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The Silent Isle - Chapter 26 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1747

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 26


I once wrote and published a personal and intimate book; it was a curious experience. There was a certain admixture of fiction in it, but in the main it was a confession of opinions; for various reasons the book had a certain vogue, and though it was published anonymously, the authorship was within my own circle detected. I saw several reviews of it, and I was amused to find that the critics perspicuously conjectured that because it was written in the first person it was probably autobiographical. I had several criticisms made on it by personal friends: some of them objected to the portraiture of persons in it being too life-like, selecting as instances two characters who were entirely imaginary; others objected to the portraiture as not being sufficiently life-like, and therefore tending to mislead the reader. Others determined to see in the book a literal transcript of fact, set themselves to localise and identify incidents which were pure fiction, introduced for reasons of picturesqueness. It brought me, too, a whole crop of letters from unknown people, many of which were very interesting and touching, letters which pleased and encouraged me greatly, because they proved that the book had made its way at all events to certain hearts.

But one old friend, whose taste and judgment I have every reason to respect, took me to task very seriously for writing the book. He said: "You will not misunderstand me, I know; but I cannot help feeling that the deliberate exposure of a naked soul before the public has something that is almost indecent about it." I did not misunderstand him, nor did I at all resent the faithful criticism, even though I could not agree with it.

I had written books before, and I have written books since, but none which made that particular personal appeal. I may proudly say that it contained nothing that was contrary either to faith or morals; it was quite unobjectionable. It aimed at making thought a little clearer, hope a little brighter; at disentangling some of the complex fibres of beauty and interest which are interwoven into the fabric of life. I tried to put down very plainly some of the things that had helped me, some of the sights that had pleased me, some of the thoughts that had fed me. I do not really know what else is the purpose of writing at all; it is only a kind of extended human intercourse. I am not a good conversationalist; my thoughts do not flow fast enough, do not come crowding to the lips; moreover, the personalities of those with whom I talk affect me too strongly. There are people with whom one cannot be natural or sincere. There are people whose whole range of interests is different from one's own. There are critical people who love to trip one up and lay one flat, boisterous people who disagree, ironical people who mock one's sentiment, matter-of-fact people who dislike one's fancies. But one can talk in a book without _gene or restraint. It is like talking to a perfectly sympathetic listener when no third person is by. I wrote the book without premeditation and without calculation, just as the thoughts rose to my mind, as I should like to speak to the people I met, if I had the art and the courage. Well, it found its way, I am glad to think, to the right people; and as for exposing my heart for all the world to read, I cannot see why one should not do that! I am not ashamed of anything that I said, and I have no sort of objection to any one knowing what I think, if they care to know. I spoke, if I may say so without conceit, just as a bird will sing, careless who listens to it. If the people who wander in the garden do not like the song, the garden is mine as well as theirs; they need not listen, or they can scare the bird with ugly gestures out of his bush if they will. I have never been able to sympathise with that jealous sense of privacy about one's thoughts, that is so strong in some people. I like to be able to be alone and to have my little stronghold; but that is because the presence of conventional and unsympathetic people bores and tires me. But in a book it is different. One is not intruded upon or gazed at; one may tell exactly as much of one's inner life as one will--and there are, of course, many things which I would not commit to the pages of a book, or even tell a friend. But I put nothing in my book that I would not have said quite readily to a friend whom I loved and trusted; and I like to feel that the book has made me several gentle and unknown friends, whose company the laws of time and space forbid me to frequent. And more than that, there might be things about the people who liked my book which I should not like; superficial things such as manner or look; I might not even like their opinions on certain points; but now, by writing this book, the best part of me, I think, has made friends with the best part of them. All art depends upon a certain kinship of spirit between the man who produces and the men who perceive; and just as a painter may speak to kindred spirits in a picture, or as a preacher may show his own heart in a sermon, so a writer may reveal himself in a book, if he is so inclined. The best kind of friendship is made in that way, the friendship that is not at the mercy of superficial appearances, habits, modes of breeding, conventions, which erect a barrier in this mysterious world between the souls of men.

Perhaps one of the greatest interests and pleasures we have in life is the realising of different temperaments and different points of view. It is not only interesting, it is wholesome and bracing. It helps us out of egotism; it makes us sympathetic; and I wish with all my heart that people would put more of their own unadulterated selves into books; that would be real, at all events. But what writers so often do is to tell the adventures of imaginary people, write plays where persons behave as no one ever behaves in real life; or they turn to what is called serious literature, and write a history of things of which no one can ever know the truth; or they make wise and subtle comments on the writings of great authors, covering them with shining tracks, as when snails crawl over a wall and leave their mucus behind them. And there are many other sorts of books which I need not define here, some of them useful, no doubt, and some of them wearisome enough. But the books of which we can never have enough are the books which tell us what people are really like, because our true concern is with the souls of men; and if we are all bound, as I believe we are, upon a progress and a pilgrimage, though the way is dark and the goal remote, the more we can know of our fellow-pilgrims the better for ourselves. This knowledge can teach us, perhaps, to avoid mistakes, or can make us ashamed of not being better than we are; or, best of all, it may lead us to love and pity those who are like ourselves, to bear their burdens when we can, to comfort, to help. I think it would be far better if we could talk more simply and openly to each other of our hopes and fears--what we love, what we dread, what we avoid. The saddest thing in the world is to feel that we are alone; the best thing in the world is to feel that we are loved and needed.

However, as things are, the sad fact remains that in common talk we speak of knowing a man whom we have met and spoken to a dozen times, while it would never occur to us to use the word of a man whose books we might have read a dozen times and yet never have seen; though as matter of fact we know the latter's real mind, or a part of it, while we may only know the healthy or pathetic face of the former.

If we make writing the business of our lives, it will be necessary to give up many things for it, things which are held to be the prizes of the world--position, station, wealth--or, rather, to give up the pursuit of these things; probably, indeed, if we really love our art we shall be glad enough to give up what we do not care about for a thing about which we do care. But there will be other things to be given up as well, which we may not like resigning, and one of these things is the multiplication of pleasant relations with other people, which cannot indeed be called friendships, but which rank high among the easy pleasures of life. We must give them up because they mean time, and time is one of the things that the artist cannot throw away. Of course the artist must not lose his hold on life; but if he is working in a reflective medium, it is his friendships that help him, and not his acquaintances. He must learn to be glad to be alone, for it is in solitude that an idea works itself out, very often quite unconsciously, by a sort of secret gestation. How often have I found that to put an idea in the mind and to leave it there, even if one does not consciously meditate upon it, is sufficient to clothe the naked thought with a body of appropriate utterance, when it comes to the birth. But casual social intercourse, the languid interchange of conventional talk, mere gregariousness, must be eschewed by an artist, for the simple reason that his temptation will be to expend his force in entering into closer relations with the casual, and possibly unintelligent, person than the necessities of the situation warrant. The artist is so impatient of dulness, so greedy of fineness, in all his relations, that he is apt to subject himself to a wasteful strain in talking to unperceptive and unappreciative persons. It is not that he desires to appear brilliant; it is that he is so intolerant of tedium that he sacrifices himself to fatiguing efforts in trying to strike a spark out of a dull stone. The spark is perhaps struck, but he parts with his vital force in striking it. He will be apt to be reproached with being eremitical, self-absorbed, unsociable, fastidious; but he must not care for that, because the essence of his work is to cultivate relations of sympathy with people whose faces he may never see, and he must save his talk, so to speak, for his books. With his friends it is different, for talking to congenial people with whom one is familiar is a process at once stimulating and tranquillising, and it is at such moments that ideas take swift and brilliant shape.

Those who may read these words will be apt to think that it is a selfish business after all; yet that is only because so many people consider the life of the writer an otiose and unnecessary life; but the sacrifices of which I speak are only those that all men who follow an absorbing profession have to make--barristers, politicians, physicians, men of business. No one complains if they seclude themselves at certain hours. Of course, if a writer finds that general society makes no demands upon his nervous force, but is simply a recreation, there is no reason why he should not take that recreation; though I have known men who just missed being great writers because they could not resist the temptation of general society.

The conclusion of the matter is that an artist must cultivate a strict sense of responsibility; if he has a certain thing to say, he must say it with all his force; and he must be content with a secret and silent influence, an impersonal brotherliness, deep and inner relations of soul with soul, that may never express themselves in glance or gesture, in hand-clasp or smile, but which, for all that, are truer and more permanent relations than word or gesture or close embrace can give; a marriage of souls, a bodiless union.

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CHAPTER XXVIII have often thought that in Art, judging by the analogy of previous development, we ought to be able to prophesy more or less the direction in which development is likely to take place. I mean that in music, for instance, the writers of the stricter ancient music might have seen that the art was likely to develop a greater intricacy of form, an increased richness of harmony, a larger use of discords, suspensions, and chromatic intervals, a tendency to conceal superficial form rather than to emphasise it, and so forth. Yet it is a curious question whether if Handel,

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