The Flavor of Things

‘Life is sweet, brother.’— MR. PETULENGRO.

THERE can be no doubt that for some people mathematics has flavor, even though for me it is as the apples of Sodom. I have known people who seemed to be in love with the triangles. Permutations and combinations and the doctrine of chances filled their souls with elation; they would rather wander over the area of a parallelogram than over the greenest meadow under heaven, collecting angles and sides as another would daisies and buttercups, and chasing the unknown quantity as another might a butterfly.

I envy these people this faculty which I can never hope to acquire. I used to try to work up a factitious enthusiasm for geometry by naming angle A Abraham, B Benjamin, C Cornelius, and so on; side AB then became Abrajamin, side BC Benjanelius, side AC Abranelius,and the perimeter Abrajaminelius,— the last a name of Miltonic sonorousness, mouth-filling, and perfectly pronounceable if one scanned it as catalectic trochaic tetrameter.

Although I never had the courage to introduce them to my teachers, I regarded the Abrajaminelian family with some affection until one day I tried to name the perimeter of a dodecagon, when I came to t he conclusion that it would require less time to learn the proposition by heart than to learn the name; and from that day I gave up all attempt to infuse an adventitious interest into Legendre, and simply memorized him.

I have heard geometry described as a ‘beautiful science,’but —

If she be not fair to me,
What care I how fair she be?

To me she was an obstacle in the path of knowledge, invisible, not hostile, but palpable and stubborn as the Boyg that gave Peer Gynt so much trouble. I tried in vain to squirm and wriggle past her. There is a possibility that I should still be blindly bumping that obstruction halfway up the Mathematical Mountains if my professor of solid geometry had not opportunely departed from college leaving no classrecords behind him. I passed — by an intervention of Providence — and my days of pure mathematics were over; but I felt no undue elation, for applied mathematics remained. If I had impressed my instructors before as half-witted, here I was wholly witless. One cannot apply what one does not possess.

From a child I had had an obscure distrust of mechanism of all kinds. The people of Erewhon, you remember, feared it because they thought it had a soul: I feared it because it seemed to me to have none, until I discovered that its soul was mathematical, a new ground for trepidation. Even yet I cannot feel warmly toward a machine. I can gape with wonder as well as anybody as I watch the white paper fed in at one end of a press in, say, the Herald Building, and the Sunday Illustrated Supplement taken out at the other; but my wonder is only polite, merely intellectual; there is no heart in it. My half hour spent thus has been instructive, it may be, but joyless.

This curious diffidence, amounting to a covert hostility, I felt also in the presence of the celestial mechanics. I had no sense of comfort in the company of the stars and planets. For a while I might be interested in the inhabitants of Mars, but Jupiter’s satellites and Saturn’s rings could arouse no emotional response in me. I irrationally found more to wonder at in a moon of green cheese than in a burned-out world.

Try as I may to overcome the aversions of my youth, I cannot help thinking of the quadratics and binomials of days long gone, whenever I look at a fly-wheel or a piston. Across the glories of the heavens I detect a shadow cast over my spirit when I tried on a college examination to explain parallax. At the time — for a day or two — I was rather proud of that explanation. Desiring, as usual, to get a picture of the thing, I used, I remember, the analogy of an umbrella. If it were raining, I said, and you had an open umbrella and you held it perpendicularly over you and then ran, you would get wetter than if you merely walked. Just what the connection was, I am — and doubtless was — unable to say; but it seemed very neat. I chuckled over it, and felt as if at last I was beginning to get ahead in astronomy. And then, briefly and coldly, the professor pronounced my analogy bosh, and the only glimmer of originality I ever evinced in his subject winked and went out.

If mathematics, pure and applied, had no flavor for me but an unpleasant one, I have no one to blame, I suppose, but myself, although, of course, I did blame my teachers. All through my boyhood I held the entirely unreasonable view that mathematicians were only slightly human, having, in fact, like their subject, no souls. Their subject as they presented it to me had a striking resemblance to the working of a machine, clean, precise, cold; it made me shiver. I felt for it the contempt of youth. Each science in turn I loved, as long as it had to do with things; but the moment mathematics entered, as it always did, soon or late, my love, as milk at the addition of certain bacteria, curdled and turned bitter.

Only the other day I listened to a lect urer on sun-spots expatiating on the enfranchising and ennobling power of his science, teaching as it does the majesty of God and his handiwork. I agreed, of course. Theoretically, I knew he was right; yet, as for myself, I could not help preferring to wonder at the hand of the Almighty in the creation of a dandelion, a sparrow, a flounder.

The best that’s known
Of the heavenly bodies does them credit small.
View’d close the Moon’s fair ball
Is of ill Objects worst,
A corpse in Night’s highway, naked, fire-scarr’d, accurst;
And now they tell
That the Sun is plainly seen to boil and burst
Too horribly for hell.

The poet speaks enthusiastically, as poets will; besides, he was a Catholic and may have been affected by doctrine; I cannot wholly ratify his sentiments, yet I can understand them and sympathize.

Botanist and biologist friends call upon me to admire a paramoecium or a spirogyra; they will grow quite enthusiastic over one, as you or I might over a dog or a baby. I can share their emotions, to a degree; these little creatures, as the same poet observes, ‘at the least do live’; yet I find that I cannot love a paramoecium or a spirogyra, streptococcus and micrococcus arouse no friendly feelings, oscillaria and spirillum can never compete for my affections with a calf or a puppy. I can sympathize imaginatively with the microscopist who watches the contortions of an amœba or a polyp, its tablemanners and general deportment; I can sit much longer at the microscope than at the telescope, and feel more comfortable there (Gulliver seems to have been more at his ease among the Lilliputians than among the Brobdingnagians); yet, once more, the hour spent thus has been instructive rather than joyous.

When I was a little boy, I used to get a great deal of satisfaction out of stroking a kitten or a puppy, or crushing a lilac leaf-bud for its spring fragrance, or smelling newly turned soil, or tasting the sharp acid of a grape tendril, or feeling the green coolness of the skin of a frog. I could pore for long minutes over a lump of pudding-stone, a beanseedling, a chrysalis, a knot in a joist in the attic. There was a curious contentment to be found in these things. My pockets were always full of shells and stones, twigs and bugs; my room in the attic, of Indian relics, fragments of ore, birds’ eggs, oak-galls, dry seeds and sea-weeds, bottled spiders, butterflies on corks. All the lessons of the schoolroom seemed of no consequence compared with Things so full of intimacy, of friendliness.

All children love things in this way, because of their appeal to the senses; and I suppose that all older people do, too, though they may not know it. My teachers used to try to make me see that a bird’s egg or a hornet’s nest is unimportant in comparison with the pageant, of history, the beautiful mechanism of arithmetic; but what, child cares anything about matters of abstract importance? I had a fondness for the hornet’s nest because I could feel of it, poke a stick in at the door, and picture the fiery little termagants flying in and out, chewing their paperpulp, building their walls. What had Washington praying at Valley Forge, or even Lawrence refusing to give up the ship, to contribute comparable with this? Yet few even of my companions understood the ridiculous pleasure I found in carrying a crab’s claw in my pocket, although they, too, after their own fashion, worshiped things. Their things were electric batteries and printing-presses and steam-engines.

My bosom-passion was for living things,— beast, bird, amphibian, reptile, fish, crustacean, insect, mollusc, worm, they were all one, if they were alive; and, wanting these, which could not well be carried in pockets or kept in bedrooms, I loved their reliques. While I was studiously collecting the disjecta membra of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, however, I did not realize that I was also laying up a store of memories that would in time make these seem about the only real things in the world. Here is the point. The common or curious but everyday objects of nature have for me a flavor so rich that they seem charmed, talismanic; they are my philosopher’s stone, my quintessence, my One Thing which can charge the base metal of thought with the gold of feeling.

It is thus, I suppose, that poets and mystics are made, who see in the veriest stick or stone a symbol of one of the infinities. That I cannot do so, that I cannot make this passion the basis of a romanticism or a symbolism or a pantheism, is due, it may be, to my teachers who carefully discouraged any such nonsense. Practical people, they early taught me that ‘life is real, life is earnest.’ In church, too, I was duly informed that we are pilgrims and strangers traveling through a barren land.

Such instructions, running counter as they did to all I learned when left to myself, produced a curious state of anarchy in my microcosm. Belonging by nature to the class of the poetical and by education to the class of the practical, I find myself torn between the desire to loiter and the desire to get on, passively to enjoy and actively to do. A practical conscience is fighting with a poetical unmorality.

I do not seem to be alone in this ambiguity. I see only an occasional person whom I could call completely practical, who treats things as if they were algebraic symbols, loving them only as they help him on in some enterprise or toward some goal. I find, on the contrary, the most hard-headed men and women collecting and cherishing books and prints and rose-bushes and tulips and stamps and coins and Colonial furniture and teapots and cats and dogs. Whether openly or secretly, brazenly or sheepishly, they are, nine tenths of them, addicted to the boy’s habit of filling his pockets with inconsiderable nothings which he can finger and fondle. Nearly all of them defend their hobby on practical grounds, as educative, or restful, or cultural, or what not, yet one and all are really following an instinct. If you could get them to be honest, they would confess that from these useless objects they derive a satisfaction that they cannot explain but that has its seat, not in any motives of practicality, not even, as many think, wholly in a sense of possession, but in the things themselves as things. The things are rich in implications, adumbrations, of course, fully felt perhaps only by the possessor, yet, notwithstanding the accretions of memory and fancy, still things, appealing now, as in childhood, to the senses with warmth and friendliness, as only objects of sense can. They are charmed things. ‘Every one of them is like the first link in a long chain of associated ideas. Like the dwelling place of infancy revisited in manhood, like the song of our country heard in a strange land, they produce upon us an effect wholly independent of their intrinsic value.’

Macaulay here is speaking of the connotation of words, that which gives most of its flavor to literature. It seems to me, however, that words, wonderful as they are in their power to set the mind running, still lag far behind things. They are at their best only secondhand. The phrase ‘an old rusty spade,’ suggests little except an antiquated implement for digging; but as a thing, an old spade may call up thoughts of death and the grave, snow forts, green gardens, buried treasure, — all the digging and ditching since Adam delved and Eve span.

I cannot think that it is entirely mundane to make such a to-do about that which we are accustomed to call the material. Although it is becoming old-fashioned to confess to a liking for domesticity, there are still few honest people who do not become attached to a home if they five in it long enough. It may be filled with surprisingly ugly furniture, and pictures such as may jar upon the finer sensibilities of the visitor, yet the ugliest becomes lovely with time.

Next to the fellowship of the family, it is the furniture that makes the home, and old furniture is best. We become fond of a chair or a table or a bed almost as we do of a person, because, as we say, of its associations. Now, I look upon things as the furniture of the world, furniture that was there when we came into it and will be there when we go out,— veritable antiques with all the charm of age about them. Try to picture a world empty of things material and furnished only with mathematical formulæ and with social theories, theological speculations, and philosophic systems. Try to imagine — But no. These matters ‘must be not thought after these ways; so, it will make us mad.’

Our forefathers had an interesting theory that swallows lived on air. Because the birds were observed to fly with their mouths open and never to come to ground, it was concluded that they must be classed with the knights of the Round Table and the chameleons as aerophagi. There are many aerophagi abroad in the land to-day, high-flying folk who live on airy isms and ologies, and who are scornful of those who long for less windy food. Why one man loves things and another theories, or why one loves things for their connotations and another for their use, or why one loves some kinds of things above all others, remains as inexplicable as why one cannot abide a gaping pig, why one a harmless necessary cat. It is all taste and temperament.

Yet there are times when I grow tired of socialism and industrialism and syndicalism and Nietzscheism and Bergsonism and feminism; times when I do not want to be a reformer or an uplifter or even a public-spirited citizen; when ‘ I do not hunger for a well-stored mind ’ and am tired of books, and of talking about them and urging others to read them. With much bandyingabout these become unreal; one is filled with doubt about them, about their very existence, at least about their importance. It is in such moods that one longs for the kitten or puppy, the lilac leaf-buds, the bean seedling, the chrysalis, the frog.