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Looking Forward


It is my habit to give an account to myself of the characters I meet
with: can I give any true account of my own? I am a bachelor, without
domestic distractions of any sort, and have all my life been an
attentive companion to myself, flattering my nature agreeably on
plausible occasions, reviling it rather bitterly when it mortified me,
and in general remembering its doings and sufferings with a tenacity
which is too apt to raise surprise if not disgust at the careless
inaccuracy of my acquaintances, who impute to me opinions I never held,
express their desire to convert me to my favourite ideas, forget whether
I have ever been to the East, and are capable of being three several
times astonished at my never having told them before of my accident in
the Alps, causing me the nervous shock which has ever since notably
diminished my digestive powers. Surely I ought to know myself better
than these indifferent outsiders can know me; nay, better even than my
intimate friends, to whom I have never breathed those items of my inward
experience which have chiefly shaped my life.

Yet I have often been forced into the reflection that even the
acquaintances who are as forgetful of my biography and tenets as they
would be if I were a dead philosopher, are probably aware of certain
points in me which may not be included in my most active suspicion. We
sing an exquisite passage out of tune and innocently repeat it for the
greater pleasure of our hearers. Who can be aware of what his foreign
accent is in the ears of a native? And how can a man be conscious of
that dull perception which causes him to mistake altogether what will
make him agreeable to a particular woman, and to persevere eagerly in a
behaviour which she is privately recording against him? I have had some
confidences from my female friends as to their opinion of other men whom
I have observed trying to make themselves amiable, and it has occurred
to me that though I can hardly be so blundering as Lippus and the rest
of those mistaken candidates for favour whom I have seen ruining their
chance by a too elaborate personal canvass, I must still come under the
common fatality of mankind and share the liability to be absurd without
knowing that I am absurd. It is in the nature of foolish reasoning to
seem good to the foolish reasoner. Hence with all possible study of
myself, with all possible effort to escape from the pitiable illusion
which makes men laugh, shriek, or curl the lip at Folly's likeness, in
total unconsciousness that it resembles themselves, I am obliged to
recognise that while there are secrets in me unguessed by others, these
others have certain items of knowledge about the extent of my powers and
the figure I make with them, which in turn are secrets unguessed by me.
When I was a lad I danced a hornpipe with arduous scrupulosity, and
while suffering pangs of pallid shyness was yet proud of my superiority
as a dancing pupil, imagining for myself a high place in the estimation
of beholders; but I can now picture the amusement they had in the
incongruity of my solemn face and ridiculous legs. What sort of hornpipe
am I dancing now?

Thus if I laugh at you, O fellow-men! if I trace with curious interest
your labyrinthine self-delusions, note the inconsistencies in your
zealous adhesions, and smile at your helpless endeavours in a rashly
chosen part, it is not that I feel myself aloof from you: the more
intimately I seem to discern your weaknesses, the stronger to me is the
proof that I share them. How otherwise could I get the discernment?--for
even what we are averse to, what we vow not to entertain, must have
shaped or shadowed itself within us as a possibility before we can think
of exorcising it. No man can know his brother simply as a spectator.
Dear blunderers, I am one of you. I wince at the fact, but I am not
ignorant of it, that I too am laughable on unsuspected occasions; nay,
in the very tempest and whirlwind of my anger, I include myself under my
own indignation. If the human race has a bad reputation, I perceive that
I cannot escape being compromised. And thus while I carry in myself the
key to other men's experience, it is only by observing others that I can
so far correct my self-ignorance as to arrive at the certainty that I am
liable to commit myself unawares and to manifest some incompetency which
I know no more of than the blind man knows of his image in the glass.

Is it then possible to describe oneself at once faithfully and fully? In
all autobiography there is, nay, ought to be, an incompleteness which
may have the effect of falsity. We are each of us bound to reticence by
the piety we owe to those who have been nearest to us and have had a
mingled influence over our lives; by the fellow-feeling which should
restrain us from turning our volunteered and picked confessions into an
act of accusation against others, who have no chance of vindicating
themselves; and most of all by that reverence for the higher efforts of
our common nature, which commands us to bury its lowest fatalities, its
invincible remnants of the brute, its most agonising struggles with
temptation, in unbroken silence. But the incompleteness which comes of
self-ignorance may be compensated by self-betrayal. A man who is
affected to tears in dwelling on the generosity of his own sentiments
makes me aware of several things not included under those terms. Who has
sinned more against those three duteous reticences than Jean Jacques?
Yet half our impressions of his character come not from what he means to
convey, but from what he unconsciously enables us to discern.

This _naïve_ veracity of self-presentation is attainable by the
slenderest talent on the most trivial occasions. The least lucid and
impressive of orators may be perfectly successful in showing us the weak
points of his grammar. Hence I too may be so far like Jean Jacques as to
communicate more than I am aware of. I am not indeed writing an
autobiography, or pretending to give an unreserved description of
myself, but only offering some slight confessions in an apologetic
light, to indicate that if in my absence you dealt as freely with my
unconscious weaknesses as I have dealt with the unconscious weaknesses
of others, I should not feel myself warranted by common-sense in
regarding your freedom of observation as an exceptional case of
evil-speaking; or as malignant interpretation of a character which
really offers no handle to just objection; or even as an unfair use for
your amusement of disadvantages which, since they are mine, should be
regarded with more than ordinary tenderness. Let me at least try to feel
myself in the ranks with my fellow-men. It is true, that I would rather
not hear either your well-founded ridicule or your judicious strictures.
Though not averse to finding fault with myself, and conscious of
deserving lashes, I like to keep the scourge in my own discriminating
hand. I never felt myself sufficiently meritorious to like being hated
as a proof of my superiority, or so thirsty for improvement as to desire
that all my acquaintances should give me their candid opinion of me. I
really do not want to learn from my enemies: I prefer having none to
learn from. Instead of being glad when men use me despitefully, I wish
they would behave better and find a more amiable occupation for their
intervals of business. In brief, after a close intimacy with myself for
a longer period than I choose to mention, I find within me a permanent
longing for approbation, sympathy, and love.

Yet I am a bachelor, and the person I love best has never loved me, or
known that I loved her. Though continually in society, and caring about
the joys and sorrows of my neighbours, I feel myself, so far as my
personal lot is concerned, uncared for and alone. "Your own fault, my
dear fellow!" said Minutius Felix, one day that I had incautiously
mentioned this uninteresting fact. And he was right--in senses other
than he intended. Why should I expect to be admired, and have my company
doated on? I have done no services to my country beyond those of every
peaceable orderly citizen; and as to intellectual contribution, my only
published work was a failure, so that I am spoken of to inquiring
beholders as "the author of a book you have probably not seen." (The
work was a humorous romance, unique in its kind, and I am told is much
tasted in a Cherokee translation, where the jokes are rendered with all
the serious eloquence characteristic of the Red races.) This sort of
distinction, as a writer nobody is likely to have read, can hardly
counteract an indistinctness in my articulation, which the
best-intentioned loudness will not remedy. Then, in some quarters my
awkward feet are against me, the length of my upper lip, and an
inveterate way I have of walking with my head foremost and my chin
projecting. One can become only too well aware of such things by looking
in the glass, or in that other mirror held up to nature in the frank
opinions of street-boys, or of our Free People travelling by excursion
train; and no doubt they account for the half-suppressed smile which I
have observed on some fair faces when I have first been presented before
them. This direct perceptive judgment is not to be argued against. But I
am tempted to remonstrate when the physical points I have mentioned are
apparently taken to warrant unfavourable inferences concerning my mental
quickness. With all the increasing uncertainty which modern progress has
thrown over the relations of mind and body, it seems tolerably clear
that wit cannot be seated in the upper lip, and that the balance of the
haunches in walking has nothing to do with the subtle discrimination of
ideas. Yet strangers evidently do not expect me to make a clever
observation, and my good things are as unnoticed as if they were
anonymous pictures. I have indeed had the mixed satisfaction of finding
that when they were appropriated by some one else they were found
remarkable and even brilliant. It is to be borne in mind that I am not
rich, have neither stud nor cellar, and no very high connections such as
give to a look of imbecility a certain prestige of inheritance through a
titled line; just as "the Austrian lip" confers a grandeur of historical
associations on a kind of feature which might make us reject an
advertising footman. I have now and then done harm to a good cause by
speaking for it in public, and have discovered too late that my attitude
on the occasion would more suitably have been that of negative
beneficence. Is it really to the advantage of an opinion that I should
be known to hold it? And as to the force of my arguments, that is a
secondary consideration with audiences who have given a new scope to the
_ex pede Herculem_ principle, and from awkward feet infer awkward
fallacies. Once, when zeal lifted me on my legs, I distinctly heard an
enlightened artisan remark, "Here's a rum cut!"--and doubtless he
reasoned in the same way as the elegant Glycera when she politely puts
on an air of listening to me, but elevates her eyebrows and chills her
glance in sign of predetermined neutrality: both have their reasons for
judging the quality of my speech beforehand.

This sort of reception to a man of affectionate disposition, who has
also the innocent vanity of desiring to be agreeable, has naturally a
depressing if not embittering tendency; and in early life I began to
seek for some consoling point of view, some warrantable method of
softening the hard peas I had to walk on, some comfortable fanaticism
which might supply the needed self-satisfaction. At one time I dwelt
much on the idea of compensation; trying to believe that I was all the
wiser for my bruised vanity, that I had the higher place in the true
spiritual scale, and even that a day might come when some visible
triumph would place me in the French heaven of having the laughers on my
side. But I presently perceived that this was a very odious sort of
self-cajolery. Was it in the least true that I was wiser than several of
my friends who made an excellent figure, and were perhaps praised a
little beyond their merit? Is the ugly unready man in the corner,
outside the current of conversation, really likely to have a fairer
view of things than the agreeable talker, whose success strikes the
unsuccessful as a repulsive example of forwardness and conceit? And as
to compensation in future years, would the fact that I myself got it
reconcile me to an order of things in which I could see a multitude with
as bad a share as mine, who, instead of getting their corresponding
compensation, were getting beyond the reach of it in old age? What could
be more contemptible than the mood of mind which makes a man measure the
justice of divine or human law by the agreeableness of his own shadow
and the ample satisfaction of his own desires?

I dropped a form of consolation which seemed to be encouraging me in the
persuasion that my discontent was the chief evil in the world, and my
benefit the soul of good in that evil. May there not be at least a
partial release from the imprisoning verdict that a man's philosophy is
the formula of his personality? In certain branches of science we can
ascertain our personal equation, the measure of difference between our
own judgments and an average standard: may there not be some
corresponding correction of our personal partialities in moral
theorising? If a squint or other ocular defect disturbs my vision, I can
get instructed in the fact, be made aware that my condition is abnormal,
and either through spectacles or diligent imagination I can learn the
average appearance of things: is there no remedy or corrective for that
inward squint which consists in a dissatisfied egoism or other want of
mental balance? In my conscience I saw that the bias of personal
discontent was just as misleading and odious as the bias of
self-satisfaction. Whether we look through the rose-coloured glass or
the indigo, we are equally far from the hues which the healthy human eye
beholds in heaven above and earth below. I began to dread ways of
consoling which were really a flattering of native illusions, a
feeding-up into monstrosity of an inward growth already
disproportionate; to get an especial scorn for that scorn of mankind
which is a transmuted disappointment of preposterous claims; to watch
with peculiar alarm lest what I called my philosophic estimate of the
human lot in general, should be a mere prose lyric expressing my own
pain and consequent bad temper. The standing-ground worth striving after
seemed to be some Delectable Mountain, whence I could see things in
proportions as little as possible determined by that self-partiality
which certainly plays a necessary part in our bodily sustenance, but has
a starving effect on the mind.

Thus I finally gave up any attempt to make out that I preferred cutting
a bad figure, and that I liked to be despised, because in this way I was
getting more virtuous than my successful rivals; and I have long looked
with suspicion on all views which are recommended as peculiarly
consolatory to wounded vanity or other personal disappointment. The
consolations of egoism are simply a change of attitude or a resort to a
new kind of diet which soothes and fattens it. Fed in this way it is apt
to become a monstrous spiritual pride, or a chuckling satisfaction that
the final balance will not be against us but against those who now
eclipse us. Examining the world in order to find consolation is very
much like looking carefully over the pages of a great book in order to
find our own name, if not in the text, at least in a laudatory note:
whether we find what we want or not, our preoccupation has hindered us
from a true knowledge of the contents. But an attention fixed on the
main theme or various matter of the book would deliver us from that
slavish subjection to our own self-importance. And I had the mighty
volume of the world before me. Nay, I had the struggling action of a
myriad lives around me, each single life as dear to itself as mine to
me. Was there no escape here from this stupidity of a murmuring
self-occupation? Clearly enough, if anything hindered my thought from
rising to the force of passionately interested contemplation, or my poor
pent-up pond of sensitiveness from widening into a beneficent river of
sympathy, it was my own dulness; and though I could not make myself the
reverse of shallow all at once, I had at least learned where I had
better turn my attention.

Something came of this alteration in my point of view, though I admit
that the result is of no striking kind. It is unnecessary for me to
utter modest denials, since none have assured me that I have a vast
intellectual scope, or--what is more surprising, considering I have
done so little--that I might, if I chose, surpass any distinguished man
whom they wish to depreciate. I have not attained any lofty peak of
magnanimity, nor would I trust beforehand in my capability of meeting a
severe demand for moral heroism. But that I have at least succeeded in
establishing a habit of mind which keeps watch against my
self-partiality and promotes a fair consideration of what touches the
feelings or the fortunes of my neighbours, seems to be proved by the
ready confidence with which men and women appeal to my interest in their
experience. It is gratifying to one who would above all things avoid the
insanity of fancying himself a more momentous or touching object than he
really is, to find that nobody expects from him the least sign of such
mental aberration, and that he is evidently held capable of listening to
all kinds of personal outpouring without the least disposition to become
communicative in the same way. This confirmation of the hope that my
bearing is not that of the self-flattering lunatic is given me in ample
measure. My acquaintances tell me unreservedly of their triumphs and
their piques; explain their purposes at length, and reassure me with
cheerfulness as to their chances of success; insist on their theories
and accept me as a dummy with whom they rehearse their side of future
discussions; unwind their coiled-up griefs in relation to their
husbands, or recite to me examples of feminine incomprehensibleness as
typified in their wives; mention frequently the fair applause which
their merits have wrung from some persons, and the attacks to which
certain oblique motives have stimulated others. At the time when I was
less free from superstition about my own power of charming, I
occasionally, in the glow of sympathy which embraced me and my confiding
friend on the subject of his satisfaction or resentment, was urged to
hint at a corresponding experience in my own case; but the signs of a
rapidly lowering pulse and spreading nervous depression in my previously
vivacious interlocutor, warned me that I was acting on that dangerous
misreading, "Do as you are done by." Recalling the true version of the
golden rule, I could not wish that others should lower my spirits as I
was lowering my friend's. After several times obtaining the same result
from a like experiment in which all the circumstances were varied except
my own personality, I took it as an established inference that these
fitful signs of a lingering belief in my own importance were generally
felt to be abnormal, and were something short of that sanity which I
aimed to secure. Clearness on this point is not without its
gratifications, as I have said. While my desire to explain myself in
private ears has been quelled, the habit of getting interested in the
experience of others has been continually gathering strength, and I am
really at the point of finding that this world would be worth living in
without any lot of one's own. Is it not possible for me to enjoy the
scenery of the earth without saying to myself, I have a cabbage-garden
in it? But this sounds like the lunacy of fancying oneself everybody
else and being unable to play one's own part decently--another form of
the disloyal attempt to be independent of the common lot, and to live
without a sharing of pain.

Perhaps I have made self-betrayals enough already to show that I have
not arrived at that non-human independence. My conversational
reticences about myself turn into garrulousness on paper--as the
sea-lion plunges and swims the more energetically because his limbs are
of a sort to make him shambling on land. The act of writing, in spite of
past experience, brings with it the vague, delightful illusion of an
audience nearer to my idiom than the Cherokees, and more numerous than
the visionary One for whom many authors have declared themselves willing
to go through the pleasing punishment of publication. My illusion is of
a more liberal kind, and I imagine a far-off, hazy, multitudinous
assemblage, as in a picture of Paradise, making an approving chorus to
the sentences and paragraphs of which I myself particularly enjoy the
writing. The haze is a necessary condition. If any physiognomy becomes
distinct in the foreground, it is fatal. The countenance is sure to be
one bent on discountenancing my innocent intentions: it is pale-eyed,
incapable of being amused when I am amused or indignant at what makes me
indignant; it stares at my presumption, pities my ignorance, or is
manifestly preparing to expose the various instances in which I
unconsciously disgrace myself. I shudder at this too corporeal auditor,
and turn towards another point of the compass where the haze is
unbroken. Why should I not indulge this remaining illusion, since I do
not take my approving choral paradise as a warrant for setting the press
to work again and making some thousand sheets of superior paper
unsaleable? I leave my manuscripts to a judgment outside my imagination,
but I will not ask to hear it, or request my friend to pronounce, before
I have been buried decently, what he really thinks of my parts, and to
state candidly whether my papers would be most usefully applied in
lighting the cheerful domestic fire. It is too probable that he will be
exasperated at the trouble I have given him of reading them; but the
consequent clearness and vivacity with which he could demonstrate to me
that the fault of my manuscripts, as of my one published work, is simply
flatness, and not that surpassing subtilty which is the preferable
ground of popular neglect--this verdict, however instructively
expressed, is a portion of earthly discipline of which I will not
beseech my friend to be the instrument. Other persons, I am aware, have
not the same cowardly shrinking from a candid opinion of their
performances, and are even importunately eager for it; but I have
convinced myself in numerous cases that such exposers of their own back
to the smiter were of too hopeful a disposition to believe in the
scourge, and really trusted in a pleasant anointing, an outpouring of
balm without any previous wounds. I am of a less trusting disposition,
and will only ask my friend to use his judgment in insuring me against
posthumous mistake.

Thus I make myself a charter to write, and keep the pleasing, inspiring
illusion of being listened to, though I may sometimes write about
myself. What I have already said on this too familiar theme has been
meant only as a preface, to show that in noting the weaknesses of my
acquaintances I am conscious of my fellowship with them. That a
gratified sense of superiority is at the root of barbarous laughter may
be at least half the truth. But there is a loving laughter in which the
only recognised superiority is that of the ideal self, the God within,
holding the mirror and the scourge for our own pettiness as well as our
neighbours'.

George Eliot