WEBSTER defines the word “idiosyncrasy” thus: “A peculiarity of constitution or susceptibility, occasioning certain peculiarities of effect, from the impress of extraneous influences or agencies.”
Ninety-nine people out of a hundred, or, perhaps, nine hundred and ninetynine out of a thousand, know nothing of idiosyncrasies, save that the word is in the dictionaries ; the thousandth is the victim of these “ peculiarities of susceptibility ” before he can spell words of three letters, and beyond a doubt continues so all his life.
Idiosyncrasies are to the mind what nervous diseases are to the body, — incomprehensible to those who never experienced them, but to the unfortunate persons who suffer from their effects very real afflictions. The vast majority of our fellow-creatures are so constituted that they are reasonably happy if they have none of the troubles which are admitted by the human race to be troubles, and which come labelled as such ; that is, if they are not deprived of health, or wealth, or social position ; if they have a moderate number of friends, and are not too painfully “crossed in love,” as the expression is. It would be hard to count the persons who are reasonably happy without possessing these stated requisites ; yet there are many individuals in the world the outward conditions of whose lives are all favorable, but whose “peculiarities of constitution and susceptibility ” render them an enigma to their friends and to themselves ; and whose comfort or discomfort, even happiness or unhappiness, are arbitrarily determined by the influence which slight details of circumstance and surrounding exert over them.
To such unpleasantly impressionable persons little things are of vital importance ; they are almost blessings or curses. Anything that contents their capricious notions of beauty and propriety affects them as the sound of a music-box affected Mr. Thoreau, — makes everything run smoothly under the sun; while anything that crosses these ideas tests their philosophy and Christian fortitude severely. Two or three spires of gladiolus or day-lilies in a neighbor’s garden, a flight of birds, an unexpectedly suggestive figure in a parlor carpet, a little painting hung in a corner, a sunset, or a maple-tree that autumn has turned red, may be pieces of inestimable good fortune. Coarseness in material or color, a picture that makes some pet aversion enduring, a combination of purple and light blue, certain peculiar dispositions of furniture, certain houses, streets, and prospects, communication with certain individuals, may produce the most depressing effects and, for the time, darken the horizon of life.
I know that another definition of " idiosyncrasy ” is, “ a morbid and fastidious fancy”; and I admit that it is the general opinion that fancies can be cured by a small dose of commonsense ; but fancies are born with the fanciful person, and their force is felt quite as much in childhood as in middle age; and I believe no one thus enslaved by nature can ever emancipate himself wholly from this tyranny of daily sights and events. Can all the common-sense in the world enable a person of musical discrimination to endure a sharp discord without cringing ? Nobody wonders at that. Why may not minds be as sensitive as ears ?
The idiosyncrasist—if I may coin the word — is a perpetual riddle to himself. Haircloth and mahogany may pall his brightest spirits ; the sight of a barberry-bush or a buttonwood-tree, or a stray sunbeam falling on auburn hair, may as unaccountably exhilarate him. It is hopeless to reason, to analyze, to expect to follow precedents. The lady who sat for two hours trying to discover what possible difference it could make to her whether the tops of the evergreen hedge opposite her dining-room windows were cut square or rounded, did not fathom the mystery. She only knew that they affected her imagination and appetite favorably when they were rounded, unfavorably when they were squared.
Why is it that I cannot enter certain houses, or talk with certain people, without becoming suddenly and inexplicably miserable ? And why is it that the mere sight of another face, the mere passing by a particular apple-tree, or a half-hour’s row on the river, sets me right again ? Most people dislike snakes and like roses, but why are there so many snakes and roses for me ? No amount of reasoning can tell me.
Sometimes agreeables and disagreeables balance : I have come in from a walk on a cold, bright, characterless winter day, utterly dispirited, and have been enveloped suddenly in an atmosphere of comfort by the sight of a changeable silk dress. It is possible, sometimes, to prescribe for one’s self: after entertaining a disagreeable caller, after a washing-day or a cleaningday, one may make a pilgrimage to one’s favorite hill, or woods ; one may sit down and read a French comédie or vaudeville. At one time the “ Arabian Nights ” was my sovereign specific, at another an open fire.
It is an excellent plan for an “oddity ” to pet himself, innocently, if he can find out how ; for it is nearly impossible to defy nature, and an insignificant line of poplars may bring back all the funerals he ever witnessed, in succession ; an odor of cabbage may prevent him from finishing a poem ; a dismal gatepost may upset a mathematical calculation, in spite of his utmost efforts to the contrary.
When you are out of spirits, tell your friend you have neuralgia, and he will pity you. Tell him that a barren, sandy road and a bare field, that you see from the window, is worse than neuralgia to you, and he will simply think you are a subject for an insane asylum. Tell your family you moved your study to the other side of the house because you could see to write longer at twilight, and don’t hint that you did it because six cottages all exactly alike were being erected before the windows of your ancient sanctum.
Idiosyncrasies have first - cousins. The cousin most widely known is Superstition. But with this enemy we can wage open war. It has to be fostered ; it is not a tendency of the mind, developing with its growth. Its intrusion can always be detected, but it usually brings a passport, and so is often received. It is even tucked away, in the form of a notion, in a private corner of the brain of many a person who laughs at ghosts and detests spiritualistic performances. It is easy to depise forerunners and four-leaved clovers, and to be indifferent over which shoulder one sees the new moon. One need not affect disbelief in the tradition that dead ancestors walk in the small hours ; in stories of haunted houses, mysterious affinities, and inspired articles of furniture. But in nearly every mass of practicality there is an extravagance. The person “with not a bit of nonsense about him ” is a fable. It may be hard to find the nonsense, but it is there. The learned doctor who could not think clearly unless he had on an especial brown stuff gown, the distinguished lawyer who was sure the day’s work would be unlucky if he failed to set his foot on a certain seam in his doorstep when he left the house in the morning, your friends and mine who do not care to commence a pair of slippers or to start on a journey on Friday, are examples of it. Superstition is a fruitful subject.
There are other cousins, christened eccentric connections of thought and involuntary movements of the mind. In writing of these, I must still take my illustrations mainly from my own experience, supplementing them with what I have read and what has been told me.
To begin with myself, I did not learn my letters from a pictorial alphabet, and I have only seen one dwarf in my life ; but I can never look at a capital “ B ” without seeing a dwarf as plainly as I see the character ; or at an “ S,” without straightway beholding an overdressed lady with a toilet-glass in her hand. “ I ” is inseparable from a milestone, and “ Q ” from a serpent. The nine digits will ascend in a straight line before my mind’s eye, and the larger numbers will slant off at a queer angle, thus : —
What connection is there between an obtuse angle and the Arabic signs ?
A young lady of my acquaintance cannot pass over the Common, without remembering with almost painful vividness a verse in Victor Hugo’s poem “ Gastibelza.” She has seen that Common since she was a child, and she read the poem three years ago when she was miles away ; but recently the place and the poem have become one, so to speak, and cannot be divided. Yet it seems strange that a square enclosure, bordered by a hotel and commonplace houses, should suggest the verse,
Quand, vers le soir,
Elle passalt sur le pont de Toléde
En corset noir :
Un chapelet du temps de Charlemagne
Ornait son cou. —
Le vent qui vient à travels la montagne,
Me rendra fou ! ”
Another locates whatever scenes are described in the romance or history she reads on the farm where she lived when a child. The Newcomes lived on this farm, the Punic wars were carried on there, and Thermopylæ is a narrow strip of grass between a ploughed field and an orchard wall ; which is about as ridiculous as my own inability to separate Beranger’s petit homme gris from a grasshopper, or to think of Vienna without seeing our washerwoman’s cottage with red flowers in the window.
Many places in foreign lands, that I have long wished to see, are situated on the banks of the river that runs through my native town. Venice is where the water is smooth, partially shadowed, with only little flecks and bars of sunshine upon it, and so shallow that rocks rise above it in dry seasons. Every rock is a castle. A hill, used for pasturing sheep, and clothed with hemlocks on the side that slopes abruptly to the river, is my Alps,— fully as satisfactory to me as the real ones, I have no doubt. The Jura Mountains are two or three little knolls one can see farther down the stream. Paris is a sunny marsh, bordering flat fields, across which one can see the town, where the scarlet cardinals and the blue and white river flags rustle and nod gayly together. Marseilles is a sandy strip with white pebbles scattered over it. I can trace the connection here. Dickens has shown Marseilles as it is at noon in summer, all one broad, white glare. Rome is under the wide, stone arches of a picturesque old bridge, and the Campagne is a flat, reedy space near by. London is where the stream is narrow and boats are moored. Athens is a pile of rocks. Sorrento and Naples are mossed, sunny ledges in the cliffs. A hollow beneath the exposed roots of an oak-tree is the gallery in the Pitti Palace where hangs the portrait of Jerome Savonarola, and I am uncomfortable when the water covers it in spring. Camelot is six miles down the river, and Spain is on its south branch. A willow covered with grape-vines is my Notre Dame, a broken-down oak is Kenilworth Castle, and I am always making Milan Cathedral out of single lilies.
I cannot imagine what led me to locate the places as I have. Of course they originated in vague and unprofitable fancies. But they are grown facts, and I can no more dispute them than deny that the sun is shining while I write.
If I may multiply illustrations, there is a path in the town that is, to me, the place where Mr. Longfellow took his " Walk in Winter” ; there is a meadow where Mr. Lowell’s “ Dandelion ” grows, and his “Birch-Tree” is in the woods ; I have seen Bryant’s “Water Fowl” fly over; there is a place in the garret that means nothing but Moliere and Les Précieuses Ridicules” ; I have gathered Wordsworth’s “ Daffodils ” and Rose Terry’s “Arbutus,” which can grow only in one place ; there is only one place, too, where, with Bayard Taylor, I have seen,
The meadows into foam.”
Faust and Margaret live in a fire once in a while; Mr. Emerson’s “ Humble Bee ” flies through my garden, and the sands by the old mill-brook are the “ Sands o’ Dee.”
Well, to anybody else this seems utter nonsense, but everything is in theory, resemblance, and association. Columbines suggest vanity to other people; snow, purity; blue skies are connected with Heaven ; and mud typifies a darkened intellect. Whittington was talked to by bells, Paul Dombey by a clock, and so forth. These fabrications of the mind are queer structuies, and their bases are hidden in fog. The idealist can laugh at them, but he must accept them.
As for involuntary movements of mind, there are journalists who go on arranging facts and composing leading articles in their sleep ; there are young ladies who solve algebraic problems in their dreams ; there are plenty of people whose minds grind on like machines and almost defy control : but one illustration must suffice : A lady read two lines in a poem which did not particularly impress her ; they were,
Unto the city of your God”
To her amazement, these lines appropriated a corner of her brain and lived there. She found herself continually saying them over, and she could not hear any sudden, unexpected noise — the steam-whistle, or the striking of a clock, or the rumble of a cart — without being seized with a preternatural anxiety to say those lines over three times before the noise ceased. The couplet haunts her in her walks. Fancy the surprise of one of the sober farmers who sometimes pass her, mounted in their wagons, if he could know the lady on the sidewalk was hurrying over six lines of poetry, trying to finish before he gets by! Although the reader may have formed a contrary opinion, the lady is not a lunatic.
There are, also, abnormal states of mind, or, I ought to say, their beginnings, which come to sane persons who are not mediums, or seers, or seventh children of seventh children, who do not see visions, or dream dreams. Mr. Tennyson writes in his “ Princess ” : —
On a sudden, in the midst of men and day,
And while I walked and talked, as heretofore,
I seemed to move among a world of ghosts
And feel myself the shadow of a dream.”
I can only say, about these “ weird seizures,” that I have been sitting, engaged in the practical, economical, prosaic employment of sewing buttons on a dress while two or three ladies were gossiping in the room, and I have seen the faces and voices, the sunshine and shadow, as if they were in a picture I was looking at, while I was really far away in some strange, halfcomprehended state. It is a distressing and unnatural sensation, and seems, as far as I can analyze it, to be a passing inability to realize what is transpiring, a reluctance of the brain to go on receiving impressions. Another consciousness seems to overshadow the present, and I find myself wondering, as if sights and sounds were strange hieroglyphics I could not decipher. If this is like the “ fish-stories ” of our youth, I cannot help it.
There is no need to enlarge on the subject. What do people who do not have idiosyncrasies, and eccentric connections of thought, and involuntary movements, and abnormal states of mind, care about them ? And for people who do, sympathy is pleasant, but they have enough to do to meet their own trials.
It is safe to assume that there will be no idiosyncrasies in the millennium. In that happy time, doctors will not prescribe mullen-tea and extract of rhubarb, when the patient suffers from one of Edgar Poe’s stories, or is fevered with too much Edgeworth. People will not be sent on sea-voyages when they feel that there is a gulf between themselves and the human race, — as ministers are apt to, Monday mornings, — because somebody they live with, daily and unintentionally, depresses them. It will be understood that idiosyncrasies are as enduring and as unendurable as crossed eyes.
Kant’s " Critique of Pure Reason ” will not console the afflicted. “ Locke on the Understanding ” will not be equal to the occasion (I remember I used to wonder if Youatt rode on the Horse, and if Locke rode on the Understanding). I believe, privately, that somebody who has written about “Bilious Affections ” came as near the solution of the difficulty as any one who has tried metaphysics. I am waiting for the coming man —or woman — who will entitle a volume “How to avoid receiving Unpleasant Impressions; or, A Recipe for Logical Thinking.” The world will be better for that man’s — or woman’s — life.
There is one word to be said about the real trial of being an “oddity.” It needs more faith and patience than can be imagined by the inexperienced. There is only one comfort; that is, being what we were made to be, as far as possible, and using idiosyncrasies etc., as a means of grace. Say the wind is east with Mr. Jarndyce, and go to work. There is no human being who is not upon some round of
and when we reach the top, we shall know what all hindrances, great or small, meant.
Miss H. R. Hudson.