LESSONS IN LIFE by Adriaen Valéry Burgis
MOODS AND FRAMES OF MIND.
It rained yesterday; and, though it is midsummer, it is unpleasantly cool to-day. The sky is clear, with almost a steel-blue tint, and the meadows are very deeply green. The shadows among the woods are black and massive, and the whole face of nature looks painfully clean, like that of a healthy little boy who has been bathed in a chilly room with very cold water. I notice that I am sensitive to a change like this, and that my mind goes very reluctantly to its task this morning. I look out from my window, and think how delightful it would be to take a seat in the sun, down under the fence, across the street. It seems to me that if I could sit there awhile, and get warm, I could think better and write better. Toasting in the sunlight is conducive rather to reverie than thought, or I should be inclined to try it. This reluctance to commence labor, and this looking out of the window and longing for an accession of strength, or warmth, or inspiration, or something or other not easily named, calls back to me an experience of childhood.
It was summer, and I was attending school. The seats were hard, and the lessons were dry, and the walls of the school-room were very cheerless. An indulgent, sweet-faced girl was my teacher; and I presume that she felt the irksomeness of the confinement quite as severely as I did. The weather was delightful, and the birds were singing everywhere; and the thought came to me, that if I could only stay out of doors, and lie down in the shadow of a tree, I could get my lesson. I begged the privilege of trying the experiment. The kind heart that presided over the school-room could not resist my petition; so I was soon lying in the coveted shadow. I went to work very severely; but the next moment found my eyes wandering; and heart, feeling, and fancy were going up and down the earth in the most vagrant fashion. It was hopeless dissipation to sit under the tree; and discovering a huge rock on the hillside, I made my way to that, to try what virtue there might be in a shadow not produced by foliage. Seated under the brow of the boulder, I again applied myself to the dim-looking text, but it had become utterly meaningless; and a musical cricket under the rock would have put me to sleep if I had permitted myself to remain. I found that neither tree nor rock would lend me help; but down in the meadow I saw the brook sparkling, and spanning it, a little bridge where I had been accustomed to sit, hanging my feet over the water, and angling for minnows. It seemed as if the bridge and the water might do something for me, and, in a few minutes, my feet were dangling from the accustomed seat. There, almost under my nose, close to the bottom of the clear, cool stream, lay a huge speckled trout, fanning the sand with his slow fins, and minding nothing about me at all. What could a boy do with Colburn’s First Lessons, when a living trout, as large and nearly as long as his arm, lay almost within the reach of his fingers? How long I sat there I do not know, but the tinkle of a distant bell startled me, and I startled the trout, and fish and vision faded before the terrible consciousness that I knew less of my lesson than I did when I left the school-house.
This has always been my fortune when running after, or looking for, moods. There is a popular hallucination that makes of authors a romantic people who are entirely dependent upon moods and moments of inspiration for the power to labor in their peculiar way. Authors are supposed to write when they “feel like it,” and at no other time. Visions of Byron with a gin-bottle at his side, and a beautiful woman hanging over his shoulder, dashing off a dozen stanzas of Childe Harold at a sitting, flit through the brains of sentimental youth. We hear of women who are seized suddenly by an idea, as if it were a colic, or a flea, often at midnight, and are obliged to rise and dispose of it in some way. We are told of very delicate girls who carry pencils and cards with them, to take the names and address of such angels as may visit them in out-of-the-way places. We read of poets who go on long sprees, and after recovery retire to their rooms and work night and day, eating not and sleeping little, and in some miraculous way producing wonderful literary creations. The mind of a literary man is supposed to be like a shallow summer brook, that turns a mill. There is no water except when it rains, and the weather being very fickle, it is never known when there will be water. Sometimes, however, there comes a freshet, and then the mill runs night and day, until the water subsides, and another dry time comes on.
Now, while I am aware, as every writer must be, that the brain works very much better at some times than it does at others, I can declare without reservation, that no man who depends upon moods for the power to write can possibly accomplish much. I know men who rely upon their moods, alike for the disposition and the ability to write, but they are, without exception, lazy and inefficient men. They never have accomplished much, and they never will accomplish much. Regular eating, regular sleeping, regular working—these are the secrets of all true literary success. A man may throw off a single little poem by a spasm, but he cannot write a poem of three thousand lines by spasms. Spasms that produce poems like this, must last from five to seven hours a day, through six days of every week, and four weeks of every month, until the work shall be finished. There is no good reason why the mind will not do its best by regular exercise and usage. The mower starts in the morning with a lame back and with aching joints; but he keeps on mowing, and the glow rises, and the perspiration starts, and he becomes interested in his labor, and, at length, he finds himself at work with full efficiency. He was not in the mood for mowing when he began, but mowing brought its own mood, and he knew it would when he began. The mind is sometimes lame in the morning. It refuses to go to work. Our wills seem entirely insufficient to drive it to its tasks; but if it be driven to its work and held to it persistently, and held thus every day, it will ultimately be able to do its best every day. A man who works his brains for a living, must work them just as regularly as the omnibus-driver does his horses.
We sometimes go to church and hear a preacher who depends upon his moods for the power to preach his best. He preaches well, and we say that he is in the mood; and then again he preaches poorly, and we say that he is not in the mood. A public singer who has the power to move us at her will, comes into the concert-room, and gives her music without spirit and without making any apparent effort to please. We say that Madame or Mademoiselle is “not in the mood to-night.” A lecturer has his moods, which, apparently, he slips on and off as he would a dressing-gown, charming the people of one town by his eloquence and elegance, and disgusting another by his dullness and carelessness. We are in the habit of saying that certain men are very unequal in their performances, which is only a way of saying that they are moody, and dependent upon and controlled by moods. I think that, in any work or walk of life, a man can in a great degree become the master of his moods, so that, as a preacher, or a singer, or a lecturer, he can do his best every time quite as regularly as a writer can do his best every time. Mr. Benedict somewhat inelegantly remarked, when in this country, that the reason of Jenny Lind’s success was, that she “made a conscience of her art.” If we had asked Mr. Benedict to explain himself, he probably would have said that she conscientiously did her best every time, in every place. This was true of Jenny Lind. She never failed. She sang just as well in the old church where the country people had flocked to greet her, as in the halls of the metropolis. Yet Jenny Lind was decidedly a woman of moods, and indulged in them when she could afford it.
The power of the will over moods of the mind is very noticeable in children. Children often rise in the morning in any thing but an amiable frame of mind. Petulant, impatient, quarrelsome, they cannot be spoken to or touched without producing an explosion of ill-nature. Sleep seems to have been a bath of vinegar to them, and one would think the fluid had invaded their mouth and nose, and eyes and ears, and had been absorbed by every pore of their sensitive skins. In a condition like this, I have seen them bent over the parental knee, and their persons subjected to blows from the parental palm; and they have emerged from the infliction with the vinegar all expelled, and their faces shining like the morning—the transition complete and satisfactory to all the parties. Three-quarters of the moods that men and women find themselves in, are just as much under the control of the will as this. The man who rises in the morning, with his feelings all bristling like the quills of a hedge-hog, simply needs to be knocked down. Like a solution of certain salts, he requires a rap to make him crystallize. A great many mean things are done in the family for which moods are put forward as the excuse, when the moods themselves are the most inexcusable things of all. A man or a woman in tolerable health has no moral right to indulge in an unpleasant mood, or to depend upon moods for the performance of the duties of life. If a bad mood come to such persons as these, it is to be shaken off by a direct effort of the will, under all circumstances.
There are moods, however, for which men are not responsible, and the parent of these is sickness—the feeble or inharmonious movements of the body. When my little boy wakes in the morning, his smile is as bright as the pencil of sunlight that lies across his coverlet; but when evening comes, he is peevish and fretful. The little limbs are weary, and the mood is produced by weariness. So my friend with a harassing cough is in a melancholy mood, and my bilious friend is in a severe and savage mood, or in a dark and gloomy mood, or in a petulant mood, or in a fearful or foreboding mood. In truth, bile is the prolific mother of moods. The stream of life flows through the biliary duct. When that is obstructed, life is obstructed. When the golden tide sets back upon the liver, it is like backwater under a mill; it stops the driving-wheel. Bile spoils the peace of families, breaks off friendships, cuts off man from communion with his Maker, colors whole systems of theology, transforms brains into putty, and destroys the comfort of a jaundiced world. The famous Dr. Abernethy had his hobby, as most famous men have; and this hobby was “blue pill and ipecac,” which he prescribed for every thing, with the supposition, I presume, that all disease has its origin in the liver. Most moods, I am sure, have their birth in the derangements of this important organ; and while the majority of them can be controlled, there are others for which their victims are not responsible. There are men who cannot insult me, because I will not take an insult from them any more than I would from a man intoxicated. When their bile starts, I am sure they will come to me and apologize.
We all have acquaintances who are men of moods. Whenever we meet them, we try to determine which of their moods is dominant, that we may know how to treat them. If the severe mood be on, we would just as soon think of whistling at a funeral as indulging in a jest; but if the cloud be off, we have a sprightly friend and a pleasant time with him. Goldsmith’s pedagogue was a man of moods, and his pupils understood them.
While I maintain that a man can generally be the master of his moods, I am very well aware that but few men are; and it is wise for us to know how to deal with them. The secret of many a man’s success in the world resides in his insight into the moods of men, and his tact in dealing with them. Modern Christian philanthropists tell us that if we would do good to the soul of a starving child, we must first put food into his mouth, and comfortable clothing upon his body. This, by way of manifesting a practical interest in his welfare, and paving our way to his heart by a form of kindness which he can thoroughly appreciate. But there is more in such an act than this,—we change his mood. From a mood of despair or discouragement, we translate him into a mood of cheerfulness and hopefulness; and then we have a soul to deal with that is surrounded by the conditions of improvement. There is much more than divine duty and Christian forgiveness in the injunction: “if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink.” The highest wisdom would dictate such a policy for changing his mood, and bringing him into a condition in which he could entertain a sense of his meanness.
It is curious to see how much fulness and emptiness of stomach have to do with moods. A business man who has been at work hard all day, will enter his house for dinner as crabbed as a hungry bear—crabbed because he is as hungry as a hungry bear. The wife understands the mood, and, while she says little to him, is careful not to have the dinner delayed. In the mean time, the children watch him cautiously, and do not tease him with questions. When the soup is gulped, and he leans back and wipes his mouth, there is an evident relaxation, and his wife ventures to ask for the news. When the roast beef is disposed of, she presumes upon gossip, and possibly upon a jest; and when, at last, the dessert is spread upon the table, all hands are merry, and the face of the husband and father, which entered the house so pinched and savage and sharp, becomes soft and full and beaming as the face of the round summer moon. Children are very sensitive to the influence of hunger; and often when we think that we are witnessing some fearful proof of the total depravity of human nature in a young child, we are only witnessing the natural expression of a desire for bread and milk. The politicians and all that class of men who have axes to grind, understand this business very thoroughly. If a measure is to be carried through, and any man wishes to secure votes for it, he gives a dinner. If a man wishes for a profitable contract, he gives a dinner. If he is up for a fat office, he gives a dinner. If it is desirable that a pair of estranged friends be brought together, and reconciled to each other, they are invited to a dinner. If hostile interests are to be harmonized, and clashing measures compromised, and divergent forces brought into parallelism, all must be effected by means of a dinner. A good dinner produces a good mood,—at least, it produces an impressible mood. The will relaxes wonderfully under the influence of iced champagne, and canvas-backs are remarkable softeners of prejudice. The daughter of Herodias took Herod at a great disadvantage, when she came in and danced before him and his friends at his birth-day supper, and secured the head of John the Baptist. No one, I presume, believes that if she had undertaken to dance before him when he was hungry, she would have had the offer of a gift equal to the half of his kingdom. It is more than likely that, under any other circumstances, he would have been told to “sit down and show less.” It is by means of food and drink, and various entertainments of the senses, that moods are manufactured, and used as media of approach to the wills which it is desirable to bend or direct.
I have found moods to be very poor tests of character. Having cut through the crust of a most forbidding mood, produced by bodily derangement or constant and pressing labor of the brain, I have often found a heart full of all the sweetest and richest traits of humanity. I have found, too, that some natures know the door that leads through the moods of other natures. There are men who never present their moody side to me. My neighbor enters their presence and finds them severe in aspect, hard in feeling, and abrupt in speech. I go in immediately after, and open the door right through that mood, into the genial good heart that sits behind it, and the door always flies open when I come. I know men whose mood is usually exceedingly pleasant. There is a glow of health upon their faces. Their words are musical to women and children. They are cheerful and chipper and sunshiny, and not easily moved to anger; and yet I know them to be liars and full of selfishness. Under their sweet mood, which sound health and a not over-sensitive conscience and the satisfactions of sense engender, they conceal hearts that are as false and foul as any that illustrate the reign of sin in human nature. Many a Christian has times of feeling that God is in a special manner smiling upon him, and communing with him, and filling him with the peace and joy that only flow from heavenly fountains, when the truth is that he is only in a good mood. He is well, all the machinery of his mind and body is playing harmoniously, and, of course, he feels well, and that is all there is about it. He is not a better Christian than he was when he slipped into the mood, and no better than he will be when he slips out of it. If he really be a good Christian, his moods operate like clouds and blue sky. The sun shines all the time, and the cloudy moods only hide it;—they do not extinguish it.
There are many sad cases of insanity of a religious character which originate in moods. A man, through a period of health, has a bright and cheerful religious experience. The world looks pleasant to him, the heavens smile kindly upon him, and the Divine Spirit witnesses with his own that he is at peace and in harmony with God. Joy thrills him as he greets the morning light, and peace nestles upon his heart as he lies down to his nightly rest. He feels in his soul the influx of spiritual life from the Great Source of all life, as he opens it in worship and in prayer. But at length there comes a change. A strange sadness creeps into his heart. The sky that was once so bright has become dark. The prayer that once rose as easily as incense upon the still morning air, straight toward heaven, will not rise at all, but settles like smoke upon him, and fills his eyes with tears. Something seems to have come between him and his God. Strange, accusing voices are heard within him. However deep the agony that moves him, he cannot rend the cloud that interposes between him and his Maker. This, now, is simply a mood produced by ill health; and I hope that everybody who reads this will remember it. Remember that God never changes, that a man’s moods are constantly changing, and that when a man earnestly seeks for spiritual peace, and cannot find it, and thinks that he has committed the unpardonable sin without knowing it, he is bilious, and needs medical treatment. Alas! what multitudes of sad souls have walked out of this hopeless mood into a life-long insanity, when all they needed in the first place, perhaps, was a dose of blue pills, or half a dozen strings of tenpins, or a sea-voyage sufficiently rough for “practical purposes.”
This subject I find to be abundantly prolific, and I see that I have been able to do hardly more than to hint at its more prominent aspects. It seems to me that moods only need to be studied more, and to be better understood, to bring them very much under the domain of our wills. A great deal is learned when we know what a mood is, and know that we are subject to varying frames of mind, resulting from causes which affect our health. If I know that I am impatient and cross because I am hungry, then I know how to get rid of my mood, and how to manage it until I do get rid of it. If I feel unable to labor, not because I am feeble, but because I am not in the mood, then I have the mood in my hands, to be dealt with intelligently. If my reason tell me that it is only a mood that hides from me the face of my Maker, my reason will also tell me that my first business is to get rid of my mood, and that my will must approach the work, directly or indirectly. We are always and necessarily in some mood of mind—in some condition of passion or feeling. It is the intensification and the dominant influence of moods that are to be guarded against or destroyed. Moods are dangerous only when they obscure reason, and destroy self-control, and disturb the mental poise, and become the media of false impressions from all the life around us and within us.
PROPER PEOPLE AND PERFECT PEOPLE.
Nature calls for room and for freedom—room for her ocean and freedom for its waves; room for her rivers and freedom for their flowing; room for her forests and freedom for every tree to respond to the influences of earth and sky according to its law. Exceedingly proper things are not at all in the line of nature. Nature never trims a hedge, or cuts off the tail of a horse. Nature never compels a brook to flow in a right line, but permits it to make just as many turns in a meadow as it pleases. Nature is very careless about the form of her clouds, and masses and colors them with great disregard of the opinions of the painters. Nature never thinks of smoothing off her rocks, and cleaning away her mud, and keeping herself trim and neat. She does very improper things in a very impulsive manner. Instead of contriving some safe, silent, and secret way to dispose of her electricity, she comes out with a blinding flash and a stunning crash, and a rush of rain that very likely fills the mountain streams to overflowing, and destroys bridges and booms, and cabins and cornfields. On the whole, though nature keeps up a respectable appearance, I suppose that, in the opinion of my particular friend Miss Nancy, she would be improved by taking a few lessons of a French gardener, and reading savage criticisms on Ruskin.
I have alluded to my particular friend Miss Nancy. Perhaps I ought to say, at starting, that Miss Nancy is a man, and that I use the name bestowed upon him by his enemies, because it is, in a very important sense, descriptive. Miss Nancy’s boots are faithfully polished twice a day. His linen is immaculate; and the tie of his cravat is square and faultless. He never makes a mistake in grammar while engaged in conversation. He is versed in all the forms and usages of society, and particularly at home in gallant attention to what he calls “the ladies.” He seems to have lost every rough corner, if he ever had one. In politics and religion, he is just as proper as in social life. The most respectable religion is his religion; and the politics that shun extremes are his politics. I think he is what they call a conservative. At any rate, I newer knew him to do a rash or impulsive thing, or speak an improper word in his life. I think he is as nearly perfect as any man I ever saw.
But, after all, Miss Nancy is not a popular man. He will probably live and die an old bachelor, because all the women will persist in laughing at him. He is certainly good-looking, his dress is unexceptionable, his manners are “as good as they make them,” and his morals are as proper as his manners; yet I have not yet seen the woman who would speak a pleasant word of my friend. He is decidedly a “woman’s man,” yet no woman will own him, and no woman feels comfortable with him. His language is so carefully guarded against all impropriety of style and structure, that she feels as if he were criticizing every word she utters, as well as measuring his own. His manners are so very proper that they are formal and constrained, and make her uncomfortable. His sentiments and opinions are so very conservative, that they have no vitality in them. With a curious perverseness, the most gentle and accomplished women will turn from him with a sense of relief, to join in the society of a hearty fellow with a loud laugh and a dash of slang, and a free and easy way with him. It may be difficult to explain all this, but it is true. An exceedingly proper man is never a popular man. That life which is controlled by rigid and unvarying rules, and regulated by conventionalities in every minute particular, and restrained in every impulse by notions of propriety, is unlovely and unnatural, and can never he otherwise.
The instincts of men are always right in this and all cognate matters. All formalism is offensive to good taste. The painter does not study landscape in a garden. Formal isles, closely-trimmed trees, rose hushes on the top of tall sticks, flowers tied to supports, vines trained upon trellises, lakes with clipped and pebbled margins and India-rubber swans—these are not picturesque. There is no more inspiration in them than there would be in a row of tenement houses in the city. The painter looks for beauty out where nature reigns undisturbed amid her imperfections,—where the aisles are made by the deer going to his lick; where the trees are never trimmed save by the lightning or the hurricane; where the rose-bushes spread their branches and the vines trail themselves at liberty; and where the lake looks up into the faces of trees centuries old, and hems itself in with thickets of alders and green reaches of flags and rushes, and throbs to the touch of the mountain breeze, while on its bosom
A little child whose head is piled with laces and ribbons, whose dress is a mass of embroidery, and who is booted and gloved and otherwise oppressed by parental vanity and extravagance, is not picturesque, any further than its face goes. The portrait painter will cling to the face and let the clothes alone. All this I trickery of art, brought into comparison or contrast with the simple beauty of nature, is offensive. Yet a little beggar boy, with an old straw hat on, and with bare, brown feet, and a burnt shoulder which his torn shirt refuses to cover, would be a painter’s joy. Here would be drapery that he would delight to paint, simply because there would be no formality about it. It is impossible for us to know how ridiculous a dress-coat is until we see it in a statue. We are obliged to put all our modern sages and heroes into togas and blankets and long cloaks in order to make them presentable to posterity.
We never find groups of accordant, striking facts like these—and their number could be largely increased—without finding that they are all strung together by an important law. All life demands room and freedom—freedom to manifest itself in every way, according to the law of its being and the range of its circumstances. All life is individual and characteristic, and comes reluctantly under the sway of outside forces. It is not natural to be proper, or to love propriety. In saying this I simply mean that it is against nature to bring one’s individuality under the curbing and controlling hands of others—to make the notions of the world the law and limit of one’s liberty, and to square every word and every act by arbitrary rules imposed by cliques and customs. A man who has been clipped in all his puttings-forth, and modelled by outside hands and outside influences, until it is apparent that he is governed from without rather than from within, is just as unnatural an object as a tree that has been clipped and tied and bent until its top has grown into the form of a cube. Thus the reason why Miss Nancy is not popular, and why the women refuse to delight in him, is, that he is not his own master—that he has, in himself, no independent life. It is not proper that he give utterance to his impulses;—so he suppresses them. It is not proper that he frankly reveal the emotions of his heart; so he conceals them. It is not proper that he enter enthusiastically into any work or any pleasure; so he is a constant check to the enthusiasm of others. It is not proper that he speak the words that spring to his lips when his weak sensibilities are touched; so he studies his language, and shapes his phrases to the accepted models. Thus is he shortened in on every side, until his individuality is all gone, and the humanity in him becomes as characterless as its expression. Every utterance of his life is made with a well-measured reference to certain standards to which he is an acknowledged slave.
A scrupulously proper man is often a self-deceiver, and not unfrequently an intentional deceiver of others. I do not say that he is necessarily a scoundrel or a fool. He may be very little of either, and he may be a little of both. These two words, which sound rather roughly, will give us, I think, a faithful index to his character. A man who is punctiliously proper has usually become so in consequence of an attempt to cover up his mental deficiencies or his moral obliquities. Punctilious propriety is always pretentious, and pretentiousness is always an attempt at fraud. A shallow mind is very apt to clothe itself with propriety as with a garment. A brain that cannot handle large things very often undertakes to manage a multiplicity of little things, and runs naturally into those minute proprieties of life which are showy, and which appear to the ignorant to indicate great powers and acquisitions in reserve. Most proper men are nothing but a shell, although many of them pass with the world for more. Their life is all on the outside, and is placed and kept there for show. We approach them, and very frequently find them so well guarded that we do not get a look into their emptiness for a long time. We examine them as we would a hillside strewn with fragments and planted with boulders of marble. We are obliged to dig to learn whether the signs we see are from an out-cropping ledge, or an outside deposition. Sometimes the plunge of a single question will reveal the whole story. A man with large brains and a large life in him has something to do besides attending to the notions of other people. He has at least no motive to deceive the world by striving to appear to be more than he is.
I have said that there are some men who are punctiliously proper for the purpose of covering their moral obliquities. The virtue of a prude is always to be suspected. “So you have been looking after the bad words,” was savage old Dr. Johnson’s reply to the very proper woman who found fault with him for introducing so many indecent words into his dictionary. There are few men who have not frequently, during their lives, broken their way through a crust of punctilious propriety into hearts full of all the blackness of sensuality and sin. The world is full of hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is nothing more than appearing to be what one is not. Indeed, I believe that one of the strongest motives operative in the world to render men scrupulously proper in their deportment and behavior is sin. I make no hesitation in saying that shallowness and sensuality are the leading ingredients in the majority of the exceedingly proper characters with which I am acquainted.
Leaving this particular phase of my subject, I wish to call attention to the well-recognized fact that all perfect people are bores. A perfect character in a novel has no more power over a reader—no more foothold among his sympathies—than a proposition in mathematics would have. Of all stupid creations that the brain of man has given birth to, there are none so stupid as the perfect men and women whom we find upon the pages of fiction. Sometimes we find in actual life a character so symmetrical, so rounded off at the corners, and smoothed at the edges, and polished on the sides, and unexceptionable in all its manifestations, that we cannot find fault with it; yet we find it impossible for us to love it. Such a character gets beyond the reach of our sympathies. Human affection is like ivy. It cannot cling to glass; it must plant its feet in imperfections. It is not to be denied that imperfection is the true flavor of humanity. The mind refuses to sympathize where it does not exist. What the world would call a perfect man—what would be adjudged a perfect man by the best standards—would be as tasteless as a last year’s apple. A perfect woman could no more be loved than she could be hated. I never saw a man with a perfect face—a face modelled so symmetrically and so perfectly that no fault could be found with it—who was not more or less a numskull. A pretty man is always a pretty fool; and the more symmetrical the features of a woman are, the more does she approach to the style of beauty and expression and native gifts of a porcelain doll. The mind and the character can be so symmetrical that they will lose all charm and all significance. They descend into simple prettiness, which is simple insipidity.
I say that imperfection is the true flavor of humanity. In explanation, I ought to say that all individuality is either based upon it or pre-supposes it. For instance: the preponderance of certain powers and qualities of mind and character in me, over certain other powers and qualities, and the weakness and imperfection of these latter as related to the former, and to the individualities of others, make my individuality what it, is. If in me all mental and moral powers were in equipoise—if I were a symmetrical man, as the first Adam may possibly have been—I should have no individuality, no qualities that would distinguish me—no weaknesses that would furnish footholds for human sympathy—no freshness and flavor. A whole world full of perfect men and women, each one like every other, would be unutterably stupid. Where there is no weakness there is no individuality; where there is no individuality there is no true humanity; where there is no true humanity there is no sympathy; and where there is no sympathy there is no pleasure. We demand that a man shall live according to his law—develop himself according to his law— manifest and express himself according to his law; and then he will become the object of our sympathy or antipathy, according to our law. We demand that the true flavor of every individuality shall be declared, and not be masked by the imposition of conventional regulations.
If every tree in the world were perfect, according to any recognized standard, then all the trees would be alike, and would cease to be attractive and picturesque. We keep all perfect things out of pictures, because they are formal and tasteless. A bran new cottage, with a picket fence around it, and every thing cleaned up about it, is too perfect to be picturesque. An old, tumble-down mill, with rude and rotten timbers, and a wheel outside, is decidedly picturesque, because its imperfections make it informal. The most unattractive of all houses is a model house. A house that no man can find fault with, is a house that no man can love. It is precisely thus with human character and with men. A proper, perfect, “model” man, is an unlovable man. A sphere cannot be made to fit an angle, and a spherical character has no point of sympathy with one that is thrown into the angles necessary for individuality. So we neither love symmetry and perfection in men, according to any recognized standard, nor the appearance of them. We demand not only that men shall have individuality, but that they shall express it in their language and their lives. In society we demand variety; and in order to have it, men must act out themselves. The harmony and sweetness of social life consist in the adjustment of the strong points of some to the weak points of others.
With these facts so very evident as they must be to all thoughtful minds, it is strange that such an effort is made to bring all men to a certain standard and style of life. I do not believe there is a country on the face of the earth where public opinion and fashion and conventional and individual notions, exercise so despotic a sway as they do in America. There is, in this “free country,” no play to individuality tolerated. No room is made for the peculiarities of a man—no freedom is given to his mode of manifestation. A man who has peculiar manners, and whose style of individuality is marked, has no room allowed to him at all. He is very likely to be called a fool, and laughed at by his inferiors. We take no pains to look through the outside to find the heart and soul, and refuse to see excellence behind manifestations that offend our notions or our tastes. We go to hear a preacher, and if he do not happen to have the externals, and the style of delivery which we most admire, we condemn him at once. We make no room for his individuality, and allow to it no freedom of manifestation. Room and freedom—that which the ocean has, that which the rivers have, that which the forest has, and that from which all of them derive their beauty and their glory—room and freedom are denied to men by men who need both, quite as much as their fellows.
The choicest food of the gossips is the personal peculiarities of their acquaintances. The grand staple of ridicule is this same individuality, whose importance I have endeavored to illustrate. All the small wits of society busy themselves upon the eccentricities of those around them. Church and creed, party and platform, fashion and custom, all direct themselves against the development of individuality. Sensitive natures shrink before such an array of influences, and retire into themselves, drawing back and keeping in check all their out-reaching individuality. Many a man, indeed, who would face a cannon’s mouth without trembling, flinches when beset by ridicule. It is not the fault of society that the whole race of mankind are not reduced to a dead level of character, and a tasteless uniformity of life. Were it not that God does His work so strongly, it would have been undone long ago. As it is, we always have a few men and women who are true enough to God and themselves to keep the world from stagnation, and give zest to life. They sometimes shock Miss Nancy, but as they do not happen to care what Miss Nancy thinks of them, they manage to live and do something to keep Miss Nancy’s friends from settling into chronic inanity.
BODILY IMPERFECTIONS AND IMPEDIMENTS.
It is a bright June morning. The fresh grass is loaded with dew, every bead of which sparkles in the light of the brilliant sun. A big, yellow-shouldered bee comes booming through the open window, and buzzes up and down my room, and threatens my shrinking ears, and then dives through the window again; and his form recedes and his hum dies away, as if it were the note of a reed-stop in the “swell” of a church organ. There is such confusion in the songs of the birds, that I can hardly select the different notes, so as to name their owners. There is a great deal of bird-singing that is simply what a weaver would call “filling.” Robins and bobolinks and blue-birds and sundry other favorites furnish the warp, and color and characterize the tapestry of a flowing, vocal morning; while the little, gray-backed multitude work in the neutral ground tones, and bring the sweeter and more elaborate notes into beautiful relief. Thus, with a little aid of imagination, I get up some very exquisite fabrics—vocal silks and satins:—robins on a field of chickadees; bobolinks and thrushes alternately on a hit-or-miss ground of blackbirds, wrens, and pewees. Into the midst of all this delicious confusion there breaks a note that belongs to another race of creatures; and as I look from my window, and see the singer, my eyes fill with tears. It is a little boy, possibly twelve years old, though he looks younger, walking with a crutch. One withered limb dangles as he goes. He is a cripple for life; yet his face is as bright and cheerful as the face of the morning itself; and what do you think he is singing? “Hail Columbia, happy land,” at the top of his lungs! The birds are merrily wheeling over his head, and diving through the air, and moving here and there as freely as the wind, yet not one among them carries a lighter heart than that which he is jerking along by the side of the little crutch.
As I see how cheerfully he bears the burden of his hopeless halting, there comes back to me the story of the lame lord who sang a different sort of song—the lame lord who died at Missolonghi, and whose friend Trelawny—human jackal that he was— stole to his bedside after the breath had left his body, and examined his clubbed feet, and then went away and wrote about them. Here was a man with regal gifts of mind—a poet of splendid genius—a titled aristocrat—a man admired and praised wherever the English language was read—a man who knew that he held within himself the power to make his name immortal—a man with wealth sufficient for all grateful luxuries—yet with clubbed feet; and those feet! Ah! how they embittered and spoiled that man of magnificent achievements and sublime possibilities! It would appear, from the disgusting narrative of Mr. Trelawny, that he was in reality the only man who had ever seen Byron’s feet. Those feet had been kept so closely hidden, or so cunningly disguised, that nobody had known their real deformity; and the poor lord who had carried them through his thirty-six years of life, had done it in constantly tormented and mortified pride. Those misshapen organs had an important agency in making him a misanthropic, morbidly sensitive, unhappy, desperate man. When he sang, he did not forget them; and the poor fools who turned down their shirt-collars, and imitated his songs, and thought they were inspired by his winged genius, had under them only a pair of halting, clubbed feet.
There is a class of unfortunate men and women in the world to whom the boy and the bard have introduced us. They are not all lame: but they all think they have cause to be dissatisfied with the bodies God has given them. Perhaps they are simply ugly, and are aware that no one can look in their faces with other thought than that they are ugly. Now it is a pleasant thing to have a pleasant face, and an agreeable form. It is pleasant for a man to be large, well-shaped, and good-looking, and it is unpleasant for him to be small, and to carry an ill-shaped form and an ugly face. It is pleasant for a woman to feel that she has personal attractions for those around her, and it is unpleasant for her to feel that no man can ever turn his eyes admiringly upon her. A misshapen limb, a hump in the back, a withered arm, a shortened leg, a clubbed foot, a hare-lip, an unwieldy corpulence, a hideous leanness, a bald head—all these are unpleasant possessions, and all these, I suppose, give their possessors, first and last, a great deal of pain. Then there is the taint of an unpopular blood, that a whole race carry with them as a badge of humiliation. I have heard of Africans who declared that they would willingly go through the pain of being skinned alive, if, at the close of the operation, they could become white men. There are men of genius, with plenty of white blood in their veins—with only a trace of Africa in their faces—whose lives are embittered by that trace; and who know that the pure Anglo Saxon, if he follows his instincts, will say to him: “Thus far,”—(through a limited range of relations,)— “but no further.”
From the depths of my soul I pity a man or woman who bears about an irremediable bodily deformity, or the mark of the blood of a humiliated race. I pity any human being who carries around a body that he feels to be in any sense an unpleasant one to those whom he meets. I pity the deformed man, and the maimed man, and the terribly ugly man, and the black man, and the white man with black blood in him, because he usually feels that these things bear with them a certain degree of humiliation. I pity the man who is not able to stand out in the broad sunlight, with other men, and to feel that he has as goodly a frame and as fine blood and as pleasant a presence as the average of those he sees around him. I do not wonder at all that many of these persons become soured and embittered and jealous. A sensitive mind, dwelling long upon misfortunes of this peculiar character, will inevitably become morbid; and multitudes of humbler men than Lord Byron have cursed their fate as bitterly as he, and have even lifted their eyes to blaspheme the Being who made them.
The two instances which I have mentioned show us that there are two ways of taking misfortunes of this character; and one of them seems to a good deal better than the other. Between the boy who ignored the withered leg and the crutch, and the proud poet who permitted a slight personal deformity to darken his whole life, there is a distance like that between heaven and earth.
I believe in the law of compensation. Human lot is, on the whole, well averaged. A man does not possess great gifts of person and of mind without drawbacks somewhere. Either great duties are imposed upon him, or great burdens are put upon his shoulders, or great temptations assail and harass him. Something in his life, at some time in his life, takes it upon itself to reduce his advantages to the average standard. Nature gave Byron clubbed feet, but with those feet she gave him a genius whose numbers charmed the world— a genius which multitudes of commonplace or weak men would have been glad to purchase at the price of almost any humiliating eccentricity of person. But they were obliged to content themselves with excellent feet, and brains of the common kind and calibre. Providence had withered the little boy’s leg, but the loudest song I have heard from a boy in a twelvemonth came from his lips, as he limped along alone in the open street. The cheerful heart in his bosom was a great compensation for the withered leg; and beyond this the boy had reason for singing over the fact that he was forever released from military duty, and firemen’s duty, and all racing about in the service of other people. There are individual cases of misfortune in which it is hard to detect the compensating good, but these we must call the “exceptions” which “prove the rule.”
But the best of all compensation for natural defects and deformities, is that which comes in the form of a peculiar love. The mother of a poor, misshapen, idiotic boy, will, though she have half a score of bright and beautiful children besides, entertain for him a peculiar affection. He may not be able, in his feeble-mindedness, to appreciate it, but her heart brims with tenderness for him. The delicate morsel is reserved for him; and, if he be a sufferer, the softest pillow and the tenderest nursing will be his. A love will be bestowed upon him which gold could not buy, and which no beauty of person, and no brilliancy of natural gifts could possibly awaken. It is thus with every case of defect or eccentricity of person. So sure as the mother of a child sees in that child’s person any reason for the world to regard it with contempt or aversion, does she treat it with peculiar tenderness; as if she were commissioned by God—as indeed she is—to make up to it in the best coinage that which the world will certainly neglect to bestow.
With the world at large, however, there are certain conditions on which this variety of compensation is rendered; and a man who would have compensation for defects of person, must accept these conditions, or furnish them. Such a man as Lord Byron would have been offended by pity. To have been commiserated on his misfortune, would have made him exceedingly angry. He would not allow himself to be treated as an unfortunate man. He bound up his feet, and made efforts to walk that ended in intense pain, rather than appear the lame man that he really was. Of course, there was no compensation in the tender pity and affectionate consideration of the world for him; nor is there any for the sad unfortunates who inherit and exercise his spirit. But for all those who accept their life with all its conditions, in a cheerful spirit, who give up their pride, who take their bodies as God formed them, and make the best of them, there is abundant compensation in the affection of the world. A cheerful spirit, exercised in weakness, infirmity, calamity—any sort of misfortune—is just as sure to awaken a peculiarly affectionate interest in all observers, as a lighted lamp is to illuminate the objects around it. I know of men and women who are the favorites of a whole neighborhood—nay, a whole town—because they are cheerful, and courageous, and self-respectful under misfortune; and I know of those who are as much dreaded as a pestilence, because they will not accept their lot—because they grow bitter and jealous—and because they will persist in taunts and complaints.
The number of those who are, or who consider themselves, unfortunate in their physical conformation, is larger than the most of us suppose. I presume that at least one-half of the readers of this essay are any thing but well satisfied with the “tabernacle” in which they reside. One man wishes he were a little larger; one woman wishes she were a little smaller; one does not like her complexion, or the color of her eyes and hair; one has a nose too large; another has a nose too small; one has round shoulders; another has a low forehead; and so every one becomes a critic of his or her style of structure. When we find a man or a woman who is absolutely faultless in form and features, we usually find a fool. I do not remember that I ever met a very handsome man or woman, who was not as vain and shallow as a peacock. I recently met a magnificent woman of middle age at a railroad station. She was surrounded by all those indescribable somethings and nothings which mark the rich and well-bred traveller, and her face was queenly—not sweet and pretty like a doll’s face—but handsome and stylish, and strikingly impressive, so that no man could look at her once without turning to look again; yet I had not been in her presence a minute, before I found, to my utter disgust, that the old creature was as vain of her charms as a spoiled girl, and gloried in the attention which she was conscious her face everywhere attracted. It would seem as if nature, in making up mankind, had always been a little short of materials, so that, if special attention were bestowed upon the form and face, the brain suffered; and if the brain received particular attention, why then there was something lacking in the body.
This large class of malcontents generally find some way of convincing themselves, however, that they are as good-looking as the average of mankind. They make a good deal of some special points of beauty, and imagine that these quite overshadow their defects. Still, there is a portion of them who can never do this; and I think of them with a sadness which it is impossible for me to express. For a homely—even an ugly man—I have no pity to spare. I never saw one so ugly yet, that if he had brains and a heart, he could not find a beautiful woman sensible enough to marry him. But for the hopelessly plain and homely sisters—“these tears!” There is a class of women who know that they possess in their persons no attractions for men,—that their faces are homely, that their frames are ill-formed, that their carriage is clumsy, and that, whatever may be their gifts of mind, no man can have the slightest desire to possess their persons. That there are compensations for these women, I have no doubt, but many of them fail to find them. Many of them feel that the sweetest sympathies of life must be repressed, and that there is a world of affection from which they must remain shut out forever. It is hard for a woman to feel that her person is not pleasing—harder than for a man to feel thus. I would tell why, if it were necessary— for there is a bundle of very interesting philosophy tied up in the matter—but I will content myself with stating the fact, and permitting my readers to reason about it as they will.
Now, if a homely woman, soured and discouraged by her lot, becomes misanthropic and complaining, she will be as little loved as she is admired; but if she accepts her lot good-naturedly, makes up her mind to be happy, and is determined to be agreeable in all her relations to society, she will be everywhere surrounded by loving and sympathetic hearts, and find herself a greater favorite than she would be were she beautiful. A woman who is entirely beyond the reach of the jealousy of her own sex, is an exceedingly fortunate woman; and if personal homeliness has won for her this immunity, then homeliness has given her much to be thankful for. A homely woman who ignores her face and form, cultivates her mind and manners, good-naturedly gives up all pretension, and exhibits in all her life a true and a pure heart, will have friends enough to compensate her entirely for the loss of a husband. Friendship is unmindful of faces, in the selection of its objects, even if love be somewhat particular, and, sometimes, foolishly fastidious.
Life is altogether too precious a gift to be thrown away. A man who would permit a field to be overgrown with weeds and thorns simply because it would not naturally produce roses, would be very foolish, particularly if the ground should only need cultivation to enable it to yield abundantly of corn. Far be it from me to depreciate physical symmetry and personal comeliness. They are gifts of God, and they are very good; but there are better things in this world than a good face, and better things than the admiration which a good face wins. I am more and more convinced, as the years pass away, that the choicest thing this world has for a man is affection—not any special variety of affection, but the approval, the sympathy, and the devotion of true hearts. It is not necessary that this affection come from the great and the powerful. If it be genuine, that is all the heart asks. It does not criticize and graduate the value of the fountains from which it springs. It is at these fountains particularly that the unfortunates of the world are permitted to drink. They have only to accept cheerfully the conditions of their lot, and to give free and full play to all that is good and generous in them, to secure in an unusual degree the love of those into whose intimate society Providence has thrown them.
It is stated by Dr. Livingstone, the celebrated explorer of Africa, that the blow of a lion’s paw upon his shoulder, which was so severe as to break his arm, completely annihilated fear; and he suggests that it is possible that Providence has mercifully arranged, that all those beasts that prey upon life shall have power to destroy the sting of death in the animals which are their natural victims. I do not believe that this power is mercifully assigned to beasts of prey alone, but that the misfortunes that assail our limbs and forms, in whatever shape and at whatever time they may come, bring with them something which lightens the blow, or obviates the pain, if we will accept it. There is a calm consciousness in every soul, however harshly the lion’s paw may fall upon the body which it inhabits, that it is itself invulnerable—that whatever may be the condition of the body, the soul cannot be injured by physical forms or forces.
Physical calamity never comes with the power to extinguish that which is essential to the highest manhood and womanhood, and never fails to bring with it a motive for the adjustment of the soul to its conditions. The little boy whose “Hail Columbia” has been ringing in my ears all day, accepted the conditions of his life, and the sting of his calamity has departed. It is pleasant to say to him, and to all the brotherhood and sisterhood of ugliness and lameness, that there is every reason to believe that there is no such thing in heaven as a one-legged or a club-footed soul—no such thing as an ugly or a misshapen soul—no such thing as a blind or a deaf soul—no such thing as a soul with tainted blood in its veins; and that out of these imperfect bodies will spring spirits of consummate perfection and angelic beauty—a beauty chastened and enriched by the humiliations that were visited upon their earthly habitation.