Having Fun With Your Own Mind
‘WOOL-GATHERING!’ murmured one young woman to another, nodding her head toward a third person, sitting with absorbed air in a suburban station.
‘Wool-gathering? Oh, yes, literally; but such wool! Jason’s fleece, at the least. She is sure to have three bags full, and if you are going her way, you may be the lucky little boy in the lane.’
The first speaker was nothing if not experimental, and soon found herself sitting beside the wool-gatherer. ‘My friend, Mary Brown,’ she began, as the train sped along the shore of Lake Erie, ‘says she knows you, and that you can transmute rag-ends of life into golden fleeces and throw them over the shoulders of even a chance acquaintance.’
‘Mary Brown’s own identification card,’ was her quick response; ‘her introductions never depend on the presence of the persons introduced or on any actual presentment of either. Wait till I get her opinion of you! But why not,’ she went on, after one teasing glance, ‘sail forth as Argonauts for golden fleeces rather than collect from dusty shops some peau de chagrin that only shrinks with every normal wish and human longing?’
‘Jason vs. Raphael de Valentin,’ I put in; ‘Raphael would have seized his distorting lorgnette before he would have dared look at Medea, and so would have missed the promise of help in her wonderful face.’
‘ Or he would have been so preoccupied tracing the outline of that demon skin on the tablecloth, that he could not lift his eyes to the golden prize. But this is my stop, alas! I shall thank Mary Brown for an introduction to a person who has fun with her own mind.’
‘Well, I mean to,’ I murmured emphatically, though I had never before formulated the resolve in those words; and in order that the idea might gain independence, I clutched the phrase and have fingered and thumbed it ever since, elbowing off other claimants till this palmary principle should, by attraction of fertile thoughts and feelings, by that mysterious power called association of ideas, build up a substantial body against which my own weakness might lean.
First, I ask myself, what predecessors tracked this path into which I have so lightly entered? ‘I relish myself in the midst of my dolor,’ Montaigne sings out from his place far to the fore; whereupon the playful Socrates drops back to interrogate him on the nature of relishes and dolor; and Amiel, pointing to the pair, declares, ‘The mind must have its play, the Muse is winged: the Greeks knew that, and Socrates.’ So did the ancient Hindu sages, the cream of whose philosophy is that no one using his mind’s resources need be bereft of happiness. So did Emerson, who found that ‘ in thought is immortal hilarity, the rose of joy; a star in the dark hours and crooked passages that will not suffer us to lose our way.’ So does contemporary America, affirming through the poet Moody that ‘the adventures of the mind are beyond all compare more enthralling than the adventures of the senses.'
I respect these asseverations of the past, but a writer’s statements are not necessarily autobiographical. How do I know that they are not merely theoretic, extra-illustrating fun with the mind? I crave something more concrete, a little nearer human nature’s daily food. What about little children?
Henry James at the age of ten, in the Louvre, ‘got the foretaste, as if the hour had struck by the clock, of all the fun I was going to have with this mystery, one’s own property, one’s mind; and the kind of life, always of the queer, so-called inward sort, tremendously sporting in its way? Again: ‘A great initiation, my first glimpse of that free play of the mind over a subject, a progress in which the first step was taken by wondering where the absurd ended, and the fun, the real fun, which was the gravity, the tragedy, the drollery, the beauty, the thing itself, might be legitimately held to begin.’ Or, in less splendid phrase, ‘One fine morning, in the middle of the precession of the equinoxes, the satiable elephant’s child asked a fine new question that he had never asked before ’; asked it first of his mind, as did Henry James, and only later spread it on the public records.
Burne-Jones’s nurse used to be puzzled by his silences, and asked him what he was thinking of, to which he early invented the reply, ‘Camels.’ Later, he had a teacher who read him a sentence and then set to work with every word — ‘how it grew and came to mean this or that, and with the flattest sentence take him to ocean waters and the marshes of Babylon and the hills of Caucasus and the wilds of Tartary and the constellations and the abysses of space! ’ No less little Bobby, with wet lashes, argued, ‘You say God won’t let you into heaven if you tell that to mamma? But I am in such trouble, grandmamma! Could n’t you take a chance on it, just this once?’
Taking chances with God is not altogether a juvenile performance. The first ruling Hohenzollern acquired his Electorate by taking a mortgage on the province, the nucleus of modern Prussia, from King Sigismund of Hungary, and then foreclosing. The present Kaiser ignores such a palpable fact as that his ancestor purchased the throne with hard cash, and calls it Divine Right. That for the German idea of fun with your mind!
The French idea was delicately embodied by Flaubert, who, being missed one afternoon in the house where he was guest, was found to have undressed and gone to bed to think. From her bed, in the middle of the night, Julia Ward Howe, aged ninety-two, overheard to giggle and asked to share her fun, admitted that she was trying to translate Fiddle-dee-dee into Greek. For Cavour, political economy was not ‘the dismal science,’ but the science of love of country; and reading Rousseau, he converted its sentimentalism into force. As for the Coleridges, Hartley’s strength was in his own mind, his resource the stillness of thought, the gentleness of musing. His greater father, when asked how he could live in the country, named among his six companions ‘ my own shaping and disquisitive mind.’
Parables teach the same lessons as history, and the fictitious character’s fun with his own mind is only that of his creator twice filtered, or thrice, as when Don Quixote, unable to stir after after one of his tilts, bethinks himself what passage in his volumes might afford him comfort, and presently recalls the Moor in the chivalry book; so that, when the husbandman asked Don Quixote what ailed him, he answered word for word as the prisoner Moor replied to his captor. Sancho Panza, reproaching himself for his chicken-heartedness, affirmed that what to him was a sad disaster would be a rare advantage to his master, who would look on the pit into which he was fallen as a lovely garden and the dungeon as a glorious palace.
Rolland’s Tolstoy played the piano, waiting at each change of key for what was to follow, his imagination vaguely supplementing the deficiencies of actual sound. He heard a choir, an orchestra, and his keenest pleasure arose from the enforced activity of his imagination, which brought before him, without logical connection, the most vital scenes of the past and the future. Conrad’s Marlow was ‘of the sort that’s always chasing some notion or other round and round his head just for the fun of the thing’; and the mind-life fun of Peter Ibbetson and his Duchess is more to the reader than was their waking existence. The Spoon River florist in his hot-house could hear a Presence think as he walked: ‘Homer? oh, yes! Pericles? good. Cæsar Borgia? what shall be done with it? Dante? too much manure. Napoleon? more soil. Shakespeare needs spraying. Clouds, eh?’
These examples from others are, however, like but the pebbles dropped by Hop-o’-my-Thumb, by which we may each retrace our ‘way homeward to habitual self.’ Turn, my little Mind: right-about face. Do you not see the fun has begun? Pluck up this pathfinding pebble, toss it into the air with a song, swooping meanwhile to gather the next treasure. Play jackstones with the grave worthies gone before. Let Socrates click against Flaubert, Sancho Panza shuffle Cavour. Right hand full, left hand full. Pop one shining pebble into mouth for Demosthenes’s sake. Save this broken stone as a clue to the missing moiety on which perchance your new name is written. Rest by this stream and count your stones — ‘learn gem tactics, practising sands.’
One by one I dip them in the brook, to intensify their brilliancy. Catching my own reflection, I see shining eyes which were lately dull, a flush in cheeks which were but now pale. O my little informing Mind, do you respond thus quickly to such small holiday? How I have slighted you! left you hungry, parched, chafing to fly, to swim, to serve, to discover! Quick. Search me an earth-ray to look straight down into the teeming earth beneath me. Find me treasure trove: not merely my lost, juvenile jack-stones, but emmet villages and mansions to which Mycense and the House of the Vettii are trivial; springs of water longer hidden than those of Africa’s interior; lodes of coal, of silver and gold; Aladdin’s cave of diamonds; the forgotten dreams of sixteen; the hopes of to-morrow!
The common cry is to invent something practical — a can-opener, a mopwringer, a cabbage-cutter — and make a fortune thereby. Why not something fantastic and make a festival thereby? (Dunsany’s Boy had a lump of gold which he had found in the stream; the Girl, a poem which she found in her head.) Furthermore, the fantasy of today is the fact of to-morrow. Instance Forty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, and Darius Green’s flying-machine. An important letter from California crosses mine from the east, and my mind goes on a panic. Why not, rather, on a picnic? Fancy a device by which future letters, enclosing attuned wireless receivers, may signal each other in passing, confer, settle measures, and carry the proper word on to its destination. Why not, also, associate with the automatic correspondent a typewriter for the tongue, to do for lagging speech what the typewriter does for halting fingers: not only take the mind’s dictation, but bestir the mind’s invention?
There are many fillips to this game. Montaigne advised everyone to dive into his own bosom; but Samuel Butler chided his hero for believing that ‘ideas come into clever people’s heads by spontaneous germination; ideas must be begotten by parents not very unlike themselves in the thoughts of others or the course of conversation.’
When personal experience or observation fails to supply the data, use other persons’ inventions. The most arresting paragraph to me in Mr. Britling Sees It Through is the discovery that the left hand learns to write by sympathy with the right, and that the maimed soldier could by aid of a mirror read his reversed cacography. I tried it with instant success and a mind newly stimulated. Rousseau recommended a variety of diversions for the wakeful, and his pedagogic predecessor, Rabelais, decreed how Gargantua should spend his time in rainy weather. Suggestive as both are, I prefer to divert to my own whim the poetic scheme of the clever.
And make them tell me their Christian names,—
and forthwith Jupiter becomes Luke, Aldebaran becomes Paul, Venus is Teresa, and Cassiopeia in her Chair, Mary della Sedia, —
dream that it might have the fragrance of a parvenu Buddleia, or that it need no longer hang head in grass, but climb white walls with Boagainvillea and overlook the sea! There is a special appeal in poetry with this quality. Davies has it: —
This body’s still confined to land;
And turn these mortals into trees
That walk on Fleet Street or the Strand;
Bunyan practised it: —
This done, I twenty more had in my crown;
And they again began to multiply
Like sparks that from the coals do fly;
Milton gave it divine expression: —
Repairing, in their golden urns draw light.
Philology, like poetry, furnishes a handy, portable key to the great storehouse of fancy. The pun is the lowest form of it; the mnemonics of foreign words more remunerative fooling: as ‘ pêcher is to fish, and pécher is to sin, but ^ is more like a fish-hook than is '.' Any word, as Tristram Shandy learned, may be converted into a thesis; every thesis has offspring in propositions; each proposition has its own conclusions, every one of which leads the mind on again into fresh tracks of inquiry.
‘But what,’ a girl once asked me, ‘ shall I have fun with my mind about? ’ ‘About it,’ I retorted, and forthwith amused myself with a list of provocative topics.
The happiest moment of the day: why was it happy? how could I have made it happier? was it attained by conscious effort or by lucky accident? can I bring about its repetition? does not this very dwelling on its details foster its return? Again: that left-over expression of face on a girl I met to-day: what did it signify? whom had she just left? what had he said? what had he not said?
Do I prefer slated joys to those inferred? Do I crave excitements hitherto tabu? Imagine my friends doing the exact reverse of their present practices, as Rabelais pictured Epictetus, appareled after the French fashion, sitting under a pleasant arbor, with scores of handsome gentlewomen making good cheer! Again: how stimulating was that campaign luncheon and the talks! Why do people grow friendly over a good meal? Why was it easier for me to talk to the person on my right hand than to the one on my left ? How might I have drawn out the left-hander, and how might she have hooked me? How shall I treat such a situation next time? Do I prefer a companion acquiescent or disputative? In such ways my thoughts wander to and fro, fro and to, but I try
to get them somewhere, be it only into the land of nod.
Such changes may be rung on nightthoughts; but what, is any moment of leisure, ennui, or enforced waiting but the chance to bewing leaden time? No load of circumstance can weigh down the mind gifted with levitation; ‘no calm so dead that your lungs cannot ruffle it with a breeze. That bad quarter of an hour — rather, that hour of bad sermon — I have enlivened by turning the words into running French, or by committing to memory some cocksure assertion to use in proving the opposite point of view; or by concocting a conversation with some interesting character mentioned; or writing an imaginary letter to the prophet whose word forms the text. Thus I, like Bagehot, enjoy myself playing with my mind, following its wayward promptings, prompting its flagging waywardness, as sure that adventure will result as it did for Don Quixote and Emerson and Blake.
The use that may be made of poor lectures extends to bad luck, misadventure, uncongenial environment, untimely people. William C. Prime wore a rare intaglio ring, so that, when he went a-fishing and found t he fish unresponsive, he might relieve the monotony by studying the beautiful cutting. Keats peppered his tongue, the better to enjoy cool claret. Our tongues seldom need artificial stimulant, but piquancy comes from diversity of condiment. Sairey Gamp provided an acquiescent soul who should wind up each conversation with a compliment to the excellence of Sairey’s nature. Other Harrises may be had for the taking, and self-gratulation for the saying. The Irishman looking for the moon in the pail of water found something else — the face of his desire, the shape of his dream. The heavens reveal one moon; my pails boast ten; looped on my stoop they lie! When life proved hard, young Victor Hugo had the better dream: —
The debt, when all is said,
Of one who makes you dream again
When all the dreams were dead?
Madame de Sévigné, in sorrow and perplexity, invented a game of finding the under-side of things, and wooed her friends to play it with her. Patrick Geddes, threatened with blindness, extracted from the thriving genius of his mind the greatest illumination of his life, concocted a thin king-machine, and conceived his Edinburgh Tower. A thinking-machine: that is utilizing some convenient, commonplace tool as a mechanical aid to thought. My tool has been this determination, suggested by a stray wool-gatherer, to get definite fun out of the device I call my mind. Wheedling, prodding, egging it on, I suddenly awake to the fact that all this adumbration of a jollity of mind not palpably present has in some measure taught me how to think, than which no other feat of mind is so fundamental, so fascinating, and so fecund.
Is all this a little vague? Therein lies part of the fun; but an impalpable mist may be precipitated into tangible moisture, and a shadow may be fixed on a sensitive plate. We must first get the vision, embody it through examples from other lives, engraft it upon our own wills, foster it, train it, eat of its fruit; aided ever by that spirit of life which wars against the tedium, waste, and indifference of this everyday life and transmutes it into helpful ministry, beauty, and joy. With the consciousness that our entertainment is within us, minor external cares disappear. Life loses its monotony and one begins to live.
‘My mind to me a kingdom is!’ I should hate to have a kingdom and get no fun out of it!