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The Silent Isle - Chapter 35 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1644

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 35

CHAPTER XXXV

There are certain writers--men, too, of ability, humour, perspicacity, with wide knowledge, lucidity of expression, firm intellectual grip, genuine admirations, who really live among the things of the mind--whose writings are almost wholly distressing to me, and affect me exactly as the cry of an itinerant vendor in a quiet and picturesque town affects me. It is an honest trade enough; he saves people a great deal of trouble; he sells, no doubt, perfectly wholesome and inexpensive things; but I am glad when he has turned the corner, and when his raucous clamour is heard more faintly--glad when he is out of sight, and still more when he is out of hearing. So with these authors; if I take up one of their books, however brilliant and even true the statements may be, I am sorry that the writer has laid hands upon a thing I admire and value. He seems like a damp-handed auctioneer, bawling in public, and pointing out the beauties of a mute and pathetic statue.

I am thinking now of one writer in particular, a well-known man of letters, a critic, essayist, and biographer; a man of great acuteness and with strong and vehement preferences in literature. When I have been forced by circumstances, as I sometimes have, to read one of his books, I find myself at once in a condition of irritable opposition. He writes sensibly, acutely, epigrammatically; but there is a vile complacency about it all, an underlying assumption that every one who does not agree with him in the smallest particular is necessarily a fool--a sense that he feels that he has gone into the merits of a book, and that there is exactly as much and as little in it as he tells you. He is very often right; that is the misery of it. But this lack of urbanity, this unnecessary insolence, is a very grave fault in a writer--fatal, indeed, to his permanence. He turns a book or a person inside out, dissects it in a deft and masterly way; but one feels at the end as one might feel about an anatomist who has dissected every fibre of an animal's body, classified every organ, traced every muscle and nerve, and bids you at the end take it on his authority that there is no such thing as the vital principle or the informing soul, because he has shown you everything that there is to see. Yet the finest essence of all, the living and breathing spirit, has escaped him.

But what is a still worse fault in the writer of whom I speak is that he is the victim of a certain intellectual snobbishness. By which I mean that when he has once conceived an admiration for a historical personage or a writer he becomes unable to criticise him; he can only justify and praise him, sling mud at his opponents, and, so to speak, clear a space round his hero by knocking over in opprobrious terms any one who may threaten his supremacy. He condones and even praises any fault in his idol; and what would be in his eyes a damning fault in one whom he happened to dislike, becomes a salient virtue in the person whom he praises. He condemns Swift for his coarseness and praises Johnson for his outspokenness. He condemns Robert Browning for his obscurity and praises George Meredith for his rich complexity. He would never see that the victory lies with the appreciator of any personality, because, if you happen to appreciate a figure whom he himself dislikes, you are proclaimed to be guilty of perversity and bad taste. Thus I not only feel sore when he abuses a character whom I love, but I feel ashamed when he decries one whom I hate, for I am tempted to feel that I must have grossly misunderstood him; and even when he rapturously and unctuously belauds some figure that I admire, I feel my admiration to be smirched and tarnished.

The one quality which I think he always misses in a character is a high, pure, delicate sense of beauty, the subtlest fibre of poetry. This my swashbuckler misnames sentimentality--and thus I feel that he always tends to admire the wrong qualities, because he condones even what he calls sentimentality in one whom he chooses to admire.

It is this attitude of disdain and scorn, based upon the intellect rather than upon the soul, that I think is one of the most terrible and satanical things in life. Such a quality may be valuable in scientific research, it may be successful in politics, because there are still among us many elementary people who really like to see a man belaboured; it may be successful in business, it may being a man wealth, position, and a certain kind of influence. But it never inspires confidence or affection; and though such a man may be feared and respected on the stage of life, there is an invariable and general sense of relief when he quits it.

"The fruit of the Spirit," wrote the wise apostle--who knew, too, the bitter pleasures of a vehement controversy, and was no milk-and-water saint--"the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, meekness, long-suffering, kindness." None of these fruits hang upon the vigorous boughs of our friend's tree. He is rather like that detestable and spidery thing the araucaria, which has a wound for every tender hand, and invites no bright-eyed feathered songsters to perch or build among its sinister branches.

The only critic who helps me is the critic whose humility keeps pace with his acuteness, who leads me gently where he has himself trodden patiently and observantly, and does not attempt to disfigure and ravage the regions which he has not been able to desire to explore. The man who will show me unsuspected connections, secret paths of thought, who will teach me how to extend my view, how I may pass quietly from the known to the unknown; who will show me that stars and flowers have voices, and that running water has a quiet spirit of its own; and who in the strange world of human life will unveil for me the hopes and fears, the deep and varied passions, that bind men together and part them, and that seem to me such unreasonable and inexplicable things if they are bounded by the narrow fences of life--emotions that travel so long and intricate a path, that are born with such an amazing suddenness and attain so large a volume, so fierce a velocity--this is the interpreter and guide whom I would welcome, even if he know but a little more than myself; while if my guide is infallible and disdainful, if he denies what he cannot see and derides what he has never felt, then I feel that I have but one enemy the more, in a place where I am beset with foes.

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