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On Seeing Ourselves Post by :edsutton68 Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :1453

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On Seeing Ourselves

A friend of mine who is intimate enough with me to guess my secrets, said to me quizzingly the other day: "Do you know 'Alpha of the Plough?'"

"I have never seen the man," I said promptly and unblushingly. He laughed and I laughed.

"What, never?" he said.

"Never," I said. "What's more, I never shall see him."

"What, not in the looking-glass?" said he.

"That's not 'Alpha of the Plough,'" I answered. "That is only his counterfeit. It may be a good counterfeit, but it's not the man. The man I shall never see. I can see bits of him--his hands, his feet, his arms, and so on. By shutting one eye I can see something of the shape of his nose. By thrusting out the upper lip I can see that the fellow wears a moustache. But his face, as a whole, is hidden from me. I cannot tell you even with the help of the counterfeit what impression he makes on the beholder. Now," I continued, pausing and taking stock of my friend, "I know what you are like. I take you all in at one glance. You can take me in at a glance. The only person we can none of us take in at a glance is the person we should most like to see."

"It's a mercy," said he.

I am not sure that he was right. In this matter, as in most things in this perplexing world, there is much to be said on both sides. It is lucky for some of us undoubtedly that we are condemned to be eternal strangers to ourselves, and that not merely to our physical selves. We do not know even the sound of our own voices. Mr. Pemberton-Billing has never heard the most sepulchral voice in the House of Commons, and Lord Charles Beresford does not know how a foghorn sounds when it becomes articulate. I have no idea, and you have no idea, what sort of impression our manner makes on others. If we had, how stricken some of us would be! We should hardly survive the revelation. We should be sorry we had ever been born.

Imagine, for example, that eminent politician, Mr. Sutherland Bangs, M.P., meeting himself out at a dinner one evening. Mr. Sutherland Bangs cherishes a comfortable vision of himself as a handsome, engaging fellow, with a gift for talk, a breezy manner, a stylish presence, and an elegant accent. And seated beside himself at dinner he would discover that he was a pretentious bore, that his talk was windy commonplace, his breezy manner an offence, his fine accent an unpleasant affectation. He would say that he would never want to see that fellow again. And, realising that that was Mr. Sutherland Bangs as he appears to the world, he would return home as humble and abject as Mr. Tom Lofty in The Good-Natured Man was when his imposture was found out. "You ought to have your head stuck in a pillory," said Mr. Croaker. "Stick it where you will," said Mr. Lofty, "for by the lord, it cuts a poor figure where it sticks at present." Mr. Sutherland Bangs would feel like that.

But if making our own acquaintance would give some of us a good deal of surprise and even pain, it would also do most of us a useful turn as well. Burns put the case quite clearly in his familiar lines:

O wad some pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us:
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An' foolish notion.

We should all make discoveries to our advantage as well as our discomfiture. You, sir, might find that the talent for argument on which you pride yourself is to me only irritating wrong-headedness, and I might find that the bright wit that I fancy I flash around makes you feel tired. Jones's eyeglass would drop out of his eye because he would know it only made him look foolish, Brown would see the ugliness of his cant, and Robinson would sorry that he had been born a bully and as prickly as a hedgehog. It would do us all good to get this objective view of ourselves.

It is not necessarily the right view or the complete view. You remember that ingenious fancy of Holmes' about John and Thomas. They are talking together and don't quite hit it off, and Holmes says it is no wonder since six persons are engaged in the conversation. "Six!" you say, lifting your eyebrows. Yes, six, says he. There is John's ideal John--that is, John as he appears to himself; Thomas's ideal John--that is, John as Thomas sees him; and the real John, known only to his Maker. And so with Thomas, there are three of him engaged in the talk also. Now John's ideal John is not a bit like Thomas's ideal John, and neither of them is like the real John, and so it comes about that John and Thomas--that is, you and I--get at cross purposes.

If I (John) could have your (Thomas's) glimpse of myself, my appearance, my manner, my conduct, and so on, it would serve as a valuable corrective. It would give that faculty of self-criticism which most of us lack. That faculty is simply the art of seeing ourselves objectively, as a stranger sees us who has no interest in us and no prejudice in our favour. Few of us can do that except in fleeting flashes of illumination. We cannot even do it in regard to the things we produce. If you paint a picture, or write an article, or make a joke, you are pretty sure to be a bad judge of its quality. You only see it subjectively as a part of yourself--that is, you don't see it at all. Put the thing away for a year, come on it suddenly as a stranger might, and you will perhaps understand why Thomas seemed so cool about it. It wasn't because he was jealous or unfriendly, as you supposed: it was because he saw it and you didn't.

Even great men have this blindness about their own work. How else can we account for a case like Wordsworth's? He was one of the three greatest poets this country has produced, and also an acute critic of poetry, yet he wrote more flat-footed commonplace than any man of his time. Apparently he didn't know when he was sublime and when he was merely drivelling. He didn't know because he never got outside the hypnotism of self.

I have sometimes felt angry with that phrase, "What do they know of England, who only England know?" It is the watchword of a shallow Imperialism. But I felt a certain truth in it once. I was alone in the Alps, in an immense solitude of peak and glacier, and as I waited for the return of my guide, who had gone on ahead to prospect, I looked, like Richard, "towards England." In that moment I seemed to see it imaginatively, comprehensively, as I had never, never seen it in all the years of my life in it. I saw its green pastures and moorlands, its mountains and its lakes, its cities and its people, its splendours and its squalors as if it was all a vision projected beyond the verge of the horizon. I saw it with a fresh eye and a new mind, seemed to understand it as I had never understood it before, certainly loved it as I had never loved it before. I found that I had left England to discover it.

That is what we need to do with ourselves occasionally. We need to take a journey from our self-absorbed centre, and see ourselves with a fresh eye and an unprejudiced judgment.

(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On Seeing Ourselves

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