The BBC’s wartime radio comedy It’s That Man Again – or ITMA – kept Britain’s peckers going during the blitz. It was a morale-boosting cavalcade of goofy characters, cheeky catchphrases and proto-Goon sound effects, in which depressed charlady Mona Lott, played by Joan Harben, hummed the last horrible thing that happened to her, then kicked you with the devastating tongue-in-cheek punchline: “It’s being so joyful that keeps me going.”
ITMA is not mentioned in this intriguing and amusing history of merriment by American cultural historian Timothy Hampton, although Mona may be considered the standard-bearer of post-war intellectual respectability, as educated people assumed more and more that being gay was superficial. Samuel Beckett replied to someone who asked him if the good weather didn’t make him happy to be alive: “I wouldn’t go that far” – and of course there’s Philip Larkin, who said that deprivation was to him “what daffodils were to Wordsworth”.
Cheerfulness is the unabashed subject of this book: not joy, nor passion, nor euphoria, but ordinary garden cheerfulness, the cheerfulness which Hampton reports was specifically required of Boy Scouts in their 1911 manual; the scout “must never walk around sulkily. He must always be bright and smiling…” Could there be a more old-fashioned idea in 2022, when young people who open up about terrible feelings are praised for their courage? Isn’t cheerfulness delusional, damaging and emotionally illiterate?
Maybe not. In his brilliant and scholarly guide, Hampton takes us through the evolution of gaiety from the Middle Ages to the present day. It was the concept that gave the United States in 1941 their much-loved breakfast cereal, Cheerios, which were originally called Cheerioats. But the new name included the “oh! in its last syllable, calling us to join a community of happy and satisfied consumers, just as, he writes, “Saint Paul had designated cheerfulness as the mediating affect that defines our relationship to the mystical body of Christ in the community of new church”.
Like Michel Foucault discussing the history of sexuality, Hampton offers a history of cheerfulness that is not about the individual’s sunny character trait, which one might find enviable or boring, but about the social and cultural practice uncontrolled. It is a scholarly discipline, to be taken very seriously as something that promotes social cohesion and personal humility. He finds Friedrich Nietzsche to be a key figure in the history of modern cheerfulness. Although obviously not Mr. Cheerful, the philosopher was someone who rejected the idea that it was just placid well-being.
In The Genealogy of Morality, he praises the “boldness” of the “noble races…their hair-raising gaiety and their deep joy in all destruction.” Well, maybe we’re just replacing what we think of as cheerfulness here with more intense emotions, but Hampton nonetheless finds in Nietzsche’s ideas an important connection to cheerfulness as a life force, a seemingly trivial but important component. vital fact of what drives us to create and achieve, and also to live fully and responsibly while maintaining the happiness of others.
The English word “cheer”, says Hampton, comes from Old French “Dearthat is, the face, and cheerfulness consists in putting a brave face on things: again, it looks like a sham, and yet seen in another way, it is a community spirit, or a kind of moral hospitality, a rejection of self-indulgence and a prioritization of the general mood. John Donne said that “God loves a cheerful giver”, but Montaigne took the idea in another direction, emphasizing cheerfulness, or cheerfulness, as something that liberated the self, a kind of fiery affirmation which brings gaiety closer to that ferocity which Nietzsche praised.
Cheerfulness is an eternally uncool value, something to be satirized as a symptom of sinister unspoken anger. And yet, in the real world, it is part of that modest habit of politeness without which social interaction is impossible. Cheerfulness never says die, a key element of Dickens and also, I would say, (although not mentioned here) of John Updike. It may never be seen as important, but reading about it here has a strangely encouraging effect.