A Ritual of Infirmities

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

DR. JOHNSON has remarked that the office of a book is to help us either to enjoy life or to endure it. I wonder if he ever thought how much books may be made to help us excuse it. I do not think I could keep my countenance a week if it were not for the fact that I can nearly always turn the edge of my worst faults by recalling some classic instance of a much better man who was afflicted with the same weaknesses.

After many years I am now able to place against each of my infirmities the authority of some great name, the very mention of which produces a lull in the criticism of my own household. If I dare not employ these defenses out in the world, they render me good service at home. I do not know how I should have gotten through these years of late rising without Dr. Arnold. As a matter of fact — let it be confessed — Arnold did not lie abed, but only put on record that he never made any headway against the desire to do so. Of course one cannot make a single example do everything, any more than he can make a parable walk on all fours. In all literary matters selection is what we need, and I too have never made any headway against the desire. It has long been a comfort to me when I have lain in bed to recall that Dr. Arnold felt just as I do.

Of course all misquotation or imperfect reference is sooner or later found out, and the day came when Henrietta announced that Thomas Arnold had spoiled our breakfast quite long enough. She proposed to see for herself what his actual habits were. At length she found not only my favorite passage, but its untimely context, which averred that he did get up, no matter what it cost him. But while not infallible, literary reminiscences are inexhaustible, so that I have found another instance which I trust will last out my time.

For a cigar at bedtime I have found Emerson efficacious whenever I have felt need of a reason for a final smoke. But there was some attractive thing which Milton used to do toward the last of the evening, which I would give anything to remember, for I know that at the time of reading it, it seemed to me a perfect gem of an excuse for days to be; but it has utterly passed from my mind. I wish I knew what it was.

The best authority for late lunches is Coleridge. For me he takes off that feeling of animalism which is apt to assail me, so that by his aid I can stand before the dumb-waiter at midnight, with a consciousness quite transcendental. If I seldom quote this writer as an apology, preferring to bear the brunt of the matter alone, it is because it grieves me to hear him spoken of as “That Coleridge.”

For absent-mindedness, forgetfulness of errands, and carrying letters in my pocket, I for some years employed Charles Lamb’s friend, Mr. George Dyer, the gentleman who walked straight out of the Lambs’ front door, across the road and into the river, and who, after being brought to, said cheerily, “Ah, I soon found out where I was.” But I no longer dare mention the name of George Dyer in the family circle. He is too much. For some years he did very well, simply as a friend of Charles and Mary, but since I let out about that river episode I have never dared mention the name of Dyer again. Though literature has still great power within our walls, the name of dear George Dyer is the signal for a revolt against which my richest reminiscences are powerless.

When I am disagreeable I lay it all to Thoreau. I do not think he would much care, while he might conceivably consider it a compliment, to be taken as authority in one’s more iconoclastic moods. Henrietta says she has read in him hours at a time without finding anything particularly disagreeable, to which I reply that the real heart of such writers is not to be reached without giving one’s days and nights to him. If reminded, as I frequently am in the continued playing of this Game of Authors, that all of these persons did many creditable things in their life which might much better be emulated than the characteristics which I have chosen, I reply that this is quite true, but that such matters hardly come within the province of the excusing function.