Big and Little

I DO not know if anyone has yet explained why it is and how it happens, but it is the sacred truth that folk are particularly fond of small, tiny, and miniature things. If they happen to see a very tiny room, a white and intimate little cubbyhole into which you could hardly squeeze one grown-up person, they begin to smile blissfully and exclaim rapturously what a nice little room it is. In the Spanish Hall of Prague Castle or the nave of St. Vitus’s Cathedral no one smiles blissfully; instead they become enormously serious, and measure the huge proportions with respect. If a man finds a tiny cottage he smiles and thinks that life in it would be happy; but no one smiles tenderly at a museum or a barracks, obviously because they are large. One looks on with the kindest smile at a puppy at play, but with grave respect at a lion at play.

Things which are small have an amusing and intimate air and arouse an unbridled tenderness in us; things which are very large are strikingly serious and at the same time a little frightening. No one would like to sleep in the Spanish Hall or live under the dome of St. Peter’s. One would rather sleep in a watchman’s box or live in a gingerbread cottage. I do not believe I could love an elephant and want to take him to bed and cuddle him. I do not think I should like to nurse the whales in the aquarium. If we breed goldfish it is not only because they are gold, but also because they are little. In the same way we should never keep singing cherubim in cages, because they are too big, but we should certainly keep them if they were as small as canaries. As long as folk build streets to live in and stand about gossiping in, they build them narrow. If some king or bank director were to build himself a bedroom as big as a station yard, we should say he was mad, and he probably would be. It is small things which appeal to our tenderness; big things only call forth our respect.

Why it is that small things fill us with such special delight and comfort I do not really know; perhaps it is a survival from childhood, when everything little seemed to be childish and therefore ours. As a small boy, when I wanted to feel that I was in a world of my own, I crawled under the table or into a box. The shed did not do, because it was too big, so I built myself a tent in it out of old canvas. A pony appeared to me like a horse’s little boy; the dog kennel seemed to be a little house for children.

Perhaps our liking for small things is a last remnant of childhood, but perhaps it is a last remnant of primitive man in us. Old Adam must obviously have been very much afraid of everything larger than himself; he felt safe only with things whose size did not frighten him. One can imagine that he was more inclined to smile at the spectacle of a wild rabbit than at that of a wild bear. He certainly felt more at ease in a small cave than in the wild world.

Big things somehow lack humor; if elephants were to play at being kittens, I think they would fill us with horror. If the colossus of Memnon arose and began to play football it would be an almost apocalyptic spectacle. Big things are condemned to terrible seriousness.

On the whole, it seems that if man is particularly fond of small things it is not because he is bigger and wiser than they, but because in intercourse with them he becomes little too. When a man plays with a kitten he does not realize that he is as enormous as a mountain; he rather feels that he is as playful and trusting as the kitten. When he bends down to some tiny flower he makes himself small right to his soul, as he can in no other way. When we flee from the world sometimes, it does us good to be little; that is why we turn to small things for comfort. We feel rested among them; their smallness amuses us. We cannot say that the ocean amuses us, but an aquarium might. We escape from existence in a way by this diminuendo; life is easier and more playful in those moments when it is spent in something very small.

It is free of tragedy and silence. The liberating beauty of small things lies in the fact that they are really invincibly comic.