Sunday, June 14, 2020

On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places

When he was 24, after spending several cold, wet weeks in Wick in Caithness in northern Scotland, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an article “On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places”. He observed that “We see places through our humors as through differently colored glasses.” He declared that we can choose to find beauty in an “unsightly” place and when that’s too hard, “we may still embellish a place with some attraction of romance.”
     He used his imagination to bring color and drama to dull days and drab landscapes. He pictured heroes and villains behind a hedgerow and conjured the figure of Dick Turpin in “many an English lane”.  He wrote, “I have often been tempted to put forth the paradox that any place is good enough to live a life in, while it is only in a few, and those highly favored, that we can spend a few hours agreeably. For, if we only stay long enough we become at home in the neighborhood.”
    He recalls a moment of calm by the sea when a couplet in French into his mind

Mon coeur est un luth suspendu,
Sitot qu’on le touche, il resonne

"My heart is a hanging lute
As soon as it's touched, it responds"

The couplet is from “le Refus” by Pierre -Jean de Béranger.  Edgar Allan Poe borrowed it, changing mon to son,  as his epigraph for "The Fall of the House of Usher". 

RLS concludes that wherever you are, if you look for something to “please and pacify” you in the right spirit, you will find it.  This early essay seems to me to be well worth pondering in our strange times of pandemic, inside or outside,masked or unmasked.

“On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places” is reprinted in June Skinner Sawyers (ed) Dreams of Elsewhere: The Selected Travel Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson (Glasgow: The In Pinn, 2002).

Postcard: Wick, Caithness, a couple of generations after RLS' sojourn

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