The Merry Men
“Mankind is a material creature, slow to think and dull to perceive connections”
Robert Lewis Stevenson in the story The Merry Men
Stevenson’s superbly written story of a young man who returns to his uncle’s home to ask for his daughter’s hand but finds the old man in mental torment is a masterclass in writing. The setting is the “musical’ sound of waves (hence The Merry Men) breaking on the rocks of the island of Aros. I have read many a tale but, up to now, precious few as tightly and sparsely written as this one except for, perhaps, Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea. It’s impossible to find a sentence in The Merry Men that could be edited and it’s exhilarating to read something by someone who writes with such an astonishing mastery of the English language. The story itself dwells lightly on the duality of sin and retribution perhaps borrowing a little from Dostoevsky. The old man though wont to quoting scripture nevertheless is drawn to strong drink and howling with joy when storms crashing against the rocks send sailors to perdition. This sort of internal conflict is the font of psychological illness.
Does this perverse condition of mankind whereby we think ill of ourselves when thinking ill of anything yet remain fascinated by ill happenstances become more pronounced the older one becomes? Since life then ceases to be black and white but a blended kaleidoscope of tints and shadows do we just go mad for want of a rational, logical explanation to life? Do we hold fast to scripture and religion or culture, the ways of our fathers? Or can we become free, liberated from the terrors of the future. Speaking to a martial arts colleague at a Christmas party he pointed out that as one approaches fifty one realises that one hurts more and heals less quickly. So when at the end of the party the younger club members voted to carry on their sacrament to Dionysus at another establishment, one older guy bellowed: “I’m old which means I can do what I want and not care what anyone thinks. I’m going home!”. We don’t have to wait until we’re grey to discover we can pay no attention to peer pressure. Admittedly it normally requires the passage of time before we truly know what makes us merry and therefore how we prefer to pass our time but there is no need to go mad before that reality sets in. In observing what makes others go mad maybe we can learn something useful about ourselves.