Comfort, Aldous Huxley once remarked, “is a thing of recent growth, younger than steam, a child when telegraphy was born, [and] only a generation older than radio.” With a few million listeners guaranteed to sit down for it, the aforementioned Columbia Workshop embroidered on that reference and, on this day, 4 August, in 1946, presented radio critic and historian Robert J. Landry’s digest of Huxley’s essay in a broadcast proposing “Happy Thoughts for a Hot Afternoon” (the second being given to “Laughter”).
“Exactly. Comfort is new,” the narrator concurs with Huxley; and while not an “American invention,” it was an “American enthusiasm.” That much is irrefutable; but is “comfort” truly an invention peculiar—and in its origins traceable—to any particular age? After all, was it not a state responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire? Perhaps, it is merely a new term for an age-old desire the fulfilment of which came within the no-need-for-stretching-much reach of a New World catering to it, for a price? Surely, the Neanderthal knew better than to rest his aching head on a pillow of granite; but he might not have had the nerve or need to sell the idea to anyone inclined to recline and ready to cave in upon being hit over the noggin with the padded yet relentless hammer of persuasion so adroitly wielded in consumer cultures.
Apparently, “comfort” is not even a new term, considering that “kunfort” (from the Latin “confortare”) has been part of the English language for centuries preceding the ostensibly New World, even though it might have been applied only to those rare, restful moments in the lives of the few who could make the Old World believe they had a divine right to experiencing it. In the Middle Ages, Huxley suggests, comfort was a neglected ideal; and it was not until the dawn of the 20th century that the
padded chair, the well-sprung bed, the sofa, central heating, and the regular hot bath—these and a host of other comforts enter into the daily lives of even the most moderately prosperous of the Anglo-Saxon bourgeoisie.
Lolling about on a none too hot afternoon, more comfortable than a 1940s audience deficient in conditioned air, I tuned in belatedly and ever so lazily to hear what the Workshop made of Huxley’s “Comfort” and how, a decade before handing the microphone to its author, CBS went about comforting its listeners with what it insisted on turning into “Happy Thoughts.”
Landry, it appears, was sold on the idea that “comfort” is modern, at least in the technological sense:
Announcer. Now, sir, without straining a muscle, I think you can reach one of those mother-of-pearl buttons.
Fine. That’s remote control for the twelve-tubed radio receiver hidden in the mirrored refreshment bar across the room. Now we should get some soft music.
Dependable, easy, effortless bedside radio music. Lullabies for grown-ups.
Listener (drowsily). Does the . . . radio shut off automatically if you fall asleep?
What the narrator-announcer promised is just what broadcasters were often accused of proffering: inoffensive and largely forgettable fare. Outspoken in his critic of radio elsewhere, Landry is rather coy here, suggesting only that programmers would do well to keep their audience by keeping it awake. Giving listeners what they want might well translate into a general want of listeners.
“Happy Thoughts” dwells on “comfort” as a feature and enabler of democracy, a political system that begot radio as the voice of—or at least for—the common folk. It refers to fascist Germany as a dictatorship that had no use for—and reason to be wary of—comfort, just as the rulers of the past depended on a populace that was never quite at ease. That the medium may have more detrimental effects than being soporific, that the Third Reich made great use of it in herding the masses, are thoughts too uncomfortable for Landry to ponder on this “Happy” occasion.
“Yes,” the audio essay concludes, “I guess we’ve got a lot of comforts to be grateful for nowadays. Happy thought, comfort!” In its gentle mockery of our insistence on contentment, the Workshop lecture makes a shortcut straight to the easy chair. Whereas Huxley held comfort to be a worthy “means to an end” in that it “facilitates mental life”—just as “[d]iscomfort handicaps thought” when a “cold and aching” body inhibits the use of the mind—he went on to caution that the
modern world seems to regard it as an end in itself, an absolute good. One day, perhaps, the earth will have been turned into one vast feather-bed, with man’s body dozing on top of it and his mind underneath, like Desdemona, smothered.
Now, I am not sure whether Desdemona would have been better off being stoned to death by a solid idea than being choked by a foolish notion; but I wonder whether I should not opt for a boulder in lieu of a comforter sometime. May not a restless night produce thoughts capable of pushing us forward instead of returning us to the site of comfort for more of the same? Should we continue to pad our cells so as not to crack our brains on disquieting thoughts brought on by deprivation? It might be a thought that strikes many of us as barbaric as the prehistoric, but, as those spineless and far from fortified creatures aboard that Brave New World of a space cruiser in WALL-E reminded me recently, “comfort” has the discomfiting side-effect of effecting nothing . . .