Individuality

AT a certain depth, as has already been intimated in our literature, all bosoms communicate, all hearts are one. Hector and Ajax, in Homer’s great picture, stand face to face, each with advanced foot, with levelled spear, and turgid sinew, eager to kill, while on either side ten thousand slaughterous wishes poise themselves in hot breasts, waiting to fly with the flying weapons; yet, though the combatants seem to surrender themselves wholly to this action, there is in each a profound element that is no party to these hostilities. It is the pure nature of man. Ajax is not all Greek, nor is Hector wholly Trojan : both are also men; and to the extent of their mutual participation in this pure and perpetual element of Manhood, they are more than friends, more than relatives, — they are of identical spirit. For there is an imperishable nature of Man, ever and everywhere the same, of which each particular man is a testimony and representation. As the solid earth underruns the “ dissociating sea ”—Oceano dissoeiabili— and joins in one all sundered lands, so does this nature dip beneath the dividing parts of our being, and make of all men one simple and inseparable humanity. In love, in friendship, in true conversation, in all happiness of communion between men, it is this unchangeable substratum or substance of man’s being that is efficient and supreme: out of divers bosoms, Same calls, and replies to Same with a great joy of self-recognition. It is only in virtue of this nature that men understand, appreciate, admire, trust each other, — that books of the earliest times remain true in the latest, — that society is possible; and he in whom the virtue of it dwells divinely is admitted to the secret confidence of all bosoms, lives in all times, and converses with each soul and age in its own vernacular. Socrates looked beyond the gates of death for happy communion with Homer and all the great ; but already we interchange words with these, whenever we are so sweetly prospered as to become, in some good degree, identical with the absolute nature of man.

Not only, moreover, is this immortal substance of man’s being common and social, but it is so great and venerable that no one can match it with an equal report. All the epithets by which we would extol it are disgraced by it, as the most brilliant artificial lights become blackness when placed between the eye and the noonday sun. It is older, it is earlier in existence than the earliest star that shone in heaven; and it will outlive the fixed stars that now in heaven seem fixed forever. There is nothing in the created universe of which it was not the prophecy in its primal conception ; there is nothing of which it is not the interpretation and ultimatum in its final form. The laws which rule the world as forces are, in it, thoughts and liberties. All the grand imaginations of men, all the glorified shapes, the Olympian gods, cherubic and seraphic forms, are but symbols and adumbrations of what it contains. As the sun, having set, still leaves its golden impress on the clouds, so does the absolute nature of man throw up and paint, as it were, on the sky testimonies of its power, remaining itself unseen. Only, therefore, is one a poet, as he can cause particular traits and events, without violation of their special character, or concealment of their peculiar interest, to bear the deep, sweet, and infinite suggestion of this. All princeliness and imperial worth, all that is regal, beautiful, pure in men, comes from this nature ; and the words by which we express reverence, admiration, love, borrow from it their entire force : since reverence, admiration, love, and all other grand sentiments, are but modes or forms of noble unification between men, and are therefore shown to spring from that spiritual unity of which persons are exponents; while, on the other hand, all evil epithets suggest division and separation. Of this nature all titles of honor, all symbols that command homage and obedience on earth, are pensioners. How could the claims of kings survive successions of Stuarts and Georges, but for a royalty in each peasant’s bosom that pleads for its poor image on the throne ?

In the high sense, no man is great save be that is a large continent of this absolute humanity. The common nature of man it is; yet those are ever, and in the happiest sense, uncommon men, in whom it is liberally present.

But every man, besides the nature which constitutes him man, has, so to speak, another nature, which constitutes him a particular individual. He is not only like all others of his kind, but, at the same time, unlike all others. By physical and mental feature he is distinguished, insulated; he is endowed with a quality so purely in contrast with the common nature of man, that in virtue of it he can be singled out from hundreds of millions, from all the myriads of his race. So far, now, as one is representative of absolute humanity, he is a Person ; so far as, by an element peculiar to himself, he is contrasted with absolute humanity, he is an Individual. And having duly chanted, our Credo concerning man’s pure and public nature, let us now inquire respecting this dividing element of Individuality, — which, with all the force it has, strives to cut off communication, to destroy unity, and to make of humanity a chaos or dust of biped atoms.

Not for a moment must we make this surface nature of equal estimation with the other. It is secondary, very secondary, to the pure substance of man. The Person first in order of importance ; the Individual next,—

“ Proximus huic, longo seel proximus intervallo,” —

“next with an exceeding wide remove.” Take from Epaminondas or Luther all that makes him man, and the rest, will not he worth selling to the Jews. Individuality is an accompaniment, an accessory, a red line on the map, a fence about the field, a copyright on the book. It is like the particular flavors of fruits, — of no account but in relation to their saccharine, acid, and other staple elements. It must therefore keep its place, or become an impertinence. If it grow forward, officious, and begin to push in between the pure nature and its divine ends, at once it. is a meddling Peter, for whom there is no due greeting but “ Get thee behind me, Satan.” If the fruit have a special flavor of such ambitious pungency that the sweets and acids cannot appear through it, be sure that to come at this fruit no young Wilhelm Meister will purloin keys. If one be so much an Individual that he wellnigh ceases to be a Man, we shall not admire him. It is the same in mental as in physical feature. Let there, by all means, be slight divergence from the common type; but by all means let it be no more than a slight divergence. Too much is monstrous: even a very slight excess is what we call ugliness. Gladly I perceive in my neighbor’s face, voice, gait, manner, a certain charm of peculiarity; but if in any the peculiarity be so great as to suggest a doubt whether he be not some other creature than man, may he not be neighbor of mine !

A little of this surface nature suffices ; yet that little cannot be spared. Its first office is to guard frontiers. We must not lie quite open to the inspection or invasion of others: yet, were there no medium of unlikeness interposed between one and another, privacy would he impossible, and one’s own bosom would not be sacred to himself. But Nature has secured us against these profanations; and as we have locks to our doors, curtains to our windows, and, upon occasion, a passport system on our borders, so has she cast around each spirit this veil to guard it from intruding eyes, this barrier to keep away the feet of strangers. Homer represents the divinities as coming invisibly to admonish their favored heroes ; but Nature was beforehand with the poet, and every one of us is, in like manner, a celestial nature walking concealed. Who sees you, when you walk the street? Who would walk the street, did be not feel himself fortressed in a privacy that no foreign eyes can enter? But for this, no cities would be built. Society, therefore, would be impossible, save for this element, which seems to hinder society. Each of us, wrapt in his opaque individuality, like Apollo or Athene in a blue mist, remains hidden, if he will ; and therefore do men dare to come together.

But this superficial element, while securing privacy to the pure nature, also aids it to expression. It emphasizes the outlines of Personality by gentle contrast. It is like the shadow in the landscape, without which all the sunbeams of heaven could not reveal with precision a single object. Assured lovers resort to happy banter and light oppositions, to give themselves a sweeter sense of unity of heart. The child, with a cunning which only Nature has taught, will sometimes put a little honey of refusal into its kisses before giving them; the maiden adds to her virgin blooms the further attraction of virgin coyness and reserve ; the civilizing dinner-table would lose all its dignity in losing its delays ; and so everywhere, delicate denial, withholding reserve have an inverse force, and add a charm of emphasis to gift, assent, attraction, and sympathy. How is the word Immortality emphasized to our hearts by the perpetual spectacle of death ! The joy and suggestion of it could, indeed, never visit us, had not this momentary loud denial been uttered in our ears. Such, therefore, as have learned to interpret those oppositions in Nature, hear in the jarring note of Death only a jubilant proclamation of life eternal; while all are thus taught the longing for immortality, though only by their fear of the contrary. And so is the pure universal nature of man affirmed by these provocations of contrast and insulation on the surface. We feel the personality far more, and far more sweetly, for its being thus divided from our own. From behind this veil the pure nature comes to us with a kind of surprise, as out. of another heaven. The joy of truth and delight of beauty are born anew for us from each pair of chanting lips and beholding eyes ; and each new soul that comes promises another gift of the universe. Whoever, in any time or under any sky, sees the worth and wonder of existence, sees it for me; whatever language he speak, whatever star he inhabit, we shall one day meet, and through the confessiou of his heart all my ancient possessions will become a new gain ; he shall make for me a natal day of creation, showing the producing breath, as it goes forth from the lips of God, and spreads into the blue purity of sky, or rounds into the luminance of suns; the hills and their pines, the vales and their blooms, and heroic men and beauteous women, all that I have loved or reverenced, shall come again, appearing and trooping out of skies never visible before. Because of these dividing lines between souls, each new soul is to all the others a possible factor of heaven.

Such uses does individuality subserve. Yet it is capable of these ministries only as it does indeed minister. All its uses are lost with the loss of its humility and subordinance. It is the porter at the gate, furthering the access of lawful, and forbidding the intrusion of unlawful visitors to the mansion ; who becomes worse than useless, if in surly excess of zeal he bar the gate against all, or if in the excess of self-importance he receive for himself what is meant for his master, and turn visitors aside into the porter’s lodge. Beautiful is virgin reserve, and true it is that delicate half-denial reinforces attraction; yet the maiden who carries only No upon her tongue, and only refusal in her ways, shall never wake before dawn on the day of espousal, nor blush beneath her bridal veil, like Morning behind her clouds. This surface element, we must remember, is not income and resource, but an item of needful, and, so far as needful, graceful and economical expenditure. Excess of it is wasteful, by causing Life to pay for that which he does not need, by increase of social fiction, and by obstruction of social flow with the fructifications which this brings, not to be spared by any mortal. Nay, by extreme excess, it may so cut off and sequester a man, that no word or aspect of another soul can reach him ; he shall see in mankind only himself, he shall hear in the voices of others only his own echoes. Many and many a man is there, so housed in his individuality, that it goes, like an impenetrable wall, over eye and ear; and even in the tramp of the centuries he can find hint of nothing save the sound of his own feet. It is a frequent tragedy, — but profound as frequent.

One great task, indeed the great task of good-breeding is, accordingly, to induce in this element a delicacy, a translucency, which, without robbing any action or sentiment of the hue it imparts, shall still allow the pure human quality perfectly and perpetually to shine through. The world has always been charmed with fine manners ; and why should it not ? For what are fine manners but this : to carry your soul on your lip, in your eye, in the palm of your hand, and yet to stand not naked, but clothed upon by your individual quality, — visible, yet inscrutable, — given to the hearts of others, yet contained in your own bosom, — nobly and humanly open, yet duly reticent and secured from invasion? Polished manners often disappoint us; good manners never. The former may be taken on by Indigent souls: the latter imply a noble and opulent nature. And wait you not for death, according to tlto counsel of Solon, to be named happy, if you are permitted fellowship with a man of rich mind, whose individual savor you always finely perceive, and never more than finely,—who yields you the perpetual sense of community, and never of confusion, with your own spirit. The happiness is all the greater, if the fellowship be accorded by a mind eminently superior to one’s own; for he, while yet more removed, comes yet nearer, seeming to be that which our own soul may become in some future life, and so yielding us the sense of our own being more deeply and powerfully than it is given by the consciousness in our own bosom. And going forward to the supreme point of this felicity, we may note that the worshipper, in the ecstasy of his adoration, feels the Highest to be also Nearest, — more remote than the borders of space and fringes of heaven, — more intimate with his own being than the air he breathes or the thought he thinks; and of this double sense is the rapture of his adoration, and the joy indeed of every angel, born.

Divineness appertains to the absolute nature of man ; piquancy and charm to that which serves and modifies this. Infinitude and immortality are of the one; the strictest finiteness belongs to the other. In the first you can never be too deep and rich ; in the second never too delicate and measured. Yet you will easily find a man in whom the latter so abounds as not only to shut him out from others, but to absorb all the vital resource generated in his own bosom, leaving to the pure personality nothing. The finite nature fares sumptuously every day; the other is a heavenly Lazarus sitting at the gate.

Of such individuals there are many classes; and the majority of eccentric men constitute one class. If a man have very peculiar ways, we readily attribute to him a certain depth and force, and think that the polished citizen wants character in comparison. Probably it is not so. Singularity may be as shallow as the shallowest conformity. There are numbers of such from whom if you deduct the eccentricity, it is like subtracting red from vermilion or six from half a dozen. They are grimaces of humanity,— no more. In particular, I make occasion to say, that those oddities, whose chief characteristic it is to slink away from the habitations of men, and claim companionship with musk-rats, are, despite Mr. Thoreau’s pleasant patronage of them, no whit more manly or profound than the average citizen, who loves streets and parlors, and does not endure estrangement from the Post-Office. Mice lurk in holes and corners; could the cat speak, she would say that they have a genius only for lurking in holes. Bees and ants are, to say the least, quite as witty as beetles, proverbially blind ; yet they build insect cities, and are as invincibly social and city-loving as Socrates himself.

Aside, however, from special eccentricity, there are men, like the Earl of Essex, Bacon’s soi-disant friend, who possess a certain emphatic and imposing individuality, which, while commonly assumed to indicate character and force, is really but the succedamurn for these. They are like oysters, with extreme stress of shell, and only a blind, soft, acephalous body within. These are commonly great men so long as little men will serve; and are something less than little ever after. A3 an instance of this, 1 should select the late chief magistrate of this nation. His whole ability lay in putting a most imposing countenance upon commonplaces. He made a mere air seem solid as rock. Owing to this possibility of presenting all force on the outside, and so creating a false impression of resource, all great social emergencies are followed by a speedy breaking down of men to whom was generally attributed an able spirit; while others of less outward mark, and for this reason hitherto unnoticed, come forward, and prove to be indeed the large vessels of manhood accorded to that generation.

Our tendency to assume individual mark as the measure of personality is flattered by many of the books we read. It is, of course, easier to depict character, when it is accompanied by some striking individual hue ; and therefore in romances and novels this is conferred upon all the forcible characters, merely to favor the author’s hand: as microscopists feed minute creatures with colored food to make their circulations visible. It is only the great master who can represent a powerful personality in the purest state, that is, with the maximum of character and the minimum of individual distinction ; while small artists, with a feeble hold upon character, habitually resort to extreme quaintnesses and singularities of circumstance, in order to confer upon their weak portraitures some vigor of outline. It takes a Giotto to draw readily a nearly perfect O ; but a nearly perfect triangle any one can draw. Shakspeare is able to delineate a Gentleman, — one, that is, who, while nobly and profoundly a man, is so delicately individualized, that the impression of him, however vigorous and commanding, cannot be harsh: Shakspeare is equal to this task, but even so very able a painter as Fielding is not. His Squire Western and Parson Adams are exquisite, his Allworthy is vapid: deny him strong pigments of individualism, and he is unable to portray strong character. Scott, among British novelists, is, perhaps, in this respect most Shakspearian, though the Colonel Esmond of Thackeray is not to be forgotten; but even Scott’s Dandle Dimnonts, or gentlemen in the rough, sparkle better than his polished diamonds. Yet in this respect the Waverley Novels are singularly and admirably healthful, comparing to infinite advantage with the rank and file of novels, wherein the “characters” are but bundles of quaintnesses, and the action is impossible.

Written history has somewhat of the same infirmity with fictitious literature, though not always by the fault of the historian. Far too little can it tell us respecting those of whom we desire to know much; while, on the other hand, it is often extremely liberal of information concerning those of whom we desire to know nothing. The greatest of men approach a pure personality, a pure representation of man’s imperishable nature; individual peculiarity they far less abound in ; and what they do possess is held in transparent solution by their manhood, as a certain amount of vapor is always held by the air. The higher its temperature, the more moisture can the atmosphere thus absorb, exhibiting it not as cloud, but only as immortal azure of sky : and so the greater intensity there is of the pure quality of man, the more of individual peculiarity can it master and transform into a simple heavenliness of beauty, of which the world finds few words to say. Men, in general, have, perhaps, no more genius than novelists in general,— though it seems a hard speech to make,— and while profoundly impressed by any manifestation of the pure genius of man, can observe and relate only peculiarities and exceptional traits. Incongruities are noted ; congruities are only felt. If a two-headed calf be born, the newspapers hasten to tell of it; but brave boys and beautiful girls by thousands grow to fulness of stature without mention. We know so little of Homer and Shakspeare partly because they were Homer and Shakspeare. Smaller men might afford more plentiful materials for biography, because their action and character would be more clouded with individualism. The biography of a supreme poet is the history of his kind. He transmits himself by pure vital impression. His remembrance is committed, not to any separable faculty, but to a memory identical with the total being of men. If you would learn his story, listen to the sprites that ride on crimson steeds along the arterial highways, singing of man’s destiny as they go.