Over the Teacups
THE readers of this magazine may recollect a series of conversations held many years ago over the breakfast-table, and reported for their more or less profitable entertainment. Those were not very early breakfasts at which the talks took place, but at any rate the sun was rising, and the guests had not as yet tired themselves with the labors of the day. The morning cup of coffee has an exhilaration about it which the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce. The toils of the morning, the heats of midday, the slanting light of the descending sun, or the sobered translucency of twilight have subdued the vivacity of the early day. Yet under the influence of the benign stimulant many trains of thought may suggest themselves to some of the quiet circle which will bear recalling, if it is done with modest expectations, for that class of readers who love to resign themselves for a while to the guidance of a reporter who, in pleasing himself, hopes sometimes to be able to please them.
How early many of my old breakfast companions went off to bed! I am thinking not merely of those who sat round our table, but of that larger company of friends who listened to our conversations as reported. Dear girl with the silken ringlets, dear boy with the down-shadowed cheek, your grandfather, your grandmother, turned over the freshly printed leaves that told the story of those earlier meetings around the plain board where so many things were said and sung, not all of which have quite faded from the memory of this overburdened and forgetful time. Your father, your mother, found the scattered leaves gathered in a volume, and smiled upon them as not uncompanionable acquaintance. My tea-table makes no promises.
There is no company provided to sit around it. There is no programme of exercises to be studied beforehand. What if I should content myself with a single report of what was said and done over our teacups ? Perhaps my young reader would be glad to let me off, for there are talkers enough who have not yet left their breakfast-tables ; and nobody can blame the young people for preferring the thoughts and the language of their own generation, with all its future before it, to those of their grandfathers’ contemporaries.
My reader, young or old, will please to observe that I have left myself entire freedom as to the sources of what may be said over the teacups. Friends may drop in, and will be very likely to. I have not said how many cups are commonly on the board, but by using the plural I have implied that there is at least one other talker or listener beside myself, and for all that appears there may be a dozen. There will be no regulation length to my reports, — no attempt to make out a certain number of pages. I have no contract to fill so many columns, no pledge to contribute so many numbers. I can stop on this first page if I do not care to say anything more, and let this article stand by itself if so minded. What a sense of freedom it gives not to write by the yard or the column !
When one writes for an English review or magazine at so many guineas a sheet, the temptation is very great to make one’s contribution cover as many sheets as possible. We all know the metallic taste of articles written under this powerful stimulus. If Bacon’s Essays had been furnished by a modern hand to the Quarterly Review at fifty guineas a sheet, what a great book it would have taken to hold them !
The first thing which suggests itself to me, as I contemplate my slight project, is the liability of repeating in the evening what I may have said in the morning in one form or another, and printed in these or other pages. When it suddenly flashes into the consciousness of a writer who has been long before the public, “Why, I have said all that once or oftener in my books or essays, and here it is again, the same old thought, the same old image, the same old story !" it irritates him, and is likely to stir up the monosyllables of his unsanctified vocabulary. He sees in imagination a thousand readers, smiling or yawning as they say to themselves, “ We have had all that before,” and turn to another writer’s performance for something not quite so stale and superfluous. This is what the writer says to himself about the reader.
The idiot! Does the simpleton really think everybody has read all he has written ? Does he really believe that everybody remembers all of his, the writer’s, words he may happen to have read ? At one of those famous dinners of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, where no reporter was ever admitted, and from which nothing ever leaks out about what is said and done, Mr. Edward Everett, in his after-dinner speech, quoted these lines from the Æneid, giving a very liberal English version of them, which he applied to the Oration just delivered by Mr. Emerson : —
Addiderant, rutili tres ignis, et alitis Austri.
His nephew, the ingenious, inventive, and inexhaustible Dr. Edward Everett Hale, tells the story of this quotation, and of the various uses to which it might be applied in after-dinner speeches. How often he ventured to repeat it at the Phi Beta Kappa dinners I am not sure; but as he reproduced it with his lively embellishments and fresh versions and artful circumlocutions, not one person in ten remembered that he had listened to those same words in those same accents only a twelvemonth ago. The poor deluded creatures who take it for granted that all the world remembers what they have said, and laugh at them when they say it over again, may profit by this recollection. What if one does say the same things, of course in a little different form each time, over and over ? If he has anything worth saying, that is just what he ought to do. Whether he ought to or not, it is very certain that this is what all who write much or speak much necessarily must and will do. Think of the clergyman who preaches fifty or a hundred or more sermons every year for fifty years ! Think of the stump speaker who shouts before a hundred audiences during the same political. campaign, always using the same arguments, illustrations, and catchwords! Think of the editor, as Carlyle has pictured him, threshing the same straw every morning, until we know what is coming when we see the first line, as we do when we read the large capitals at the head of a thrilling story, which ends in an advertisement of an all-cleansing soap or an all-curing remedy !
The latch-key which opens into the chambers of my consciousness fits, as I have sufficient reason to believe, the private apartments of a good many other people’s thoughts. The longer we live, the more we find we are like other persons. When I meet with any facts in my own mental experience, I feel almost sure that I shall find them repeated or anticipated in the writings or the conversation of others. This feeling gives one a freedom in telling his own personal history he could not have enjoyed without it. My story belongs to you as much as to me. De te fabula narratur. Change the personal pronoun, — that is all. It gives many readers a singular pleasure to find a writer telling them something they have long known or felt, but which they have never before found any one to put in words for them. An author does not always know when he is doing the service of the angel who stirred the waters of the pool of Bethesda. Many a reader is delighted to find his solitary thought has a companion, and is grateful to the benefactor who has strengthened him. This is the advantage of the humble reader over the ambitious and self-worshipping writer. It is not with him pereant illi, but beati sunt illi qui pro nobis nostra dixerunt, — Blessed are those who have said our good things for us.
What I have been saying of repetitions leads me into a train of reflections like which I think many readers will find something in their own mental history. The area of consciousness is covered by layers of habitual thoughts, as a sea-beach is covered with wave-worn, rounded pebbles, smoothed and polished by long attrition against each other. These thoughts remain very much the same from day to day, even from week to week; and as we grow older, from month to month, and from year to year. The tides of wakening consciousness roll in upon them daily as we unclose our eyelids, and keep up the gentle movement and murmur of ordinary mental respiration until we close them again in slumber. When we think we are thinking, we are for the most part only listening to the sound of attrition between these inert elements of our intelligence. They shift their place a little, they change their relations to each other, they roll over and turn up a new surface. Now and then a new fragment is cast in among them, to be worn and rounded and take its place with the others, but the pebbled floor of consciousness is almost as stationary as the pavement of a city thoroughfare.
It so happens that at this particular time I have something to tell which I am quite sure is not one of the rolled pebbles which my reader has seen before in any of my pages, or, as I feel confident, in those of any other writer.
If my reader asks why I do not send the statement I am going to make to some one of the special periodicals that deal with such subjects, my answer is, that I like to tell my own stories at my own time, in my own chosen columns, where they will be read by a class of readers I like to talk with.
All men of letters or of science, all writers well known to the public, are constantly tampered with, in these days, by a class of predaceous and hungry fellow-laborers who may be collectively spoken of as the brain-tappers. They want an author’s ideas on the subjects which interest them, the inquirers, from the gravest religious and moral questions to the most trivial matters of his habits and his whims and fancies. Some of their questions he cannot answer ; some he does not choose to answer; some he is not yet ready to answer, and when he is ready he prefers to select his own organ of publication. I do not find fault with all the brain-tappers. Some of them are doing excellent service by accumulating facts which could not otherwise be attained. But one gets tired of the strings of questions sent him, to which he is expected to return an answer, plucked, ripe or unripe, from his private tree of knowledge. The brain-tappers are like the owner of the goose that laid the golden eggs. They would have the embryos and germs of one’s thoughts out of the mental oviducts, and cannot wait for their spontaneous evolution and extrusion.
The story I have promised is, on the whole, the most remarkable of a series which I may have told in part at some previous date, but which, if I have not told, may perhaps be worth recalling at a future time.
Some few of my readers may remember that in the January number of this magazine I suggested the possibility of the existence of an idiotic area in the human mind, corresponding to the blind spot in the human retina. I trust that I shall not be thought to have let my wits go wandering in that region of my own intellectual domain, when I relate a singular coincidence which very lately occurred in my experience, and add a few remarks made by one of our company on the delicate and difficult but fascinating subject which it forces upon our attention. I will first copy the memorandum made at the time : —
“ Remarkable coincidence. On Monday, April 18th, being at table from 6.30 p. M. to 7.30, with-and-[the two ladies of my household], I told them of the case of ‘ trial by battel ’ offered by Abraham Thornton in 1817. I mentioned his throwing down his glove, which was not taken up by the brother of his victim, and so he had to be let off, for the old law was still in force. I mentioned that Abraham Thornton was said to have come to this country, ‘ and [I added] he may be living near us, for aught that I know.’ I rose from the table, and found an English letter waiting for me, left while I sat at dinner. I copy the first portion of this letter : —
‘20 ALFRED PLACE, West (near Museum), South Kensington, LONDON, S. W. April 7,1887.
DR. O. W. HOLMES :
DEAR SIR, — In travelling, the other day, I met with a reprint of the very interesting case of Thornton for murder, 1817. The prisoner pleaded successfully the old Wager of Battel. I thought you would like to read the account, and send it with this. . . .
Yours faithfully, FRED. RATHBONE.’ ”
Mr. Rathbone is a well-known dealer in old Wedgwood and eighteenth-century art. As a friend of my hospitable entertainer, Mr. Willett, he had shown me many attentions in England, but I was not expecting any communication from him; and when, fresh from my conversation, I found this letter just arrived by mail, and left while I was at table, and on breaking the seal read what I had a few moments before been telling, I was greatly surprised, and immediately made a note of the occurrence, as given above.
I had long been familiar with all the details of this celebrated case, but had not referred to it, so far as I can remember, for months or years. I know of no train of thought which led me to speak of it on that particular day. I had never alluded to it before in that company, nor had I ever spoken of it with Mr. Rathbone.
I told this story over our teacups. There were several of us at the table that day, among them a young English lady. She seemed to be amused by the story. “ Fancy ! ” she said, — “ how veryvery odd ! ” “ It was a striking and curious coincidence,” said the professor who was with us at the table. “ As remarkable as two teaspoons in one saucer,” was the comment of the college youth who happened to be one of the company. But a friend of mine, a lecturer on all sorts of subjects, and a writer in half a dozen periodicals, began stirring his tea in a nervous sort of way, and I knew that he was getting ready to say something about the case. An ingenious man he is, with a brain like a tinder-box, its contents catching at any spark that is flying about. He has been, at one time or another, a phrenologist, an animal magnetizer, a homoeopathist, hydropathist, spiritualist, faith-healer, BaconShakespeare man, Keeley-motorist, and is now busy with Buddhism. As a lecturer, he has acquired the habit of discoursing at length with great fluency on any subject which interests him, almost as if he had notes before him. I always like to hear what he says when his tinder brain has a spark fall into it. It does not follow that because he is often wrong he may not sometimes be right, for he is no fool except about his health ; and as there is nothing the matter with him, he can safely amuse himself with swallowing little pellets and sniffing at corks as much as he likes. He treated my narrative very seriously.
The reader need not be startled at the new terms he introduces. Indeed, I am not quite sure that some thinking people will not adopt his view of the matter, which seems to have a degree of plausibility as he states and illustrates it.
“ The impulse which led you to tell that story passed directly from the letter, which came charged from the cells of the cerebral battery of your correspondent. The distance at which the action took place [the letter was left on a shelf twenty-four feet from the place where I was sitting] shows this charge to have been of notable intensity.
“ Brain action through space without material symbolism, such as speech, expression, etc., is analogous to electrical induction. Charge the prime conductor of an electrical machine, and a gold-leaf electrometer, far off from it, will at once be disturbed. Electricity, as we all know, can be stored and transported as if it were a measurable fluid.
“Your incident is a typical example of cerebral induction from a source containing stored cerebricity. I use this word, not to be found in my dictionaries, as expressing the brain-cell power corresponding to electricity. Think how long it was before we had attained any real conception of the laws that govern the wonderful agent, which now works in harness with the other trained and subdued forces ! It is natural that cerebricity should be the last of the unweighable agencies to be understood. The human eye had seen heaven and earth and all that in them is before it saw itself as our instruments enable us to see it. This fact of yours, which seems so strange to you, belongs to a great series of similar facts familiarly known now to many persons, and before long to be recognized as generally as the facts of the electric telegraph and the slaving 'dynamo.’
“ What! you cannot conceive of a charge of cerebricity fastening itself on a letter-sheet and clinging to it for weeks, while it was shuffling about in mail-bags, rolling over the ocean, and shaken up in railroad cars ? And yet the odor of a grain of musk will hang round a note or a dress for a lifetime. Do you not remember what Professor Silliman says, in that pleasant journal of his, about the little ebony cabinet which Mary, Queen of Scots, brought with her from France, — how ‘ its drawers still exhale the sweetest perfumes ’ ? If they could hold their sweetness for more than three hundred years, why should not a written page retain for a week or a month the equally mysterious effluence poured over it from the thinking marrow, and diffuse its vibrations to another excitable nervous centre ? ”
I have said that although my imaginative friend is given to wild speculations, he is not always necessarily wrong. We know too little about the laws of brain-force to be dogmatic with reference to it. I am, myself, therefore, fully in sympathy with the psychological investigators. When it comes to the various pretended sciences by which men and women make large profits, attempts at investigation are very apt to be used as lucrative advertisements for the charlatans. But a series of investigations of the significance of certain popular beliefs and superstitions, a careful study of the relations of certain facts to each other, — whether that of cause and effect, or merely of coincidence, —is a task not unworthy of sober-minded and well-trained students of nature. Such a series of investigations has been recently instituted, and was reported at a late meeting held in the rooms of the Boston Natural History Society. The results were mostly negative, and in one sense a disappointment. A single case, related by Professor Royce, attracted a good deal of attention. It was reported in the next morning’s newspapers, and will be given at full length, doubtless, in the next number of the Psychological Journal. The leading facts were, briefly, these : A lady in Hamburg, Germany, wrote, on the 22d of June last, that she had what she supposed to be nightmare on the night of the 17th, five days before. “ It seemed,” she wrote, “ to belong to you ; to be a horrid pain in your head, as if it were being forcibly jammed into an iron casque, or some such pleasant instrument of torture.” It proved that on that same 17th of June her sister was undergoing a painful operation at the hands of a dentist. “ No single case,” adds Professor Royce, “ proves, or even makes probable, the existence of telepathic toothaches ; but if there are any more cases of this sort, we want to hear of them, and that all the more because no folk-lore and no supernatural horrors have as yet mingled with the natural and well-known impressions that people associate with the dentist’s chair.”
The case I have given is, I am confident, absolutely free from every source of error. I do not remember that Mr. Rathbone had communicated with me since he sent me a plentiful supply of mistletoe a year ago last Christmas. The account I received from him was cut out of " The Sporting Times ” of March 5, 1887. My own knowledge of the case came from “Kirby’s Wonderful Museum,” a work presented to me at least thirty years ago. I had not looked at the account, spoken of it, nor thought of it for a long time, when it came to me by a kind of spontaneous generation, as it seemed, having no connection with any previous train of thought that I was aware of. I consider the evidence of entire independence, apart from possible “ telepathic ” causation, completely water-proof, air-tight, incombustible, and unassailable.
I have had a whole chapter of curious coincidences, some of which, strange as they were, it was impossible to believe were in any causal relation. The Grenville-Tudor case was the most picturesque among them ; the Mary Salter case the most unlikely to happen. But I am afraid I have told them already, somewhere or other, and I will say nothing about them at this time.
I could not keep my own personality out of this paper. But after all, how little difference it makes whether or not a writer appears with a mask on which everybody can take off, — whether he bolts his door or not, when everybody can look in at his windows, and all his entrances are at the mercy of the critic’s skeleton key and the jimmy of any ill-disposed assailant!
Oliver Wendell Holmes.