Hobby Fodder

Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys for thee?

NOT since the seventeenth century has it been safe to be unscientifically scientific. In that somewhat peculiar century, and in most of the centuries preceding it, a man could enjoy himself writing a treatise on whether barnacle geese hatch out of barnacles, or whether a horse-hair soaked in water will turn into a snake, or whether pigeons have any livers, spinning it all out of his own head and other people’s books. This was great fun, and not so much a waste of time as people in our somewhat foolish century think.

For, while Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Aubrey’s Miscellanies and Browne’s Vulgar Errors may be very poor science, they are excellent Burton, Aubrey, and Browne, rich and racy. Unhampered by our newfangled notions of thoroughness, accuracy, and research, these rare old boys knew how to keep science in its place. When they set out to be scientific, they had no intention of cramping their limbs within a Scientific Method. They required elbow-room. They had faith in their own invention. For them science was something they spun out of their own substance, as a silkworm its cocoon; and, when they ran out of silk, they borrowed.

A modern scientist could not get as much diversion out of the psychology of laughter as Burton got out of the anatomy of melancholy. The modern scientist is met at every turn by scientific considerations; he walks warily, like a man who is frightened by his own shadow, and must be always wondering whether his theories are sound, his method legitimate, his facts accurately observed. Worst of all, he is compelled incessantly to assume the unnatural pose of impersonality. His deplorable condition of mind is due to his fear that the other scientists will catch him. He is morally intimidated.

And his trepidation he has communicated to the rest of us, so that a man who is unaffectedly, unscientifically scientific has become as rare as a white blackbird. We are all cowed by the accurate and efficient person. We are cabined and cribbed within a wall of statistics. Much as we might like to argue that a jellyfish is a vegetable, or an armadillo a crustacean, we do not dare, for fear of bringing down upon us an application of the Scientific Method.

Of all the kill-joys that, ever stalked the earth, in short, this scientific method is the worst. If you once come to believe in it, your pleasure in science is gone. Your every delicate sprout of fancy, every fine web of speculation is in danger. You no sooner think up some amusingly ingenious way of accounting for something about which you know nothing, than along comes this blind fury with its abhorred shears to puncture your bubble.

Living under such a terrorism, is it any wonder if the scientific mind, at least as it records itself in books, strikes one as monotonous? What else could it be, submitting as it does to so many arbitrary restrictions? It runs under a handicap so heavy that often enough it cannot get started at all. I tried once, for example, to discuss with a zoölogist the subject of angels. We did not go very far, because he did not believe in angels. ‘But there are no angels,’ said he; as if that made any difference. Such poverty of resource fares badly in comparison with the affluence of a seventeenth-century unscientific scientist, who would have talked all night on such edifying matter as whether angels are all males; whether they wear clothes, and how to account for Michael’s armor and Ithuriel’s spear; whether the anatomy of Israfel, whose heart-strings were a lute, bears any analogy to an æolian harp; whether the blood of angels is a transparent ichor; and whether the substance of angels is phenomenon or noumenon. With any sort of encouragement, he would have made a hobby of angels, and twenty years later would have published a Celestial Fauna of seven hundred pages, bristling with references and annotations. But his hobby-horse would never have run so far in curb-bit, martingale, and hobbles.

I may as well admit that I harbor a special grudge against the scientific method, because I blame it for the disappearance of t he hobby — that gentle and engaging little animal, which our forefathers loved so well to mount, praying meanwhile, ‘The gods give my hobby wings!’ Now, a hobby loves succulent fodder. On a diet of mere fact it incontinently dries up; and our attics are full of desiccated hobbies, hanging there like geraniums in a cellar over winter, waiting for a new unscientific springtime. Doubtless, here and there, in bypaths and backwaters, one may still discover a solitary pursuing the quaint equestrianism known as hobby-riding; just as, now and then, in some secluded nook of a public park, one may come upon a knot of graybeards absorbedly playing at bowls or skittles; but for the most part the demure little hobby is all but extinct. Its peculiar pace (not unlike that of a rocking-chair), in which there is more motion than progress, is perhaps too tame for an age given over to exhilarating pursuits. Feeling the need of crochet or infatuation, we are likely to go in for reform, in which the action of one’s steed is violent and the illusion of progress is perfect. It may be, too, that the solitariness of hobby-riding — for, like the knight-errant, the hobbyist usually rides alone — precludes its being a popular pastime in an age addicted to fad-riding in all its forms.

Unlike the hobby, the fad is a gregarious animal, running in packs. Its intelligence is that known as mob-mind. Growing girls love it best; and yet it is not scorned as horseflesh by the most staid. Even such solemn people as educators are great fad-riders, and the fad, grown portly and cautious, is by no means unknown in the august halls of the university itself. Here he is called by st range names. When I was in the English graduate school, everybody there was riding Elizabethan Drama; five years later, Arthurian Cycle; and in another half-decade, EighteenthCentury or French Fabliaux; and I have no doubt that in the other schools a similar series of genteel stampedes might have been observed.

We older people laugh at the fads of girls, forgetting that to the eye of the philosopher our own mounts may be as funny. A growing girl riding a fad is merely, like the rest of us, letting imitat ion perform most of the offices of thinking: She knows by a happy instinct that, since thinking is the prime destroyer of beauty, girls ought never to think. When we are puzzled to understand why she goes about, for example, with her overshoes unfastened, so that she looks at a distance like a Cochin China bantam, a second thought will convince us that there is nothing to understand. Her mind is as comfortably clear of ideas on this subject as on most others. She does so because it is the thing; and any tendency in her to philosophize about it would be a prognostic of homeliness.

A fad or fashion, nevertheless, is tyranny, even though the prisoner loves his chains — the tyranny of the Many; but a hobby is the freedom of the One, unattached, irresponsible, autonomous. The best of all hobbies is therefore a thesis that is preposterous to everybody but the rider, such as that the Garden of Eden occupied the site of Evanston, Illinois, or that the Phœnicians sailed up the Charles River, or that the obelisk in Central Park is a relic of Rosicrucianism, or that Mark Twain wrote Poe’s poems. To prepare a volume or two on such a subject, with plates in photo-facsimile, and, above all, based on a cipher or cryptogram — that is the hobby of hobbies; that is the finest efflorescence of unscient ific science.

Thus to array ourselves against the world, so that we can say, with Coriolanus, ‘I banish you!’ is, however, almost impossible in our day. The best we can do is to dedicate ourselves to research. In academic circles, a hobby is called a ‘ research,’ somewhat as if a Bedouin should call his donkey a camel; but it is a hobby running in harness, and less notable for mettle than for endurance. A friend once told me of a scientific colleague who was writing a thesis in physics or psychology, I forget which, hoping eventually to be awarded as a prize for his toil the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. This friend of my friend went into his backyard and tied a length of clothes-line from the top of the fence on one side to the top of the fence on the other. Then, with scrupulous care, he found, by means of plumb-line and steel tapemeasure, the exact middle of the yard under the rope, and, with tape-measure and surveying instruments, located a point exactly fifty feet away on a line perpendicular to the line of the rope. This spot he marked by setting with minute circumspection a rectangular plate in the ground. He next, having first weighed ten white balls on an apothecary’s scales in a vacuum, took his station on the plate, and with his right hand tossed the balls in the direction of the rope, making a scientifically accurate record of the number that went over or did not. This operation completed, he repeated it with his left hand. Knowing that statistics are open to suspicion unless they deal with large numbers, he spent a part of each day, for several weeks, making the proper corrections for weight, temperature, and atmospheric pressure, until his throws numbered two thousand with each hand. The result was that he proved conclusively, and to the satisfaction of the most acrimonious scientist, that a right-handed man can throw better with his right hand than with his left.

I suspect a tinge of satire in this anecdote. Nevertheless, such a piece of research can fairly be accounted a hobby, though a rather poor one. Motion without progress, mild industry for a perfectly useless end, the gentle sedative of a slightly varied monotony, and just a touch of constantly recurrent excitement — all are here, and all are earmarks of the hobby: and yet how tame, how jejune, compared with the reckless capers and caprioles of the seventeenth-century pony, which was ready at any moment to jump over the moon.

Even dictionary-making has become a serious business. In the old days, there was some fun in compiling a dictionary. You had some space for play of the fancy, some scope for the exercise of taste. Having to give the etymology, let us suppose, of ‘cribbage,’ you looked at the word hard for a while, and noted that, except for two letters, it was exactly like ‘cabbage’; and so you wrote on one slip of paper, ‘ CRIBBAGE: obviously derived from cabbage, q.v.’; and on another slip of paper, ‘CABBAGE: possibly derived from cribbage, q.v.’; and went on to the next word. So far as I can see, the world was just as well off and you were much happier than you could possibly have been if you had, as nowadays, thought it necessary to trace cribbage to the Arabic and cabbage to the Bengalese. As for definitions — not since Dr. Johnson’s day has it been considered scholarly to record your prejudices, and to include reflections on your enemies, in a dictionary.

It is the spread of efficiency, whether academic or practical, which more than any other cause has been responsible for our loss of innocent frivolity. Lexicography has become efficient, but sad. Even indexing, which was once the well-nigh perfect hobby, sufficing as a woman’s knitting, interminable as a college professor’s dream of prosperity, has become as mechanical as writing sonnets. Many a man has been deluded by the advertisements of makers of office-appliances into compiling a cardindex of his books, as a pastime. I once had this unhappy inspiration, and, not content with an author-title index, I was so mad as to begin an authortitle-subject index. I had in my little library about nine hundred books, with the contents of most of which I was only slightly acquainted, while I knew the author and title (these being plainly printed on the back) of almost all of them. I had supposed in my innocence that each book dealt with one subject, or at most two or three; but I soon found that each dealt with nine hundred. So much the better hobby, thought I; and I began, and continued, to turn out cards with the regularity of one of the little presses seen in shop-windows, which print you a hundred visitingcards for twenty-five cents. Day after day I recorded items like these: ‘Dandelion Wine, Recipe for; Southey, R., Commonplace Book, II, p. 365’; ‘Rainbow, Was there one before the Flood? Browne, Sir T., Works, II, p. 304’; ‘Cattle, Wild Scotch; Scott, Sir W., Works, XVI, p. 451’; ‘Porcupig, Egyptian ; Daniel, G., Merry England, p. 353 ’; and so on and so on.

You can have no idea what a sensation of erudition this operation gave me. Here were nine hundred books, containing, roughly, eight hundred and ten thousand items of information, — mostly useless, it is true, but still information, — not ten of which items could I possibly have found if I had ever needed them; while now—or some years hence — I should have them all neatly recorded and alphabetically arranged ; so accessible, in short, that they were all but inside my head.

Well, I went on, merrily as a wheel in a sluice, making cards and cards and cards, while my index-boxes grew to a pile that threatened to become a mountain; and then, one day, there swept over me the realization that I was in the grip of a demon that was alienating my friends, sapping my mentality, robbing me of leisure, morality, and the consolations of religion. From an innocent, even laudable ambition to become wellinformed, I had sunk to the level of a creature who lived only to see the file grow. Moreover, I suddenly discovered that the nature of a subjectindex is such that it always contains every subject except just the one you are looking for. How this can be, I cannot explain. The devil has his miracles as well as the saints, and this is one of them. Go into any library and look up in the subject-index any subject whatever, and it will not be there. The librarian will tell you that it is there; but, if you dare him to look, even he will not be able to find it.

The bearing of this experience on my subject is, I trust, obvious. We should never, as we value our souls, make a hobby of an office-appliance. Officeappliances are a modern form of diabolism, against which we should arm ourselves with the sword of nonchalance and the armor of indifference. And all forms of mechanical efficiency are equally dangerous. Order and method are to be handled gingerly, like strong drink. And let us flee the efficiency expert as we should Beelzebub.

The classic illustration of efficiency is the carpenter driving nails. It must be twenty years ago that I first learned the astounding fact that it does not pay a carpenter to pick up the nails he drops, because the time spent in stooping is worth more than the nails. ‘Any conscientious carpenter,’ said my informant, ‘will wish to be efficient.’ A mistaken conscientiousness will prompt him to go down on his knees and find the lost nail and straighten it, if it is bent, even if he takes half an hour to do so; but an enlightened conscientiousness will lead him to use another nail.

This was all very well. For a moment, I could not help admiring the efficiency expert who first perceived the wastefulness of picking up nails, and the self-control of the carpenter who could restrain his natural impulse to pick up a nail, especially one that so deserved to be pounded good and hard. But soon I began to have doubts. Whose time, I now asked myself, would this devoted craftsman waste, if he should so far forget himself as to pick up a nail — his own, or his employer’s? Surely, from his own point of view, whether the time was wasted would depend on whether he was paid by the ‘piece’ or by the day. I had a plumber in last week who (from my point of view) wasted three hours, conversing entertainingly with anyone who would listen, for one hour that he worked; but when I came to pay his bill for four hours’ work, I realized that in the art (or shall we say hobby) of ‘stretching a job’ he had attained a finished efficiency. Our carpenter, too, might be so oldfashioned as to like to pick up nails, or might consider that time spent in looking at the landscape or smoking his pipe or exercising his lumbar muscles was by no means wasted; and, in case he stopped work long enough to think a little, he might end by quitting work entirely, in order to go and denounce the efficiency expert as an insidious adjuvant of capital and privilege.

I became concerned for my carpenter, even though I looked upon him as a rather weak-minded person. ‘If he so far succumbs to the wiles of the efficiency expert,’ I reasoned, ‘as to pick up no more nails, he will, before he realizes his danger, be asked to make a study of statistical tables and motion charts, which will show him how to eliminate (how your scientific scientist loves the word!) unnecessary movements; and, if he does not watch out, he will end by finding himself one hundred per cent efficient.’ Remembering as I did that a steam-engine is only twenty-five per cent efficient, the thought of a man being one hundred per cent so made my head swim.

The only man, I concluded, who can safely make a hobby of efficiency, is the efficiency expert. He does not have to follow his own theories, but only to write books about them. No one can begrudge him that pleasure: it is only when, with a Samuel Smilesian optimism, he falls to exhorting the laboringman to make a hobby of his work, — a stamping-machine or a buttonholing machine or a steam drill or a compressed-air riveter, in all probability, — that he becomes worse than inept. Can it, I submit, be done? I could not make a pet of a compressed-air riveter, nor, with the best of intentions, could I embrace within my affections a buttonholing machine. I should try to run it faithfully, of course; but, if I were on the lookout for a hobby, I should select a creature more temperamental.

The high-priests of efficiency, intoning the Gospel of Work and asking the congregation all to rise and join in singing ‘MacAndrew’s Hymn,’ no longer thrill the laboring-man as once they did. After fifty years of watching the wheels go round, he is ready for recreation. He listens to the Gospel of Work with his tongue in his check, and lets his thoughts wander to what he intends to do during his hours of leisure.

I suggest that in a machine-made age like ours, in which we work in gangs and shifts; in which twenty men contribute to the making of a shoe; in which combination and organization and coöperation, and who knows what otherations, are the terms that characterize our business and labor; and in which we have become so thoroughly socialized that even the tramp and the hermit seem to have disappeared, it is time that somebody said a good word for the unscientific — that is, the creative — employment of our leisure hours. The time has come to fetch the hobby down from the attic, dust him off, give him a good meal of some pulpy fodder, mount, and set forth on a journey to the other side of the moon.

I had thought of presenting my prospectus of a Society for t he Resuscitation of the Hobby; but I have just been reading the life of Florence Nightingale, and on page 110 of Volume I she says, ‘Eschew Prospectuses; they ’re the devil, and make one sick. What do the cookery-books say? First catch your hare.’ She is right; and, besides,

I should be the last to wish to make the hobby a fad.