Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Oh For the Life Of a Sardine!

                        Sir Charles Chaplin as Calvero in "Limelight" (1952)

                        Sir Charles Chaplin as Calvero in "Limelight" (1952)

Unbelievably, there was a time – and not so very long ago – when one could get through an hour or a day, not to mention a week or even a month or more, without benefit of some earth shattering political crisis upending our personal, psychological and civic equilibrium. Ah, those were the days; periods of halcyon innocence! Weeks without feelings of looming doom! Most lamentably, they are no longer part of ourreality. And whether or not these periods of relative calm will one day reappear is a question that not even the wisest of the wise would dare attempt answer. 

Ever since that fateful day when the man-child of Manhattan descended upon his gilded escalator to announce his candidacy for POTUS, we, the political- and news-junkies of America, the reporters, essayists and pundits of the world, have become afflicted with a case of  communal gastric reflux.  And, to make the condition even worse, it carries numerous comorbidities including  tachycardia (rapid heart rate), hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure), prime-time sweats, insomnia and what we shall term fóvo papoutsión (Φόβο παπουτσιών) -  roughly speaking, "the fear of the next shoe dropping."  It all adds up to what the Germans call weltschmerz - a feeling of dread, melancholy and world weariness.

The question before us is whether or not there is anything we can we do to save ourselves from all the depressing inanity and insanity currently enveloping us. Well, occasionally ungluing oneself from the 24-hour news cycle can be beneficial.  For many, addiction to the latest breaking bulletin - which, predictably, will  be endlessly diced, sliced and  repeated ad nauseum - is as strong as the tug of muscatel to a wino or texting to a teen.  An occasional breaking away from persistent information overload is a good thing, and can act as palliative - a medicine which helps relieve pain without actually dealing with the cause of the condition.  Everyone - up to and including God in heaven - deserves an occasional "time out" from the woes of the world.  The Bible informs us (Gen. 2.2) that even The Almighty takes a shabbos schluf - a Sabbath nap - one day in seven.  Perhaps then, an act of Imatatio Dei - imitating The Divine - and removing oneself from all the sturm und draang (storm and stress) of '45, Lavrov, Flynn, Comey, Sessions, Kushner et al can be a good thing.

Perhaps a bit of laughter is called for . . .

 I know that when this political news junkie gets overwhelmed, my thoughts turn to home - Hollywood - and comedy . . . especially Sir Charles Chaplin. Why? Well, the man's movies make me laugh -- and cry and think and give me hope.  Sir Charles (1889-1977) was arguably cinema's first and greatest genius. Coming from an English boyhood of almost Dickensian poverty, he rose to become the complete cinematic package: actor and writer;  composer and editor; producer and director.  It is said that at his peak, he was the best-known, most beloved person on the planet. And, unbeknownst to all but the most fanatic Chaplin maniacs, he was quite a philosopher.  Among his most thoughtful statements, several are forever in my mind:

  • "Life laughs at you when you are unhappy; life smiles at you when you are happy; but life salutes you when you make others happy." 
  • "Life is laughter when seen in a long shot, but it is a tragedy when seen in a close up."
  • "A day without laughter is a day wasted." and
  • "I remain just one thing, and one thing only -- and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician."

Not at all bad for a man who had no more than a 2nd grade education. And yes, apropos of Sir Charles' last statement, he was quite political. One need only watch his 1940 masterwork of anti-Nazi satire, The Great Dictator, to get an idea of just how political he was. Partly as a result of making this movie - in which he played  a Hitler lookalike named "Adenoid Hinkel, Der Phoeey of Tomania" and a lookalike Jewish barber - Chaplin, never particularly popular among moralists, prigs, anti-Semites and conservatives, became the subject of a toxic witch hunt which would eventually lead to his being exiled from the United States.  (n.b. Although moralists accused Chaplin  of being a child-molester and anti-Semites railed against him for being a "dirty gutter Jew," he was, in fact, neither. When asked in a 1915 interview if he was indeed  a Jew, he famously answered "I have not that good fortune.")

At the precise point when the witch hunt against Chaplin was reaching its apex, he was engaged in the making of his final American-produced film, Limelight. His most autobiographical cinematic work, Limelight is the story of Calvero, a once famous British Music Hall performer, now aged and well down on his luck. With the help of a suicidal ballerina (played by the luminous 20-year old Claire Bloom), Calvero does manage to make a comeback, where he reprises some of his most famous set pieces - including a hilarious bit with a pair of "trained" fleas and several silly songs.  Which brings us to this essay's title, Oh For the Life Of a Sardine!  This is the title of a brief ditty Calvero sings towards the end of both the movie and his life:


                                                                                                 When I was three my nurse told me
                                                                                                              About reincarnation
                                                                                                And ever since I've been convinced,
                                                                                                        Thrilled with anticipation
                                                                                                       That when I leave this earth
                                                                                                       It makes my heart feel warm
                                                                                                           To know that I'll return
                                                                                                              In some other form.
                                                                                                          But I don't want to be a tree
                                                                                          Sticking in the ground -- I'd sooner be a flea.
                                                                                                           I don't want to be a flower
                                                                                                               Waiting by the hour
                                                                                                   Hoping for pollens to alight on me.
                                                                                                             So when I cease to be
                                                                        I want to go back, I want to go back, I want to go back to the sea!
                                                                                                           Oh for the life of a sardine!
                                                                                                               That is the life for me!
                                                                                                 Cavorting and spawning every morning
                                                                                                            Under the deep blue sea.
                                                                                                      To have no fear for storm nor gale.
                                                                                                      Oh to chase the tail of a whale!
                                                                                                           Oh for the life of a sardine!
                                                                                                               That is the life for me!

No matter how I'm feeling, this song always makes makes me laugh, always picks me up. It, like just about everything Sir Charles ever filmed, acts as a much-needed palliative. That he could write, compose and perform such a piece during a time when personally, society's moralists and the House un-American Activities Committee were running him to ground is a testament to the importance of taking a  much-needed "time out."  Time-outs, to pilfer a bit of Shakespeare, " . . . are such stuff as dreams are made on."

And so, dear reader, instead of obsessively awaiting the next dropped shoe, take a bit of a time out; watch Blazing Saddles or Monty Python's The Life of Brian; read some P.G. Wodehouse or Mark Twain, listen to a song by Tom Lehrer . . . or contemplate living the life of a sardine.  It will put the roses back in your cheeks and prepare you to get back in the fight. For as Sir Charles wisely noted:  

                                                                                     “You'll never find a rainbow if you're looking down.”

122 days down, 1,335 to go.

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone