The Friday Fillip: Chagrin de Merci

In the words of songwriter Charles Dumont, “Non, je ne regrette rien!” I tend to think that lamentation makes an unlovely sound and is largely a waste of time and effort. Except that I caught myself today indulging in a regret. I heard a replay of Michael Enright interviewing Jesse Winchester, a singer who died in April. Now I really like Jesse Winchester’s songs and really, really liked his performance of them. My regret? That I never wrote to tell him how much pleasure his work gave me.

Would he have cared? I suspect so. In the interview he confessed that bad reviews depressed him and good ones buoyed him up. And besides, even celebrities have human nature, which, I’ve found, is fundamentally appreciative of genuine praise.

I’m a serial “failer” where notes of this sort are concerned. Often, finishing a good book, I want to turn to the author and say how much I enjoyed it. The feeling is even stronger if the author has written a string of good books. But time and again I fail to take pen in hand. Way back at the beginning I should have written Nicholas Freeling and Rex Stout, whose well-written crime novels pleased me no end. And then there’s Stanley Kubrick and Hayao Miyazaki, two people who did things with film that amaze and delight me. The list goes on and on.

Why have I not thanked these people? A kind of social reticence — shyness, I suppose — explains some of it. Laziness certainly plays a role. But I wonder if there isn’t another element as well, having to do with the need to keep art and artists separate from us normal folk. We see this most dramatically and often foolishly in celebrity. But we also see it, I suspect, in the power that theatre — a peopled stage — has to cause a rupture in reality, commonly described as the willing suspension of disbelief. We love to be fooled in this way, to be transported by the magic in the arts, and to avoid “breaking the fourth wall,” as Brecht wished to do, by having social congress with the artists. It’s not necessary for artists — actors in this case — to be elevated into a starry celebrity; they can be pushed away by demoting them to a lesser status than that enjoyed by the critic, as was done for much of the life of theatre in the west. Up or down, there’s a separation. And I think the need — perhaps unique to me — for that lack of ordinary connection has a bit to do with why I fail to write letters of appreciation.

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