»  The Straggler, No. 27

December 31, 2004

  Yes, Un-Deedy

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The novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, asked by the London Times to give a brief account of her life, replied: "There isn't much to say. I haven't been at all deedy."

Deedy! This is one of those words that, once you have seen it, makes you wonder why it isn't in everyday use. The job interviewer, going through a pile of submitted résumés: "This one's all right, but … no, not deedy enough." The biographer or obituarist: "The next few years were his deediest …" The self-improvement guru: "Deediness depends on a positive attitude!" The psychiatrist's patient: "I married George because he seemed so deedy, but …"

In an energetically meritocratic society like ours, deediness is next to godliness. It can, in fact, be offered as evidence of godliness. My modest suburban parish recently engaged a curate, who was duly introduced to us in the parish newsletter. His résumé was stunning. He had degrees in both churchly and un-churchly subjects, and had taught and ministered in two continents. A curacy in the Episcopal Church is worthy, useful, and no doubt satisfying work; but the pay must be dismal, and I could not help reflecting on the disproportion that sometimes rules in this area. Compare, for example, Bill Gates, whose entire résumé, if memory serves, reads something like: "Dropped out of Harvard. Founded Microsoft Corp." In worldly affairs — than which, of course, I believe and hope, nothing could be further from our curate's mind — the race is not always to the credentialed, nor the battle to the deedy.

There was a time long ago when deediness was seen primarily in terms of the eternal. Homer's heros struggled to accumulate kleos in the conviction that this was their one real hope of immortality. Belloc, writing of the early Germanic settlements in England, tells us of "a man, before the Normans came to England, who sailed from the highest Scandinavian mountains, I think, towards these shores, and landing, fought against men and was wounded so that he was certain to die. When they asked him why he had undertaken that adventure, he answered: 'That my name might live between the lips of men.'" (Though Belloc spoils the effect by omitting to mention that actual name.) Most of our efforts nowadays are directed towards more immediate ends. The glittering curriculum vitae will boost us through the world, but few of us look to benefit from it hereafter. There are no résumé folders in a shroud.

Americans who do not travel much may be surprised to hear that in large parts of the world, even today, this country is spoken of with admiration as one in which nobody cares who you are, only about what you can do. The best guide to what you can do is what you have done. The notion that a person might get through life without doing much is slightly shocking to us Americans. It brings to mind the effete aristocrats of the Old World, to escape from whose dominion we fought a bitter war. At about the time of that war, James Boswell, socializing in London, found himself in the company of an aged peer of the realm. Never at a loss for a conversational opening, Boswell asked the old boy whether, looking back on his long life, he could see any pattern or purpose in it. No, replied His Lordship, it had all been "a chaos of nothing." So it must be without some organizing principle, some aspiration to deediness.

Not that the obsession with deediness, as opposed to mere stylishness or rank, is without its darker side. Résumé inflation comes to mind; and even an authentic résumé can be flaunted a little too ostentatiously. I recently, for journalistic purposes, had to look into the background of a person recommended to me as an authority on some topics of interest. He had posted a résumé on the internet, and it was tremendous: "Graduated summa cum laude … Founded the innovative company … Author of numerous books, notably … Advisor to the President's Council on …" It was with a thrill of malicious satisfaction (for which I hope I may be forgiven) that I learned later, through personal contacts, that the winner of all those laurels was living in rented rooms while desperately seeking paid employment.

Nor, as the case of Ivy Compton-Burnett shows, is deediness always visible at short range. Humphrey Carpenter writes in his biography of J.R.R. Tolkien that after that writer, at age 34, took up his post as professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, "nothing else really happened." The biographer is practicing irony, of course. Nothing else really happened … Nothing, that is, except the writing of The Lord of the Rings, and the guiding of C.S. Lewis towards Christianity. Speaking of which latter, how would this do for a résumé: "After training as a carpenter, embarked on a career of itinerant preaching …"?

And then there is the matter of private deediness. Asked in old age to identify his greatest achievement, Richard Nixon replied: "My family." Nixon was being much too modest; but it is a cheering fact about life that even those of us bereft of great gifts, good luck, or that restless energy which, I have come to think, is by far the largest factor in worldly success, can leave a glowing memorial to our existence in the lives and personalities of our children.

That is consolatory, though. Anyone who has reflected on life can see the point that those Homeric heroes, that Germanic warrior, and that underemployed overachiever with the dazzling résumé were all getting at. I doubt there is a human being anywhere so deficient in ambition as to have no wish at all to leave any mark on the world. Probably every one of us nurses a lurking fear that he might be numbered among those inconsequential time-servers Matthew Arnold wrote of in his elegy for his father.

Most men eddy about
Here and there — eat and drink,
Chatter and love and hate, …
 … and then they die —
Perish; and no one asks
Who or what they have been …

Because they weren't deedy enough, you see?