A Theory of the Unattainable
CHARLES LAMB’S lively denunciation of the folly of early rising has never entirely convinced me. Somehow, I cannot quite believe that the happiest dreamer, even though he appreciate to the full the joy of thoroughly “ digesting his dreams,” ever quite approves of himself for lyingin bed. I think it is the early bird, on the contrary, who, under all his self-importance, looks with something akin to admiration upon a prodigal waster of hours, “chewing the cud of his foregone vision,” while the sluggard, habitually late for breakfast, anathematizes himself as he makes his toilet, and, though he lies abed, might almost be said to love early rising.
I may be wrong about this, but I have brooded many days upon the subject, and by dint of great reflection I have arrived at a theory which, for want of a better title, I call that of Unattainable Virtues (or Vices, as the case may be). Since its adoption, I have been able in some degree to understand the variance of my friends’ habits of life as compared with their confessed preferences, and to explain away a few of the discrepancies between endowment and desire. Put sharply, the hypothesis might be set forth thus: Not only the qualities and attributes, but the actual accomplishments we admire in others, and the ones we are moved occasionally to extol in public, are those which we ourselves are destined never to attain. Reasoning so, I am able to comprehend why the orderly, methodical housewife, whose days are passed apart from the frivolities of books and writers, secretly marvels at, and sighs for, and wonders why she cannot gain, that facile something, which she in her simplicity calls “ being literary.” On the other hand, I no longer exclaim when those who devote themselves to literarypurs uits rise up to murmur jocosely against the hazards and disappointments of their trade, and envy loudly the followers of other crafts, and even the followers of no craft whatever. If it be true that the unacquired vice or virtue hath indeed its singular charm, then the most prolific magazine contributor may sigh in moments of weakness for the ability to refrain from utterance, just as the sluggard envies his brother’s ability to get up early.
Delving among old volumes of the Atlantic, the other day, I chanced upon a Contribution to the Club which bore for its title “ The Ballad of Refrain,” the refrain of the ballad being to the effect that if most of the people who make out to write books would relinquish their desire for self-expression, the world would be a freer and more desirable dwellingplace. The writer’s complaint, like so many similar ones, is quite justifiable. I am sure that the best of us often long to “ slip the leash and escape from the traditional bondage to books.”
Their themes extinct and their passions dead ;
When our shelves are weighted by recent verse
And our tables groan with their books unread ;
When a mob is waiting to snatch the thread,
As it spins away from the whirring brain,
Before the ink from the pen is shed —
Then hey ! for the hero who can refrain !
Nevertheless, if I had not had on hand just then my theory as to the charm of the unattainable, I might have encountered in my own mind the insistent insulting, and yet quite pertinent, inquiry, “ Why did not he refrain ? ” He tells us, this clever poet, what we presumably know already — namely, that there are too many printed words in the world, that we are swamped with unnecessary literature, that his own table is overloaded with unread books, and, doubtless we may add, unread magazines. He makes use for the expression of his resentment, of a coveted corner in a most coveted field. Through the length of two columns, — for which we may assume he received a stated sum of that lamentable gold, and a moiety of that fame, both of which he so deplores as stimulants to literary effort, — he asserts lyrically that there are too many people writing. This author extols some one else’s gift of silence; he would fain keep silent himself, perhaps, — yet how improbable is the inference that he ever will! To refrain from utterance, to keep tightly lidded within his own brain those eager, seething thoughts which bubble up, defiant of repression, voluntarily to hold himself aloof—absurd, incredible sacrifice! He admires, he tells us, the hero who refrains, and so in truth, do I; yet he keeps on writing, and I keep on trying to write, and so shall all the rest of us continue to do, so long as we are able to manipulate the keys of a typewriter. Avaunt, thou unattainable gift of repression!
Stevenson, more than any other writer, grows confidential with his readers over the secrets of his own art. He makes out gayly enough to inform us how little it is worth, and how much better a man were employed learning to carry a pack-saddle, or to be “ happy thinking.” And again, he maintains that an author is not at all a genial person to marry. Yet if we turn the page, we find him describing his own untiring labors to gain “ that proficiency of the writer,” and the many weary years he “ practiced to acquire it.”
Just here, as I flutter familiar, wellloved pages, lingering with ever new delight over passages I already know by heart, a thought comes to me, imbecile enough of itself, yet of such poignant suggestiveness that I seize the book I have been reading and hold it close through a moment of swift apprehension — if Stevenson had refrained!
Ah, no. Permit us to go on making the books of which there is no end. They all serve their small purpose for a day, and then, if they are destined not to endure, they may, like Mr. Keith Rickman’s book of verses, be just the right size to make cigar-lighters for a veteran author. While we may condemn the attitude of our friend Lamb, who remarked quite frankly, “ I cannot think. Books think for me,” still, we have not attained to that age or degree of experience when we can be “ happy thinking.” And so, are we to be harshly judged, if, lured by some ephemeral success, we venture rashly to suppose — how rashly, only authors know — that we may be happy writing?