The Contributors' Club
WHAT is this quality in the sad tones of Russian writers, as in all Turgeneff’s stories, for example, so different from that of any other people? The sadness of the German, in literature, often appears weak, self-indulgent, sentimental ; the sadness of the Frenchman, is a little too neatly expressed ; the sadness of the Englishman or American is oftenest only a dramatic and imagined one, for his own genuine sorrows he is not apt to express, openly and directly. In the Russian mournfulness there lies something heavy, oppressive, — terrible in its reality, and in the simple, honest expression of it; as if the dark mood were the natural air of the country, that all men breathed, and that no one need be reticent about; as if some weight of national wrong and hopelessness were added to all individual sorrow, so as to make it the common experience, and even the common bond. Turgeneff seems to me one of the greatest figures of our time, and in all ways the most mournful figure. A friend of mine, while on his travels, wrote me some years ago from Paris : “ The biggest thing I have seen abroad is Mont Blanc, but the greatest is Turgeneff.” Then he referred to the sober existence of the man, and how he spoke pathetically of his own perennial interest in birds and beasts, and affirmed that except for this he did not know how he could get on with human life at all. I was reminded of this when I read in a late number of L’Art the Mémoires posthumes d’un Artiste, by Turgeneff, of which I venture to give here one extract in translation : —
“ Enough, — enough ! It is enough ! Enough of agitation, of self-abandonment. It is time to collect one’s self ; to take the head in the two hands, and to say to one’s heart, ‘ Be still! ’ . . . All has been experienced, all has been felt a thousand times. I am tired. . . . Yes, all has been, all has already been ; everything repeats itself endlessly ; and when I say to myself that all things will continue the same through eternity, as if a law, an edict, had commanded it, then I revolt,—yes, I revolt! . . . Alas! age is upon me. ... It must be avowed : all grows sombre about me, and life becomes colorless. . . . There comes back to my memory a night in Moscow. It was late. I drew near the barred window of an old church, and leaned my forehead against the rough pane. All was gloom under the low arches ; a forgotten lamp scarcely burned with a slender reddish flame before a smoke-dulled picture: one could but discern confusedly in the obscurity the lips of the saint, — lips severe and sad ; mournful shadows entered on all sides, and seemed to wish to crush with their heavy weight the feeble glimmer of the struggling light. In my heart at this hour I feel that same light burn, and those same shadows enter.”
— There are all ways of wasting time, of fretting the heart, and of missing the prime relish of existence. One way is by the misrule and trivial speculation which we permit in our thoughts. Physically, we may withdraw from the crowd, but our minds still remain in the crowd and are jostled on every side. “ The world is too much with us,” we confess with a sigh, when it would be more pertinent and truthful if we put the situation thus : " We are too much with the world ; ” for our reprieve therefrom, our rest and renovation of spirit, are much more within our control than we are accustomed to believe. Antoninus lays it down as a rule that we ought to " check in the series of our thoughts everything that is without a purpose and useless, but most of all the over-curious feeling and the malignant.” And elsewhere he declares, " It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul.” It is precisely this privilege, overlooked or unesteemed, that, if we would but exercise it, would save our spirits from so much needless fret and attrition. A selfish indifference is not to be commended, — no more so is a profuse and indiscriminate altruism, — but the bestowal of one’s thought is a dear outlay, and the object, or objects, on which it is expended should be, in every instance, worthy. In what a fool’s court of justice these pragmatic sympathies of ours involve us ! How we try to settle daily, hourly, petit cases that concern ourselves not at all, and but slightly and transiently our associates ! With what sense of unthriftiness and inefficiency one rouses one’s self from some train of idle reflections on what has been said and done during the day just closing! One snaps one’s fingers impatiently at the gossip of his neighborhood, and cries, " Hence afar, ye profane ! ” but, turning, discovers a bevy of gossips holding unreproved sway in his own brain. It might not be amiss to post this advertisement: Wanted, a strict and incorruptible police force at the doors and in the lobbies of the mind, to keep out the rabble of the Thoughts which we do not need to think. We are none of us private citizens to the full extent of our right and privilege. Yet we approve and admire what we might term the grand bad manners of Genius, when it waves its hand towards the distance, and thus delivers itself: —
That must and shall be sung high and aloof! ”
Well for us if we sometimes imitated what we admire, and so got away where we could hear our muses sing to us in quiet.
Spite of the adage, Misery loves company, it never has been demonstrated that Misery convalesces more rapidly for seeing much company. On the contrary, for many kinds of spiritual indisposition a mere letting alone proves wonderfully remedial. I would not, perhaps, go to such lengths of insistence on this point as does one of my acquaintance, who declares that when it has been his luck to fall among thieves he regards as Good Samaritan him who goes by on the other side, and as Priest and Levite those who cross over and make particular examination of the situation. The unfortunate of the remodeled parable must be understood to be of a most irritably sensitive and retiring disposition, preferring to recover himself alone, as best he may, rather than have the full extent of his losses ascertained, as it would be, of necessity, if he accepted assistance.
Any inclination towards fleeing the social centre is quickly noted and characterized as morbid : but what of that perpetual craving for society manifested by some, and their panic dread of being alone for an interval? Is not this, as well as the opposite, tendency a morbid one? The recluse offends by an implied preference for the society of himself to that of all others, but, at the other extreme, it is an indigent soul, living by uncertain alms, that must always go out of itself to find good company, that has never learned the essential nature and sweet uses of solitude. It has been well said that “a man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.” Solitude is the imagination’s great friend, — not the solitude, simply, of unsecular place and hour, but the worker’s thought must be solitary, withdrawn, one alone : his multiplex self is reduced to its lowest terms; he banishes prospects and pleasures and all the mobile crowd of wishes, inquiries, preferences, and prejudices, and, for the time, are vacant those mansions of his mind in which the images of his dearest friends are lodged. Such withdrawal and renunciation pertain not merely to will or choice, but are a necessity to the worker. De Quincey’s observation, “ No man ever will unfold the capacities of his own intellect who does not at least checker his life with solitude,” is permanently true. Undoubtedly, the most abiding results are those which are worked out in the tranquillity of partial seclusion. The checker of solitude affords this advantage also: it makes the foil against which to set off the rich and varied colors of our connected and social life. An occasional withdrawing from society but strengthens our alliance with it. Stand off, and help your neighbor, might be offered as a precept for experiment. Of two who espouse the cause of humanity at some juncture of humanity’s need, which will render the better service,— he who passionately and unreservedly identifies himself with all the rancors and indignations of the cause, or he who is able frequently to retire to some ground of calm insulation, unreached by rancors and indignations ? It is necessary somewhat to idealize the cause ; and to idealize, one must not always be in medias res.
Finally, for keeping the spirit’s peace, perhaps no better direction can be given than the following (once more citing Antoninus) : “ Whenever thou hast been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed, quickly return to thyself, and do not continue out of tune longer than while the compulsion lasts ; for so thou shalt master the harmony by continually recurring to it.” Happy are they who possess the power of stopping discordant vibrations with the cessation of the cause which produced them. With the most of us, to be out of tune is the commoner phase of our music : we who scarcely know what is harmony, — how shall we with ease recur to it?
— It is surprising what a pleasure we take in an apt similitude. Not only does it enter largely into our enjoyment of poetry, but it gives zest to all bright colloquial talk. The voluble centre of any group of listeners — on the street or in the drawing-room — is sure to be heard spicing his narration with the “like” and “as” of the frequent simile. If I were a novelist (as I do not at all thank Heaven I am not) I would keep lists of good similitudes; not only those of my own invention. — which I should not expect to be prosperous, — but those picked up by the wayside in actual speech. It is not so much that they adorn the expression of thought as that they illuminate it. Or if they adorn, it is as the modern jewelry, set with the electric spark. It used to be supposed that in poetry, for instance, figures of speech were for mere ornamentation. Now we know that in good poetry they are chiefly used for throwing light. So in colloquial speech : the reason we enjoy them seems to be that they hit out the idea like a flash. There is nothing the mind enjoys, after all, like getting an idea, and getting it quick, — which is only giving, in a nutshell, the gist of Herbert Spencer’s admirable essay on Style. A friend was telling me the other day that he had a new cook. He said (he is a small man), “ I am afraid of her. She is as big as a bonded warehouse.” I saw in the paper lately that somebody expressed himself as being “ dry as a covered bridge.” And how can we declare the fineness of anything so well as by saying it is “ fine as a fiddle ” ? The alliteration, no doubt, helps, but it does not count for very much. You could not substitute fish, or feather, or fife, or flamingo, though each is fine after a fashion. Nothing will serve but the “ fiddle,” with its preternatural shine of varnish, its perky angles and curves — pointed like a saucy nose, — with perhaps (but this is venturing into deep psychological water) a suggestion, sub-conscious, of the jaunty fiddler with his airs and graces, dressed as if just out of a bandbox. “ Lively as a flea ” seems good and lively, but an old sea-captain of mine used to say " he flew around like a flea in a hot skillet.” “ Like a bumble-bee in a bass-drum ” describes the activity of a different sort of temperament.
Why would it not make a pleasant occupation for a rainy day (“wet-weather work.” as Ik Marvel would phrase it) to collect what seem to us the most beautiful similitudes of our favorite poets ? If, for instance, we were quoting from Longfellow, perhaps it would be,—
If from Shelley, it might be, —
Were wandering in thick flocks along the mountains,
Shepherded by the slow, unwilling wind.”
If from Matthew Arnold, it might be the close of that beautiful ebb and flow of rhythmical meditation, Dover Beach;
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
If Browning, would it be his Last Words, with their likening of the seen-unseen Beloved to the thither side of the moon ?
I would like the liberty of imparting to the Club an odd thing that has happened to me ; though it may be, for aught I know, a common experience. I began, when a boy, to keep an index rerum. It never got farther than a beautifully arranged table of contents, and a few scattering entries made while the volume had the nutritious fragrance of the bindery still upon it. Among these entries, on a page headed Similitudes, are two similes, in very yellow ink. Now the interesting point is that I have totally forgotten whether they were original or selected. I hope they were my own ; but they sound more as if they might have come from Longfellow’s Hyperion, or from some Conversation of Landor’s. It may be that every schoolboy (except myself) will recognize and locate them, and that some lively contributor will treat me with cold sarcasm, at some future sitting of the Club, for my ignorance. Here they are: —
“ This earthly life is like an album at an inn : we turn over its pages curiously or wearily, and write a scrap of wisdom or of folly, and away.”
“ He who has loved and served an art is like the child that was nursed by Persephone: he is not subject to the woes of other men, for he has lain in the lap and on the bosom of a goddess.”