THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
“ MY mind to me a kingdom is,” wrote Sir Edward Dyer something like three hundred years ago ; and in a tiresome strain of self-laudation he continues, —
Yet still my mind forbids to crave.”
To condense the substance of several stanzas into plain prose, this remarkable mind, he claims, was indifferent to wealth, power, love, or hate, had no desires to satisfy, nothing to fear, no cares to trouble ; and he concludes, —
Would all do so as well as I! ”
To me it has always seemed that in the matter of that poem Sir Edward was either an impostor or the victim of gross self-delusion. If he had taken the trouble to keep a careful eye upon the goings-on of his mind for even one day, he doubtless would have discovered that his kingdom was in no such ideal state of subjection as he proudly asserted.
In fact, I much misdoubt any human being’s having a perfectly disciplined, docile mind which never runs away, unexpectedly shies, or balks at inconvenient seasons. When I encounter a person who is always outwardly serene and selfcontrolled, I find myself wondering what sort of scenes he has with himself in private. That there are some lively ones I am confident.
Of course there are minds and minds, all differing in their amenability to control and in their various ways of evading and rebelling against the will and judgment of their owners. I may be biased in my impression of their general unreliability by the peculiarly untractable character of my own, which I have found endowed with all of the undesirable tendencies mentioned by Professor James, as well as possessed of several original shortcomings as yet uncatalogued by psychologists.
Often after a day spent in heading off and checking one train of thought after another, only to have each in its turn supplanted by something equally objectionable, I have found myself exhausted by the conflict with these rebellious mental processes, and in a mood of unqualified disgust and discontent with myself. At such times I have occasionally taken an imaginary revenge on the refractory mind, which has given so much trouble, by telling it how cheaply I would dispose of it, if minds were only marketable commodities. On the supposition that they could be bartered, I have imagined myself inserting in the column for subscribers’ wants in some reputable journal an announcement something like the following: “ For sale or exchange. A mind in a good state of preservation, never having been subjected to hard use, tolerably quick, and fairly good in disposition. The owner’s reason for parting with it is that it never has been well broken, is somewhat willful, and too fond of play. Any one able to train it would find it desirable for light, varied use. The present proprietor is in need of a thoroughly trained, steady-going mind of a more substantial character.”
But, on the whole, if one could be at will the possessor of a plodding, drafthorse sort of mind, would there not be some disadvantages connected with such an article ? It seems as if there might be a dreary monotony about the operations of a mind which always worked in a rut, and whose methods and proceedings could be predicted with tolerable certainty. The erratic kind is more than a little trying at times, when it neglects the tasks assigned it, and disports itself on forbidden ground; but it must be confessed that the unexpectedness of its performances sometimes makes it more entertaining than if it were better regulated.
When one is thrown upon one’s own resources for diversion, it is not altogether a bad thing to have a mind liable at times to do idiotic or preposterous things. It becomes rather amusing, if not carried too far. I suspect that many people have discovered a closer mental kinship between themselves and Mr. Barrie’s Thomas Sandys than they would care to acknowledge. It was with genuine delight that I read of the sprained ankle which Tommie was obliged to have as an excuse for being discovered in tears. I have been caught so many times in a similar predicament that it is a pleasure to believe that Mr. Barrie may possibly himself have experienced the shame and confusion into which one is plunged under such circumstances.
When a small child I was one day found crying comfortably by myself. The family was greatly concerned to know the cause of a trouble which sought retirement instead of demanding sympathy and consolation. Upon hearing that I was just thinking how I should feel if a bear came up and bit my hand, there was a chorus of laughter, and I was left to the enjoyment of my grief. Since then I have been surprised more than once in either tears or laughter due to an imaginary cause, and have been forced to conjure a more or less plausible explanation ; but never since that first time have I owned the truth that I was merely making believe.
When as a child I was taken to church I used to beguile the time during the prayer and sermon by counting the panes of glass in the long windows which ran nearly to the ceiling. There were three sashes to a window, and each sash, I think, had four rows of five panes. I counted those panes in every possible way, — up and down, sideways, diagonally, and zigzag. If the results did not tally, I knew there was a mistake somewhere and began again. At a later period I formed the habit of amusing myself during the sermon by repeating poetry. Now, if my mind shows a disposition to wander from the clergyman’s discourse, I sit with my eyes fastened respectfully upon him and perhaps make up a sermon of my own. Two or three of these have proved of more interest than the others, so I go back to them in preference to inventing new ones. Sunday after Sunday I have delivered one or the other of those sermons to large and attentive audiences. On such occasions I speak without notes. My delivery is exceedingly simple and quiet, with no effort at display, but the audience is invariably impressed by the deep feeling and moral earnestness with which the address is pervaded.
I am more fond, however, of singing in opera than of being a popular preacher. My voice is a soprano of remarkable purity and richness, equally good in its high and low tones. My favorite part is that of Brunhild, which I render with a dramatic intensity never yet equaled. The cry of the Valkyrs, as I give it, has a superhuman quality which sends chills creeping up and down the spine of the most stolid listener. Not infrequently I appear in the ballet of an opera. Quite often I am an actress. It being hard for me to decide on my favorite character, I generally play on benefit nights, when I give the best scenes from several of my most famous parts.
However, I am by no means always a celebrity. Frequently I am content to be a very commonplace person, my only remarkable points being an extremely magnetic personality combined with an ever ready sympathy and a charm none the less real because indefinable, which bring me the love and esteem of all who know me.
Of course this is supremely idiotic, and no one would confess to being so foolish if he were not tolerably sure that most of his fellow creatures know in their own hearts they are no more sensible. They may not acknowledge it. That is a different matter.
I wonder how many people realize the comfort there is in having a real brisk quarrel mentally with your friends when they prove exasperating. If it could only be rightly managed, a not too frequent vigorous scene would be a help in most of the intimate relations of life. It would serve at least to break out of the rut of commonplace into which any constant companionship is liable to sink. All the accumulating annoyances and vexations from small daily frictions could thus be swept away in one half hour and the weather cleared for some time to come. The difficulty is that it is an exceedingly delicate piece of business to conduct such a settlement in the right way. One side or the other is pretty sure to overdo the matter. In sultry weather a hard shower with some sharp thunder and lightning is refreshing, but you don’t want a water spout or a six weeks’ pour.
It is a more prudent procedure, therefore, unless reasonably confident of the discretion of the other party, to conduct such a readjustment entirely by one’s self. In that way, while endeavoring in the presence of a friend to preserve an outward demeanor aptly described by Scott’s Pet Marjorie in the lines quoted by Mr. Lang with such relish, —
She did not give a single dam, ” —
I have been freely applying to the unconscious object of my wrath the entire alphabet of abusive terms at my command, ranging from anaconda, beast and crocodile, to zebra. After further going on to declare mentally to the person before me that I despise, detest, loathe, and hate him or her, as the case may be, the atmosphere will be decidedly fresher and a pleasant friendly feeling restored.
What satisfactory substitute can married people find for the amusement of considering the qualifications of members of the opposite sex for husbands or wives ? One ought doubtless to have conscientious scruples against indulging in this diversion after marriage, and what a source of entertainment must be lost ! A woman can find endless mental occupation in contemplating the various men of her acquaintance, and deciding with regard to each whether he would be companionable, or glum, uncommunicative and frigid, at home; whether he would make himself a dictator in regard to family affairs, so that his wife would feel under constant restraint. Could she go to the city for a day just because she was in the mood for it, without his wanting to know the reason, and thinking she had better take another day and another train than she had planned ? Worse yet, would he insist upon going with her and regulating the whole day’s programme according to his own ideas ?
What turn do a man’s speculations take with respect to the women he knows ? Probably he wonders whether such a woman is given to nagging, fretting, or worrying ; whether she would be serene and adequate to the situation when the cook leaves without warning; whether she would inflict all the particulars of domestic annoyances upon her husband every day, and — and — Well, men know best what they think.
But one of the greatest annoyances liable to be experienced from minds arises from having one that is a misfit. There is a disagreeable incongruity about an old head on young shoulders. We all know people who were old in character and tastes from the time they were born ; and very tedious they usually are, too. But the contrary of this is still worse. It is positively mortifying to have a mind which totally ignores birthdays, and finds its delight in pastimes it should have outgrown. It is decorous to retain an interest in the enjoyments of youth, but it is highly undignified to have a fondness for them yourself after the season for them is past. My mind has shown most alarming symptoms in this direction. Already it is a good ten years behind its age. What a prospect if it should continue to lag ! Imagine getting into the sixties and being disgraced in the eyes of all who know you by a mind that still lingered in the thirties! Does any one know of a remedy for such a case ?