spanish colleague tells me that mia todita actually means “my little whole” or “my humble share.”–Ed.]
Murrell’s great model of the toady is Talleyrand, who managed to hold influential positions under eleven different French regimes–Royalist, revolutionary, Republican, Imperial, Restoration and, again, Royalist. Talleyrand’s motto is a précis on the art of survival as a toady: “Be a lion in triumph, a fox in defeat, a snail in council, and a bird in the hour of action.” Talleyrand today has a reputation for intrigue, deviousness and manipulation, but Murrell argues that this assessment utterly misses because it’s rooted in the assumption that whatever regime was in place was, in its way, rightful and deserving of honest support.
Instead, the Toady is the one sane person in an otherwise mad world. “I have been faithful to individuals as long as they obeyed the dictates of common sense,” Talleyrand once said. Murrell holds that by ensuring that his lot endures through all the follies of life, love, art and politics, the Toady displays better sense than all the fools who throw themselves completely into their causes. “All our painfully developed notions of honour, loyalty, fraternity, et cetera, are nothing but hypocritical humbug,” he writes.
Of course, the irony of the Toady’s situation is that there is nothing to guarantee that survival is, in the end, any less of a folly than pursuit of some noble cause–as Murrell recognizes by ending his short tract with a verse that appears in Thomas Love Peacock’s comic dialogue novel, Crochet Castle:
After careful meditation,
And profound deliberation,
On the various pretty projects which have just been shown,
Not a scheme in agitation,
For the world’s amelioration,
Has a grain of common sense in it, except my own.
All three of these little books (each measures 4.5″ by 7″ and is under 150 pages long) deserve to be brought back to print, at least electronically, as they are wonderful examples of just how much we can learn about ourselves by taking a completely contrarian viewpoint for an hour or two.