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The Silent Isle - Chapter 37 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :3050

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 37


I have had two visitors lately who have set me reflecting upon the odd social habits of the men of my nation. They were not unusual experiences--indeed I think they may fairly be called typical.

One of these was a man who invited himself to come and see me; the excuse, a small matter of business; but he added that we had many common friends, that he had read my books, and much wished to make my acquaintance.

He came down to luncheon and to spend the afternoon. He was a tall, handsome, well-dressed man, with a courteous, conventional manner, but every inch a gentleman. He had a perfect social ease; he began by paying me rather trite compliments, saying that he found my books extremely sympathetic, and that I constantly put feelings into words which he had always had and which he had never been able to express. Then we turned to our business and finished it in five minutes. It now remained to fill the remainder of the time. We strolled round the garden; we lunched; we strolled again. We had an early tea, and I walked down to the station with him. I had thought that perhaps he wished to discuss some of the topics on which I had written in my books; but he did not appear to have any such wish. He had lately taken a house himself in the country; and he appeared to wish to tell me about that. I was delighted to hear about it, because I am always interested to hear how other people live; but I began to be surprised when I discovered that this seemed to be the only thing he wished to talk about. He described the house, the garden, the village, the neighbours; he described his mode of life, his parties, the things he said to other people, the visits he paid. I became a mute listener. Occasionally I assented or asked a question; but if I attempted to contribute to the conversation he became restive and bored; so I merely let him have his head, and he talked on. I will confess that I derived a good deal of entertainment from my companion, for he was a shrewd and observant man. I do not think I ever learnt so much about an entire stranger in so short a time. I even knew what he had for breakfast and what he drank with his luncheon. When we said goodbye at the station, he said that he had spent a very pleasant day, and I am sure it was the truth; he pressed me to visit him with much cordiality, and said that it had given him great pleasure to make my acquaintance; we bowed and smiled and waved our hands, and the train moved out of the station.

The surprising thing is that it never seemed to occur to him that he had not made my acquaintance at all. He had seen my house, indeed, but every detail that he observed had suggested to him some superior detail in his own house. He had certainly allowed me to make his acquaintance, but that had not been the professed object of his visit. He could not have talked more obligingly if I had been an interviewer who had desired to write his biography. I do not believe that it had ever crossed his mind that the occasion had been anything but a complete success. His enjoyment was evidently to converse, and he had conversed unintermittently for several hours. The man was an egoist, of course, but he had not talked exclusively about himself. Much of his talk had been devoted to other people, but they were all of them the people whom he saw in his own private mirror. I have no doubt that for the time being I was a figure in his dreams, and that I shall be described with the same minuteness to the unhappy recipients of his confidences who are now awaiting him at dinner,--at which I may mention he always drinks whisky-and-seltzer.

I do not mean that every one is like this; but there are really a larger number of people in the world than I like to think whose delight it is not to perceive but to relate. The odd thing is that my friend should think it necessary to preface his meeting with courteous formulas, which I suppose are really merely liturgical, like the _Dominus vobiscum_, relating to what a polite Frenchman the other day called _votre presence et votre precieux concours_.

It is really impossible to convey anything to such people; in fact, it is almost impossible to communicate with them at all. "Never tell people how you are," as a trenchant lady of my acquaintance said to me the other day; "they don't want to know."

I think that the society of people who do want to know, and who ply one with questions as to one's tastes and habits, are almost more trying than the purely narrative people, and induce a subtle sense of moral hypochondria. The perfect mixture, which is not a common one, is that of the person who both desires to know and is willing to illustrate one's experience by his own. Then there is a still more inexplicable class--the people who go greedily to entertainments, come early and go late, who seem to wish neither to learn nor to communicate, but sit staring and tongue-tied. The inveterate talker is the least tiresome of the three undesirable types, because one at least learns something of another's point of view. But the danger of general society to a person like myself, who has a desire to play a certain part in talk, is that sometimes one is tied to an uncompromising person as to a post for execution. I love a decent equality in the matter of talk. I want to hear other people's views and to contrast my own with them. I do not wish to lie, like a merchant vessel near a pirate ship, and to be fired into at intervals until I surrender. Neither do I want to do all the firing myself.

The odd thing is that people, like the saints in the psalm, are so joyful in glory! They seem entirely content with their aims and methods, and not even dimly to suspect that they might be enlarged or improved. Some of them want to talk, and some of them seem not even to wish to be talked to; a very few to listen, and a small and happy percentage desire both to give and to take.

Well, I suppose that I ought to be glad that my visitor enjoyed himself; but I cannot help feeling that my coachman would have done as well as myself--indeed better, for he is a pleasantly taciturn man, and would not even have given way to rebellious thoughts.

The impression left on my mind by my visitor is just as though a grasshopper had leapt upon my window-sill from the garden-bed, and sate there awhile, with his blank eyes, his long, impassive, horse-like face, twiddling his whisks and sawing out a whizzing note with his dry arm. It would please me to observe his dry manners, his unsympathetic and monotonous cries; but neither visitor nor grasshopper would seem within the reach of any human emotion, except a mild curiosity, and even amusement. Indeed, the only difference is that if I had clapped my hands the grasshopper would have gone off like a skipjack, and after a sky-high leap would have landed struggling among the laurels; while the more I clapped my hands at my visitor, the longer he would have been delighted to stay.

My other visitor, who came a day or two later, was a very different type of man. He was a young, vigorous, healthy creature, who had lately gone as a master to a big public school. He came at my invitation, being the son of an old friend of mine. He, too, spent a day with me, and left on my mind a very different impression, namely, that I should grow to respect and like him the more that I saw of him. There was nothing insincere or lacking in genuineness about him. I felt his solidity, his loyalty, his uprightness very strongly. But he exhibited on first acquaintance--due no doubt to a sturdy British shyness--all the qualities that make us so detested upon the Continent, and that lead the more expansive foreigner, who only sees the superficial aspect of the Englishman, to think of us as a brutal nation. He was an odd mixture of awkwardness and complacency, a desire to be courteous struggling with a desire to show his independence; he had no ease of manner, no bonhomie, but a gruff and ugly kind of jocosity, which I am sure was not really natural to him, but was his protest against the possibility of my considering him to be shy. He seemed anxious to show that he was as good a man as myself, which I was quite ready to take for granted. He jested about the dulness of the country; said that he thought it made people jolly mouldy. He did not see that it was a pity to press that fact upon me; the truth was that he was thinking of himself for the time being, though he was no egoist. And whereas the courtly egoist pays you compliments first and then returns to a more congenial self-contemplation, my burly young friend would, I have not the slightest doubt, grow more companionable and considerate every day that one knew him. But his manner was the manner of the common-room and the cricket field, that odd British humour, that, without meaning to be unkind, thrusts its darts clumsily in the weak points of the armour. It is this, I think, that makes English public school life so good a discipline, if one unlearns its methods as soon as one has done with it, because it makes men tolerant of criticism and even ridicule; its absence of sentiment makes them tough; its absence of courtesy makes them strong.

But I did not like it at the time. He surveyed my belongings with good-humoured contempt. He said he did not care for fiddling about a garden himself, and at my fowl-house he jested of fleas. In my library he said he had no time for poking about with books. I asked him about his life at P---- and he assured me it was not half bad; that the boys were all right if you knew how to take them; and he told me some pleasant stories of some of his inefficient colleagues. He said that a good deal of the work was rot, but that they had a first-rate cricket pitch, and a splendid Pro.

Yet this young man took a high classical degree, and is, I know for a fact, an admirable schoolmaster, sensible, effective, and even wise; he makes his boys work, and work contentedly, and he is not only popular but really trusted by the boys. He would never do a mean thing or an unkind thing; he is absolutely manly, straightforward, and honourable, and I gladly admit that a man's behaviour on a social occasion is a very trivial thing beside these greater qualities. But what is it, then, which causes this curious gruffness and rudeness, this apparent assumption that every one is slightly grotesque, low-minded, and dishonest? For the style of humour which this type develops is the humour that consists in calling attention in public to any deficiencies that you may observe in a man's appearance, manner, and surroundings, and also taking for granted that his motives for action are bad. I do not mean to say that my young friend considers me grotesque or dishonest, but his idea of humour is to make a pretence of thinking so. He would be distressed if he thought that he had given me pain; his intention is to diffuse a genial good-humour into the scene; and if he were bantered in the same way, he would take it as an evidence of friendly feeling.

The truth is that it is really schoolboy humour belatedly prolonged. Vituperation is the schoolboy's idea of friendly banter. The schoolboy does not so much consider the feelings of his victim as his companions' need for amusement. But I am sure that the tendency nowadays is, somehow or other, to prolong the hobbledehoy days. There is so much more organisation of everything at schools that young men remain boys longer than they used to do. Partly, too, in the case of this young man, it arises from his never having had a change of atmosphere. He remained a jolly schoolboy till the end of his University days, and then he went back to the society of schoolboys. He is simply undeveloped; and the mistake he makes is to consider himself a man of the world.

But partly, too, it arises from national characteristics, the preference for bluntness and frankness and outspokenness; the tendency to believe that a display of courtesy and emotion and consideration is essentially insincere. One does not at all want to get rid of frankness and outspokenness. Combined with a certain degree of deference and sympathy, they are the most delightful graces in the world. But though the attitude which I have been describing prides itself upon being above all things unaffected, it is in reality a highly affected mood, because it is all based on a kind of false shame. Such a man as my young friend does not really say what he thinks, and very rarely thinks what he says. He is, as I have said, a high-minded, intelligent, and sensible man; but he thinks it priggish to let his real opinions be known, and thus is priggish without perceiving it. The essence of priggishness is the disapproving attitude, and it is priggish to wish to appear superior; but my young friend, in the back of his mind, does think himself the superior of courteous, sympathetic, and emotional persons.

And thus I did not particularly enjoy his visit, because I could not feel at ease with my visitor. I could not say frankly what I thought, but had to select topics which I thought he would consider unaffected.

I think, in fact, that we pay too high a price for our British reticence: perhaps we keep a few foolish and gushing people in order, stifle effusiveness, and dry up unctuousness; but we do so at the price of silencing a much larger number of simple and direct people, and lose much variety of characteristics and interchange of sincere opinions thereby!

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