Life's Little Classifications

ONE of the first things we learn to do is to count,—one, two, three, four,— by which our infant feet mount by steps of our living selves to higher numbers. Then somehow we can compass two steps at a time, — two, four, six, eight, — and we smile up at the pleased assistant; for by twos means hand in hand, arm in arm, couples, an augmented self. Threes, though, are quite otherwise. No child willingly does threes. Enter then the rule of it, and masters. As for sevens and nines, those, as Marjorie Fleming said, are damnable.

Even the adult, whatever his conning and totting ability, still dotes on pairs. His first, last, and in-between philosophy of life consists in dividing the world — mankind, womenkind, things, feelings— into two classes. Stripped of verbiage there is only Me and Not Me in the whole world. Raveling and tying and winding up the thread of this summary style of classification into a play-ball has been of late one of my recreations; and few persons so superior or things so recalcitrant but toss me shreds and patches.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, omniscient but sane, announced that though she had lived a long time and seen a great deal she had met only two sorts of people and they were very much alike, namely men and women. Mrs. Oliphant had her own way of dividing persons, into ‘those I can talk to and those I can’t’; while Laurence Hutton used to say that there were only two sorts of persons in the world, those who remember to say ‘thank you’ and those who do not. ‘Is he a YesSayer or a No-Sayer? ’ asked Nietzsche; with which simple brevity contrast Galsworthy: ‘There are two kinds of men in this world — one who will not rest content till he has become master of all the toys that make a fat existence, never looking to see of what sort they are made; and the other for whom life is tobacco and a crust of bread and liberty to take all to pieces, so that his spirit may feel good within him.’

The world being thus sliced in two, lesser sections of it lend themselves to the same game. ‘ There are two Romes,’ Masefield makes Cato say, ‘one built of brick by hodmen; but the Rome I serve glimmers in the uplifted heart.’ Carlyle resolves all history into the acts of individuals, while Buckle’s idea of history leaves out men and women. Hardy’s argument is that human beings with their brief joy and little ideals might get on very well if the general wave of the world did not overturn them. Meredith’s idea is that our little lives always stagnate into morbidity unless the general wave of the world continually refreshes and recreates us. One man has the heart of Alexander of Macedon and another has the heart of little dog Fido; mine (it is Dostoievsky speaking) is that of little dog Fido. ‘There is no good tyrant,’ Jean Christophe declared, ‘there are tyrants one loves and tyrants one detests.’ Just where does tyranny become lovely? Francis Galton had two sisters, of whom he wrote that one was just and one generous. When they buttered bread for him as a child, the one sister picked out the butter that filled the big holes and the other did not. No less distinct and delightful in their dichotomy were the Shandy brothers, Toby and Walter, one all gentle goodness, the other all wayward intellect.

One of the more elastic classifications of humanity into pairs is by habitual conduct. ‘Our ventilation is other people’s draughts,’ sums it up; but for detail there is written up in a Friends’ School, ‘It is as much a Christian’s duty to avoid taking offence as giving offence’; quite different from the ‘Do others or they will do you,’ felicitously adapted from Holy Writ for the use of the slums. Balzac noted that to give and to receive happiness are the two systems of feminine procedure separated by an abyss; which a more modern French novelist, M. Rolland, expresses thus: ‘The eternal feminine has always exerted an uplifting influence upon the finer type of men; but for the commoner there is another type of feminine, quite as eternal, which draws them down.’ Bishop Creighton observed that some persons ask about another’s character, ‘How much chaff?’ others, ‘Is there any wheat?’ Malebranche distinguished between those who came to see and those who came to say that they had seen. Tolstoï found that in every attachment one loves while the other permits himself to be loved; one kisses, the other offers the cheek.

Then there is the whole class of minds which, as Bagehot says, prefers the literary delineation of objects to the actual eyesight of them. The primrose by the river’s brim a yellow primrose is to him, and it is nothing more because Wordsworth said so. Such a man chuckles over Protagoras’s query, ‘ Shall I answer what appears to me to be short enough, or what appears to you to be short enough?’ whereas in real society he would be short of any repartee. He delights in the neat French paradox, Un saint triste est un triste saint, but in the flesh he would fly both saints, sad or sorry. He admits the apothegm that the man of the library has much to learn from the man of the street, but insists that it is Ulysses of the book who furnishes him with unrivaled contradiction between seeming and being.

The dioscuri are not always one’s self and another; there are also one’s self and one’s other self, and here we are often counter-passant, going opposite ways. The ego in the man of to-day is no more a simple reliable thing than was the ego of Milton’s Abdiel — a double rebel, first against the poetical traditions of his age and then against the doctrine which he had set up against them. L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, the cheerful man and the pensive, are only two sides of the same man. In John Bright were blended the Old Testament and the New, which Trevelyan calls the two indispensable contradictories. Myself out of doors is a very different person from myself shut in by walls. I have active and passive phases of both abilities and inabilities, when the thing I see matters, or the thing I do not see.

Since we are so inconsequent ourselves, why begrudge the privilege to others, or find it incomprehensible that Shelley was one of the best, most unselfish and spiritual men that ever lived, who yet on several occasions behaved as badly as men can? While Simon slept in the garden, Peter still followed Jesus afar off. The best of us is tugging along the worst of us. Or would you say the worst of us is ever masquerading behind the best of us? — such a fine point as the critic brought against The Rise of Silas Lapham, that instead of showing how an intolerably vulgar man can be innately noble, it shows how an innately noble man can be intolerably vulgar.

I amuse myself (and, I hope, my victims) by sometimes daring them to guess the author of certain pairings-off. Who could doubt that ‘From Selfism to Otherism is the supreme transition of history,’was spoken by Henry Drummond ; or that ' The world is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel,’ is the dictum of Horace Walpole; or that ‘Of the two ways of disliking poetry one is to dislike it and the other is to like Pope,’ sprang from Oscar Wilde; or that ‘To be good is noble, to show others how to be good is nobler and no trouble,’bubbled from Mark Twain? ‘Sir’ (the word betrays it), ‘your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves, but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.’ Who liked to quote Burton’s motto, ‘Not honors, but honor’? — You are right: Gordon. And, finally, ‘Orthodoxy is my doxy and heterodoxy is your doxy’? Wrong! Not Doctor Johnson, but Bishop Warburton said that.

How to take other persons’ classifications suggests a sort of by-play of this theme. Not many of us have the ability to edge out as did Mark Twain when asked if a certain woman were cultivated. ‘Cultivated? I do not know whether she is cultivated or uncultivated, but [brightening] she is the sort of woman who keeps a parrot!’ An undergraduate, hard-pressed, often rises to the occasion, as a former Master of Balliol discovered. ‘Mr. Wickens, I never stand at my window, but I see you passing.’— ‘Indeed, Master, I never pass but I see you standing at the window!’ A mulatto who used to wash my hair spoke of moving into a part of town sacred to her compatriots. When asked if she would not lose her former customers, she replied, ‘Yes, miss, but I get heaps o’ work a-ironing out niggers’ hair.’ I had ignored that subdivision of kid-curlers and shoestring wrappers.

Ever since the world began it has been dividing Time into two classes. The evening and the morning made the first day. Early-risers and sleepyheads use the same clock, but with contradictory results. The fifth Duke of Devonshire, who used to leave Brookes’s regularly at a very late hour, in passing by a cobbler’s stall always wished the cobbler good-night — to which the cobbler, just taking down his shutters, always riposted with a good-morning. ‘What time is it?’ asked the querulous Queen Anne of Doctor Arbuthnot. ‘Whatever it may please Your Majesty,’was that courtier’s reply. I like that. My time versus anybody’s else time. Henry James early investigated life’s timepiece and drew up his private schedule. He found, ‘One way of taking life was to go in for everything and everyone, which kept you abundantly employed; and the other was to be quite as occupied with just the sense and image of it and on only a fifth of the actual immersion. Life was taken almost equally both ways; mere brute quality and number being so much less in one case than in the other. I had the intrinsic qualities.’

The poet Hafiz had them. When asked by the philosopher Zenda what he was good for, he replied, ‘Of what good is a flower?’ ‘A flower is good to smell,’ said the philosopher. ‘And I am good to smell it!’

Such vagueness as that, embracing and enhancing material things like the very ether, nevertheless makes straight for its goal. Its practitioner can look at both sides of a thing with the joy of a connoisseur, but not indefinitely; he can always decide the debatable point, and of that point evolve a whole again. Is it not in this balance of the thirst for truth and the delight in illusion; in this consciousness of unity between past and present; in this fitting together of the two parts into which the human experimentalist has so neatly, so humorously, and so fantastically sliced his conception of life; in this synthesis following analysis, that the health of the individual and the public consists?