Wednesday 26 September 2012

The Strange Case of Max Ehrmann

Born on this day in 1872 was the American writer and attorney Max Ehrmann, one of those cases - like Joseph Blanco White - of a writer remembered for just one work. Or rather, in Ehrmann's case, forgotten, for the one work is usually described as having been 'found in Old St Paul's Church, Baltimore' and dating back to the church's foundation in 1692.
  Yes, it's the notorious Desiderata, as featured on countless posters, voiced by one Les Crane in a cringe-makingly cheesy spoken word recording that was a big hit in 1972 - and indeed recited by Leonard Nimoy in his legendary album Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr Spock's Music from Outer Space. It was only after all this had happened that authorship of Desiderata was finally asserted and the family of the long dead Max Ehrmann received some royalties.
  How had the confusion come about? Simply because Desiderata had been published in an anthology compiled in 1959 by the rector of St Paul's, Baltimore - an anthology that made much of the date of the church's foundation, 1692. Then, in 1965, Desiderata had been found by the bedside of Adlai Stevenson after his death - and he'd apparently been planning to use it in his Christmas cards. From there it a short step to the mass circulation of Desiderata as an inspirational prose poem discovered in an old (by American standards) church in Baltimore.
  Reading Desiderata again - and putting out of my mind the ghastly spoken word recordings and the calligraphic posters - what strikes me is how much sound wisdom there is in it. Yes, it's corny and hokey, it strains after the vatic tone (how did anyone convince themselves this was written in the 17th century?) and it seems at least partly tailored to the spiritual needs of a small-town American businessman - but pick the bones out of it and the message is pretty sound, isn't it? Just try not to hear Les Crane in your head when you read it...

'Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.'

Many versions of Desiderata swap 'Be cheerful' for 'Be careful', perhaps under the impression that 'Be cheerful' is restated in 'Strive to be happy'. But to be cheerful and to be happy are of course very different things.

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