The Limitations of Variety, or Cowper's Irony Unmasked
Eve Lewis Perera
Sometimes I take a cross-grained delight in questioning the familiar sayings with which our ears are filled. We hear them so often that they sound true, but not all of them stand up well under interrogation. The latest one with which I am dissatisfied is `Variety is the spice of life."
My first surprise on beginning to chip away at this old quotation was the discovery that it was written by the poet William Cowper. The second was that he intended it for an ironic barb, not for the Statement of fact for which people take it nowadays. Cowper was talking about dandies who are slaves to changing fashion:
Variety's the very spice of life
That gives it all its flavor. We have run
Through ev'ry change that fancy at the loom
Exhausted has had genius to supply
And studious of mutation still, discard
A real elegance a little used
For monstrous novelty and strange disguise.
It is not strange that Cowper's irony is misapprehended as truth in our day: it is the culmination of a change in attitudes that had begun during his lifetime. He was a troubled evangelical in the midst of the eighteenth-century "enlightenment." Two hundred years before Cowper, most educated Englishmen would have thought that change was more to be feared than sought after. Three of Edmund Spenser's most profound cantos in the Faede Queene are those on "Mutabilitie" change, decay. and death. Cowper was witnessing the loosening of the moral structure of "Christendom." where at one point virtually everyone was steeped in awareness of the Scriptures and of their attitudes toward change. Most of Spencer's contemporaries knew they had a God "in whom is no variableness, neither any shadow of turning."
Cowper wished to preserve that same changeless certainly, but it was harder for him because society in general understood it less. For us, another 200 years later, there is almost no consensus in society in favor of enduring and changeless truth. but Christians are asked to be "salt" in this "post-Christendom" civilization. Insofar as we know the eternal things to be true, we will find ourselves consciously rejecting certain pressures toward variety or variability'. These pressures are now so extreme that people feel compelled to change sexual partners, and indeed their very values, as regularly as they change their clothing styles.
I remember when the movie "Emmanuelle" came to Denver, where we as a thirtyish non-Christian couple were living. Gathering that there was something sexually new and strange about it, I felt put off at the idea of going to see it. But I told myself cheerfully that I had to adapt and "evolve with the times." I never did see "Emmanuelle." A year later, I met Jesus Christ, and realized that I had to change indeed but not so as to "evolve with the times." Our days are such that only being a strong Christian provides much hope of anchoring an individual in the unsettling tides of change and hedonistic adaptation.
One Christian whom I admire has excluded from his life some forms of variety that may be natural parts of yours and mine. He will not read novels, declaring that for him they are a waste of time. Although I sometimes read novels, and appreciate their insight into people quite different from myself, I am moved by the deliberateness of this man's decision, and respect the way it fits in the overall integrity of his life. Recently he told me that he almost never takes vacations from his work as a tool-and-die maker, except a day or two for visiting family. But last summer he used his whole vacation to go canoeing on the Allagash with his grown son. He told about this with the shy eagerness of an eight-year-old who has just caught his first fish. Those who take long vacations every year in different places have no joy approaching his, I think.
In this I began to see how useless variety is unless there exists a sameness to which it is a counterpoint. The other day I heard a social worker say he wished he could explain to young people how many lovely things there are to learn about a woman to whom one has been married for thirteen years. Our friends with their serial marriages, their jet-around-the world vacations, their constantly-replaced wardrobes and disposable personalities, will never know that joyfully steady variety; they have been deceived into choosing a fickle variableness in its place.
Cowper would have liked the sort of variety that is a rest from long sameness. He loved his quiet life writing and taking care of his rabbits and his garden, but toward the end, when long walks grew uncomfortable for him, he complained to a friend that he lacked variety. To obtain it through a glittering round of London dinner parties, however, would not have appealed to him in the least.
Cowper was a sad emotional cripple, having convinced himself as a result of a dream that God had damned him beyond hope of appeal. But he never stopped testifying to God's truth and goodness in his poetry. I dare to hope that Cowper was wrong about his dream, and that when I meet him he will be wearing the expression of an eight-year-old who has just caught his first fish. I would want to tell him that his ideas on variety are considerably more out of step with the times now than they were in the eighteenth century. I hope I could also say that most Christians walk at his unfashionable pace.
I find it a bizarre amusement to read fashion articles in the New York Times. Models are photographed with some portions of their anatomy swelled by ballooning bright fabrics, others wrapped tighter than skin. Furs in strange colors and patterns flap behind them as they teeter in absurd shoes. Shiny vinyl and patent gleam and leer under the lights. Up and down the body; in and out; and all through the palettes of color and texture, the trendy clothes move, and the trendy young people throng mirror-walled stores to buy them. It leaves me with a numb sadness; how could I Connect with these people humanly? what would they say to me?
But hard though it is, I must see past the variables in their beings to the Constants: the human loneliness, the longing for integrity and certainty, built into them by their changeless creator. We who are waiting and praying for the new heaven and the new earth" know that both changelessness and variety are to be found in our God, whochanges not, but whose mercies are new every morning. We must be willing to be thought boring, to be pitied or despised, by the trend-setters. If any of them grow weary of change, we are there to share with them the way in which variety only serves to help us love more deeply what we already have.