THE hour is after after-dinner coffee. The company is a dinner party made up of the nicest people, who have somehow failed to coalesce. These are the times that try men’s souls.
If it were allowable to remain silent, if one could simply sit and contemplate respectfully the line of a gown or the turn of a face — but no, the one blessed relief is accounted crime. To be still is the one thing forbidden. Everyone’s larynx has been mortgaged in advance by the invitation to be present. Every set of vocal cords must keep working. The result, often enough, is a psychological phenomenon familiar to teachers, lecturers, clergymen, political orators, and victims of after-dinner trance: the phenomenon of automatic speech. The consciousness of the victim begins to lapse. Fatally, irresistibly, he feels it sliding away, oozing off. When he comes to again, he seems to be at a remote and amazed point, far off in space. In surprised detachment, he hears a voice booming on and on, making sounds which somehow bear an unexplainable resemblance to meaning. With astonishment he realizes that this voice is his own. It seems to be self-propelled. There is no discernible agent anywhere about to supply it with thought or intelligence. But it needs none; it is purely automatic. It grinds out subjects and predicates and modifiers; it is a grammatical voice, using all the forms and machinery of reason, while the true personality, the real thinking and feeling man, sits far off and looks or listens down on it in comic alienation.
It seems impossible that someone should not discover the cheat, should not see that this is mere empty voice. It seems impossible that the company should not be rather badly frightened to find itself listening to a voice without a speaker. And worst of all, it seems impossible that the voice should go on making sense. Pretty soon, if this keeps up, it will begin to say, ‘Globble like a glue bloose,’ or perhaps something egregiously tactless or indecorous. And then, horrors! But the company listens politely, every face composed in the usual mask. No terrified or sinister look appears in anyone’s eye, as if to say, ‘ The man has gone off his casters. What shall we do?’ The trance continues unbroken.
Sometimes the hypnosis takes other forms. Anyone who has tried to drive an automobile while acutely sleepy will be familiar with the struggle to concentrate and focus the mind on reality, which will not, despite the most heroic efforts, quite become real. One seems to be tearing at veils, trying to fight through layers of mist to get back one’s usual prosaic vision of the commonplace solidity of things. One deliberately imagines a crash, for the sake of remembering that moving bodies do turn out to be solid when they hit. One scowls at trees and barns and hens and road signs in the effort to drag back the consciousness from the ethereal and delicious surrender it longs to make. And still the world remains a shimmer, a strange dreamlike swarm of intangible shapes and hues, all faintly wrapped in subtle cocoons.
The same trance-like unreality descends on me in after-dinner hours. I bring my eyes to bear on faces, on furniture and prints and books and glasses. No use; none of them quite exists. All are floating up and down, backward and forward, in unreal perspectives. But I must make them real, settle all these unmoored wandering dreams in their proper and prosaic stations on the floor, the walls, the hearth. I wrinkle up my eyes and peer at them with vigorous purpose; but I feel my vision glaze over irresistibly. If I could somehow creep out in front of myself and meet my own glance, I should see the glazed eyes of a little animal quietly dying under a desert sun.
Many a man is made prematurely senile by these ordeals. I mean that he is forced, at an early and unseemly age, into the habit of telling his good ones over and over again. This habit used to be a prerogative of years and ripeness; it used to be correlated with failing sight, with the deaf ear and the defunctive tooth and those other phenomena so eloquently described in the book of Ecclesiastes. It used to go with hardening of the arteries and softening of the brain.
But the cause of this habit is no longer biological; it is social. Sometimes a man’s friends will even unite to force on him the rôle of repeater, although they know they will like him less for the change. The monologue of the Ohio woman being shown through the harem, the story of the Bishop and the tropical fish — once told, these wrill be demanded many times again, even by those who do not want to hear them, but who are glad to shift the onus of what is called conversation to a larynx capable of sustained flight. And the luckless man who can get them off, though there should not be a gray hair at his temple, is thenceforth in his dotage by social compulsion, a teller of oft-told tales, a victim of spiritual senility.
Another manifestation of the trance is the canalized conversation. This begins with a topic that seems innocent enough, but which turns out unluckily to be one of those subjects about which everyone in the room has something to say. Before we know it, the topic has become a pair of dikes between which every spoken word must flow without hope of escape. We are canalized for fair. Like leeches who have forgotten how to let go, we cling to our topic and cannot get loose. We torture it, twist it, wring it, worry it; as if drowning men should not only cling to a straw, but dissect its every fibre. Sometimes little windows of escape appear. The topic peeps out, but like a prisoner so long confined that he is afraid of sunlight, it pops back again, and plods around the familiar dungeon circle.
Once, I remember, when there were a number of young men in the room, rowing was mentioned. All the company immediately began to row. A compulsion seized us; we recapitulated the experience of the race in hand-propelled craft. Everyone in the room had his pennyworth to offer; those who had no information asked intelligent questions. And so we rowed. We seized heavy oars and laboriously wrestled with dories full of codfish in the chopped Atlantic off Newfoundland or Maine. We swayed to the rhythm of powerful eights in the Henley Regatta. We urged forward clumsy Polynesian outriggers with long rough-hewn sweeps. We poled canoes up rapids in New Brunswick. We beached our kayaks on the ice floes of Alaska. We punted on the Cherwell. We committed all the blunders and suffered all the disasters known to rowingcraft. When it seemed that the entire encyclopædia of rowing had been spelled over syllable by syllable, we passed by a natural transition to floods. We were inundated past the imagination of the Psalmist, and in the distinct style of every separate topographical region of the country. And when the Americas failed, we sought out floods in Asia and Africa and the Oceanic Isles.
But do not think that the evening was profitless. I shall remember, for example, the house in the Mississippi Valley which disappears seasonably under water each year, leaving the annual problem of finding a new tenant who does not know what is in store for him. And even if I repeat this tidbit in the same company (wife not counted), I shall claim the excuse of all good modern criminals — I shall put the blame on society.
I shall not want employment for all my little store of anecdotes, witty definitions, apt retorts. Biologically I am far from senile; socially, we are all hairless doddering infants at thirty-five. I think over my little stock, and it seems pitifully small to last as long as I mean to live. But I shall use it — and be no worse thought of than my neighbor. For we all extend to each other in these matters an instinctive charity, resting on a profound if unacknowledged understanding. One of our chief social obligations, after all, is to help each other endure our pleasures.