What Kind of Silly Will You Be?

“The Tree, at any rate, was curious. Quite unique in its way. So was Niggle; though he was also a very ordinary and rather silly little man.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle” (1964)

I am myself a silly little man.  Also, very ordinary and yet quite unique in my own way.  I daresay the same can be said about you.  I will come back to that adjective silly in a minute, but will first explain that I am thinking about what it means to be a silly little man because I am also thinking about what it means to be a serious guy.

Like most silly little men, I have been my whole life plagued by serious guys.  I have indeed been so plagued by serious guys that I have tried to escape the plague by becoming a serious guy myself.  But my imposture did not work because serious guys subjected me to their wonted scrutiny and rejected me as a silly little man.

The root meaning of serious is heavy, the English word being second cousin to the German word schwer.  Serious is one point in a constellation of words that include weighty, grave, honored and important.  It is the last of these cognates that take us to the heart of what I mean by a serious guy, because self-importance is the defining trait in his character.  This may or may not be tied to genuine importance, but a serious guy always takes himself, and everything about himself, very, very seriously.

And one of the things he seriously believes is that there is a serious need for something to be done about all the silly little men.

When I am plagued by a serious guy, I find that my head fills with the picture of a serious guy working late into the night.  I see him sitting bolt upright at his desk in the small hours, his broad brow knit with concentration, his keen eyes glowing with intelligence, his accurate fingers dancing over the clattering keyboard of his computer.  I imagine him sinking into an Eames chair after his wife and children have gone to bed, a thick sheaf of important papers on his knee, an efficient ballpoint clicking under his thumb, a powerful reading lamp beaming at his shoulder.

He differs not one wit from “the Efficient Baxter” in a Blandings novel by P.G. Wodehouse, right down to the cold glare of his steel-rimmed spectacles.  And whatever the assiduous night owl of my imagination may be typing or correcting, I am sure it will, come morning, make some silly little man stand up and take notice.

For whipping silly little men into shape is what every serious guy cannot help but to do.

He does this, I daresay, in the mistaken belief that silly little men are defective replicas of himself.  They are simpletons, sluggards, screw-ups or fools.  Now a silly little man may be any one of these things, or all four at the same time, but these things do not make him a silly little man.  The word silly means at bottom a childlike unworldliness.  Eight hundred years ago, the word meant blessed with happiness and contentment, a state that is unknown to the restless, efficient and serious guy.

Since a man who is happy and contented has no reason to steal your purse or slit your throat, the word silly came to mean harmless.  After inquiring into their own hearts, the serious guys decided that a harmless man must be harmless for want of the capacity to be otherwise, and so the meaning of silly changed from harmless to weak.  And from weakness it was but a short step to weak in the head, and to the imbecile grin that is often called a silly smile.

* * * * *

“The silly buckets on the deck
That had so long remained,
I dreamed that they were filled with dew
And when I awoke, it rained.”

These lines are from Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, and they occur just after the wretched sailor is released from the curse that followed his wanton killing of the albatross.  You may recall that he had been drifting alone on a hot and windless sea, and perishing of thirst, when the beauty of some sporting water-snakes drew from his heart a blessing of love.  And with those words of long-abandoned prayer,

“The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.”

Because the Ancient Mariner loved and blessed those slimy snakes, Mary in heaven loved and blessed the Ancient mariner.  She sent him sleep, she sent him rain, she sent him a wind that would carry his ship home to his far country.  When she sent the rain, it filled the “silly buckets on the deck,” and and by filling those buckets rendered them the very opposite of silly.

At least the blessed rain rendered those buckets the very opposite of what silly had come to mean in 1798, when Coleridge wrote the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.  It rendered those buckets the very symbols of silly in the older sense of supernaturally blessed.  It rendered those “silly” buckets silly with grace.

* * * * *

If you have read Tolkien’s “Leaf by Nigel,” you know that it is an allegory of life, death, purgatory and heaven.  The main character, Nigel, is a very ordinary man by worldly standards.  He is unique insofar as he has an unusual love for beauty and painting, but like so many who love beauty and painting, he is not at all remarkable for his skill.  Thus he is a little man, and a silly man because he has a childlike devotion to painting that causes his garden to grow up with weeds.  He was blessed with happiness, although in the eyes of the world poor Nigel was as silly as Coleridge’s buckets before the Ancient Mariner learned to pray.

I will pass over much of Tolkien’s story, and much in the character of Nigel, to the story’s closing scene.  Nigel has passed through purgatory, and on to Heaven, while back on earth a government agent named Tompkins is disposing of the dead painter’s property.  This Tompkins is a serious guy, as can be seen in the fact that he bears the important title of Councilor.  Tompkins is, however accompanied by second man named Atkins, a mere schoolmaster of no importance whatever.  Here is their dialogue:

“I think he was a silly little man,” said Councilor Tompkins. “Worthless, in fact; no use to Society at all.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Atkins, who was nobody of importance, just a schoolmaster. “I am not so sure: it depends on what you mean by use.”

“No practical or economic use,” said Tompkins. “I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don’t, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job that they’re fit for, washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly. Or I would put them away. I should have put him away long ago.”

“Put him away? You mean you’d have made him start on the journey before his time?” [Atkins means euthanized]

“Yes, if you must use that meaningless old expression. Push him through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap: that’s what I mean.”

* * * * *

I began this post by confessing that I am, myself, a silly little man.  Whenever I forget this fact and fancy myself a serious guy, an officious Councilor Tompkins kindly steps in to remind me I am “worthless” and, “no use to Society at all.”  As I am likely too old to be of much use as a dishwasher in the communal kitchens, I can only imagine that Councilor Tompkins is nowadays thinking how very sweet it would be to push me through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap.  And I can hardly blame him, since I appear to Councilor Tompkins just as those “foolish buckets” appeared to the Ancient Mariner before he learned to pray.

I can hardly blame Councilor Tompkins, but I am not so silly as to agree with him.  I mean silly in the new and degraded sense of foolish.  I have no wish to be a serious guy.  My wish is, rather, to be like the buckets to which the Ancient Mariner awoke after,

The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

I wish to be silly in that sense.  And so, I suggest, should you.  If you are prepared to confess yourself a “silly little man,” you have yet to decide what kind of silly you will be.  Will you be a silly bucket” before or after the blessed rain?

9 thoughts on “What Kind of Silly Will You Be?

  1. Pingback: What Kind of Silly Will You Be? | Reaction Times

  2. You have pointed to the cognate status of the English “silly” with the German “selig.” To nominalize the adjective English generates “silliness” and German “Seligkeit.” With this in mind, here is the first verse, with a translation, of Papageno’s Act II aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute.

    Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen
    Wünscht Papageno sich!
    O so ein sanftes Täubchen
    Wär Seligkeit für mich! –
    Dann schmeckte mir Trinken und Essen;
    Dann könnt ich mit Fürsten mich messen,
    Des Lebens als Weiser mich freu‘n,
    Und wie im Elysium seyn.

    A girl or a little wife
    is what Papageno desires.
    Oh, a sweet little dove like that
    would be bliss for me!
    Then I should drink and eat with relish,
    then I could hold my own with princes,
    enjoy life in my wisdom,
    and be as if in Elysium.

    Papageno’s vocation is that of a bird-catcher. Mozart presents him as a Natural Man. I have highlighted the appearance of Seligkeit, as you might say “blessedness,” in the verse. I can’t disagree with Papageno.

    • Bliss is, indeed, unknown to the serious guys. I recall once reading an argument for the cultural importance of envious hatred for bliss, or silliness. Some people entirely lose their capacity for childlike delight, and consequently envy, hate and despise those who don’t. I think there is a good deal in this idea, and that it goes some way towards explaining the people who have a proverbial stick up their a*&#.

      • Serious guys (and gals) are always fanatics. It is a mistake to expect fanatics to look like John the Baptist, dressed in camel skins and living off locusts and honey. Fanatics look like the high priests and pharisees. After all, the word means “of the temple.” Fanatics are organization men.

  3. Serious guys fill themselves up, with facts and observations and concerns, until they are literally filled with themselves. And when the pressure causes it all to spew forth, woe betide anyone targeted.
    Mystics, being silly in the sense to which you allude, empty themselves. Kenosis, as it is described in Phil. 2:7. It is only an empty cup that can receive what another has to offer fully and with tranquility.

  4. Interestingly, as possibly an opposing weight: I am currently reading a translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and in a great many places the translator uses the term “serious” to mean the man of moral weight: the man of virtue, the man who rightly considers his role in the world (for himself, for his household, for his polity) and acts for the good. This is the man who lives an examined life and acts upon good judgments about the good and what is to be pursued.

    I find it interesting that Aristotle, living 350 years before Christ, had no place in his pantheon of the virtues for humility. And as for meekness, more than once he repudiates a man accepting intentional slights (say, one who “turns the other cheek”) as having a “slavish” attitude.

    I think that he may have missed the core points needed for the virtues of humility and meekness: that man is less than God, and yet man can be called up to friendship with God: an eternally “silly” outcome (or, at least, “comedic” result, using comedy in the sense Ari gave it in his Poetics: a result better than we deserve.) In such a friendship at the same time we are overcome with the presence of the Transcendent One, we also have constantly at the back of the throat an eternal huge giggle at the mere though of one so low as me being on intimate terms with One so High. And indeed, those here below who are known as His friends are, almost without exception, also those with great humor and sense of foolishness – even while they are going about their serious (and heroically virtuous) lives. In my experience, the combination of the two features – silliness and virtue – come out as a sense of peace and joy, a peace that is ready to erupt in laughter, and a joy that is ready to lay down one’s life for a beloved friend or beloved enemy (surely as serious as serious can get).

    • I don’t mean to play word games, but I think it is possible to be seriously silly. As you say, humility entails acceptance of one’s essential silliness and the ability to laugh at one’s own pomposity. I think you make a very good point in your third paragraph. It is possible to be silly and virtuous, and even to see that silliness is a virtue when it is manifested in the right place.


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