Life With The Spider And The Specious

The death of Bertrand Russell reminded me of the time he wrote his own obituary—an exercise I would commend without malice to all readers of this journal. One sentence Russell applied to himself stuck with me: “His principles were curious, but, such as they were, they governed his actions.” (It has now got me reading the noble earl’s autobiography.)

Owen Smythe would have approved that sentiment. You have never heard of him? Do not fret—no one had, between the years 1962 and 1969, when O.S. lived in an Australian cave. When finally seen and arrested for vagrancy, the magistrate said of him: “He has made very little use of his life in an impressive way.” Overlooking the slight ambiguity, I would suggest that such pronouncers, be they judges or janitors, not only set themselves up as experts but imply that they themselves have made creditable progress along life’s way.

Forget for a moment that Owen Smythe had once been a house painter (a profession linked historically with some odd characters), and hear the defense he made at his trial. “I like caves,” he said simply, “and I like all the bush animals, the goannas, the pythons, and even the funnel-web spiders” (one of which had shared his cave). He said living by himself had advantages he was not likely to have by being civilized. I hope the irony was as deliberate as delicious.

O.S. had evidently found, like W. Whitman, that animals “do not sweat and whine about their condition … not one is demented with the mania of owning things.…” No wealth, no wistful questions, no heavy-hearted departures, no spiritual loss.

Or take Three Men in a Boat (I hope you know it), with Jerome K. Jerome’s indictment of those who overload their boat on the river ...

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