Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

False Testimonials

HOW WE COME TO GIVE OURSELVES FALSE TESTIMONIALS, AND BELIEVE IN THEM.

It is my way when I observe any instance of folly, any queer habit, any
absurd illusion, straightway to look for something of the same type in
myself, feeling sure that amid all differences there will be a certain
correspondence; just as there is more or less correspondence in the
natural history even of continents widely apart, and of islands in
opposite zones. No doubt men's minds differ in what we may call their
climate or share of solar energy, and a feeling or tendency which is
comparable to a panther in one may have no more imposing aspect than
that of a weasel in another: some are like a tropical habitat in which
the very ferns cast a mighty shadow, and the grasses are a dry ocean in
which a hunter may be submerged; others like the chilly latitudes in
which your forest-tree, fit elsewhere to prop a mine, is a pretty
miniature suitable for fancy potting. The eccentric man might be
typified by the Australian fauna, refuting half our judicious
assumptions of what nature allows. Still, whether fate commanded us to
thatch our persons among the Eskimos or to choose the latest thing in
tattooing among the Polynesian isles, our precious guide Comparison
would teach us in the first place by likeness, and our clue to further
knowledge would be resemblance to what we already know. Hence, having a
keen interest in the natural history of my inward self, I pursue this
plan I have mentioned of using my observation as a clue or lantern by
which I detect small herbage or lurking life; or I take my neighbour in
his least becoming tricks or efforts as an opportunity for luminous
deduction concerning the figure the human genus makes in the specimen
which I myself furnish.

Introspection which starts with the purpose of finding out one's own
absurdities is not likely to be very mischievous, yet of course it is
not free from dangers any more than breathing is, or the other functions
that keep us alive and active. To judge of others by oneself is in its
most innocent meaning the briefest expression for our only method of
knowing mankind; yet, we perceive, it has come to mean in many cases
either the vulgar mistake which reduces every man's value to the very
low figure at which the valuer himself happens to stand; or else, the
amiable illusion of the higher nature misled by a too generous
construction of the lower. One cannot give a recipe for wise judgment:
it resembles appropriate muscular action, which is attained by the
myriad lessons in nicety of balance and of aim that only practice can
give. The danger of the inverse procedure, judging of self by what one
observes in others, if it is carried on with much impartiality and
keenness of discernment, is that it has a laming effect, enfeebling the
energies of indignation and scorn, which are the proper scourges of
wrong-doing and meanness, and which should continually feed the
wholesome restraining power of public opinion. I respect the horsewhip
when applied to the back of Cruelty, and think that he who applies it is
a more perfect human being because his outleap of indignation is not
checked by a too curious reflection on the nature of guilt--a more
perfect human being because he more completely incorporates the best
social life of the race, which can never be constituted by ideas that
nullify action. This is the essence of Dante's sentiment (it is painful
to think that he applies it very cruelly)--

"E cortesia fu, lui esser villano"[1]--

and it is undeniable that a too intense consciousness of one's kinship
with all frailties and vices undermines the active heroism which battles
against wrong.

But certainly nature has taken care that this danger should not at
present be very threatening. One could not fairly describe the
generality of one's neighbours as too lucidly aware of manifesting in
their own persons the weaknesses which they observe in the rest of her
Majesty's subjects; on the contrary, a hasty conclusion as to schemes of
Providence might lead to the supposition that one man was intended to
correct another by being most intolerant of the ugly quality or trick
which he himself possesses. Doubtless philosophers will be able to
explain how it must necessarily be so, but pending the full extension of
the _à priori_ method, which will show that only blockheads could expect
anything to be otherwise, it does seem surprising that Heloisa should be
disgusted at Laura's attempts to disguise her age, attempts which she
recognises so thoroughly because they enter into her own practice; that
Semper, who often responds at public dinners and proposes resolutions on
platforms, though he has a trying gestation of every speech and a bad
time for himself and others at every delivery, should yet remark
pitilessly on the folly of precisely the same course of action in
Ubique; that Aliquis, who lets no attack on himself pass unnoticed, and
for every handful of gravel against his windows sends a stone in reply,
should deplore the ill-advised retorts of Quispiam, who does not
perceive that to show oneself angry with an adversary is to gratify him.
To be unaware of our own little tricks of manner or our own mental
blemishes and excesses is a comprehensible unconsciousness; the puzzling
fact is that people should apparently take no account of their
deliberate actions, and should expect them to be equally ignored by
others. It is an inversion of the accepted order: _there_ it is the
phrases that are official and the conduct or privately manifested
sentiment that is taken to be real; _here_ it seems that the practice is
taken to be official and entirely nullified by the verbal representation
which contradicts it. The thief making a vow to heaven of full
restitution and whispering some reservations, expecting to cheat
Omniscience by an "aside," is hardly more ludicrous than the many ladies
and gentlemen who have more belief, and expect others to have it, in
their own statement about their habitual doings than in the
contradictory fact which is patent in the daylight. One reason of the
absurdity is that we are led by a tradition about ourselves, so that
long after a man has practically departed from a rule or principle, he
continues innocently to state it as a true description of his
practice--just as he has a long tradition that he is not an old
gentleman, and is startled when he is seventy at overhearing himself
called by an epithet which he has only applied to others.

[Footnote 1: Inferno, xxxii. 150.]

"A person with your tendency of constitution should take as little sugar
as possible," said Pilulus to Bovis somewhere in the darker decades of
this century. "It has made a great difference to Avis since he took my
advice in that matter: he used to consume half a pound a-day."

"God bless me!" cries Bovis. "I take very little sugar myself."

"Twenty-six large lumps every day of your life, Mr Bovis," says his
wife.

"No such thing!" exclaims Bovis.

"You drop them into your tea, coffee, and whisky yourself, my dear, and
I count them."

"Nonsense!" laughs Bovis, turning to Pilulus, that they may exchange a
glance of mutual amusement at a woman's inaccuracy.

But she happened to be right. Bovis had never said inwardly that he
would take a large allowance of sugar, and he had the tradition about
himself that he was a man of the most moderate habits; hence, with this
conviction, he was naturally disgusted at the saccharine excesses of
Avis.

I have sometimes thought that this facility of men in believing that
they are still what they once meant to be--this undisturbed
appropriation of a traditional character which is often but a melancholy
relic of early resolutions, like the worn and soiled testimonial to
soberness and honesty carried in the pocket of a tippler whom the need
of a dram has driven into peculation--may sometimes diminish the
turpitude of what seems a flat, barefaced falsehood. It is notorious
that a man may go on uttering false assertions about his own acts till
he at last believes in them: is it not possible that sometimes in the
very first utterance there may be a shade of creed-reciting belief, a
reproduction of a traditional self which is clung to against all
evidence? There is no knowing all the disguises of the lying serpent.

When we come to examine in detail what is the sane mind in the sane
body, the final test of completeness seems to be a security of
distinction between what we have professed and what we have done; what
we have aimed at and what we have achieved; what we have invented and
what we have witnessed or had evidenced to us; what we think and feel in
the present and what we thought and felt in the past.

I know that there is a common prejudice which regards the habitual
confusion of _now_ and _then_, of _it was_ and _it is_, of _it seemed
so_ and _I should like it to be so_, as a mark of high imaginative
endowment, while the power of precise statement and description is rated
lower, as the attitude of an everyday prosaic mind. High imagination is
often assigned or claimed as if it were a ready activity in fabricating
extravagances such as are presented by fevered dreams, or as if its
possessors were in that state of inability to give credible testimony
which would warrant their exclusion from the class of acceptable
witnesses in a court of justice; so that a creative genius might fairly
be subjected to the disability which some laws have stamped on dicers,
slaves, and other classes whose position was held perverting to their
sense of social responsibility.

This endowment of mental confusion is often boasted of by persons whose
imaginativeness would not otherwise be known, unless it were by the slow
process of detecting that their descriptions and narratives were not to
be trusted. Callista is always ready to testify of herself that she is
an imaginative person, and sometimes adds in illustration, that if she
had taken a walk and seen an old heap of stones on her way, the account
she would give on returning would include many pleasing particulars of
her own invention, transforming the simple heap into an interesting
castellated ruin. This creative freedom is all very well in the right
place, but before I can grant it to be a sign of unusual mental power, I
must inquire whether, on being requested to give a precise description
of what she saw, she would be able to cast aside her arbitrary
combinations and recover the objects she really perceived so as to make
them recognisable by another person who passed the same way. Otherwise
her glorifying imagination is not an addition to the fundamental power
of strong, discerning perception, but a cheaper substitute. And, in
fact, I find on listening to Callista's conversation, that she has a
very lax conception even of common objects, and an equally lax memory of
events. It seems of no consequence to her whether she shall say that a
stone is overgrown with moss or with lichen, that a building is of
sandstone or of granite, that Meliboeus once forgot to put on his cravat
or that he always appears without it; that everybody says so, or that
one stock-broker's wife said so yesterday; that Philemon praised
Euphemia up to the skies, or that he denied knowing any particular evil
of her. She is one of those respectable witnesses who would testify to
the exact moment of an apparition, because any desirable moment will be
as exact as another to her remembrance; or who would be the most worthy
to witness the action of spirits on slates and tables because the action
of limbs would not probably arrest her attention. She would describe the
surprising phenomena exhibited by the powerful Medium with the same
freedom that she vaunted in relation to the old heap of stones. Her
supposed imaginativeness is simply a very usual lack of discriminating
perception, accompanied with a less usual activity of misrepresentation,
which, if it had been a little more intense, or had been stimulated by
circumstance, might have made her a profuse writer unchecked by the
troublesome need of veracity.

These characteristics are the very opposite of such as yield a fine
imagination, which is always based on a keen vision, a keen
consciousness of what _is_, and carries the store of definite knowledge
as material for the construction of its inward visions. Witness Dante,
who is at once the most precise and homely in his reproduction of actual
objects, and the most soaringly at large in his imaginative
combinations. On a much lower level we distinguish the hyperbole and
rapid development in descriptions of persons and events which are lit up
by humorous intention in the speaker--we distinguish this charming play
of intelligence which resembles musical improvisation on a given motive,
where the farthest sweep of curve is looped into relevancy by an
instinctive method, from the florid inaccuracy or helpless exaggeration
which is really something commoner than the correct simplicity often
depreciated as prosaic.

Even if high imagination were to be identified with illusion, there
would be the same sort of difference between the imperial wealth of
illusion which is informed by industrious submissive observation and the
trumpery stage-property illusion which depends on the ill-defined
impressions gathered by capricious inclination, as there is between a
good and a bad picture of the Last Judgment. In both these the subject
is a combination never actually witnessed, and in the good picture the
general combination may be of surpassing boldness; but on examination it
is seen that the separate elements have been closely studied from real
objects. And even where we find the charm of ideal elevation with wrong
drawing and fantastic colour, the charm is dependent on the selective
sensibility of the painter to certain real delicacies of form which
confer the expression he longed to render; for apart from this basis of
an effect perceived in common, there could be no conveyance of aesthetic
meaning by the painter to the beholder. In this sense it is as true to
say of Fra Angelico's Coronation of the Virgin, that it has a strain of
reality, as to say so of a portrait by Rembrandt, which also has its
strain of ideal elevation due to Rembrandt's virile selective
sensibility. To correct such self-flatterers as Callista, it is worth
repeating that powerful imagination is not false outward vision, but
intense inward representation, and a creative energy constantly fed by
susceptibility to the veriest minutiae of experience, which it
reproduces and constructs in fresh and fresh wholes; not the habitual
confusion of provable fact with the fictions of fancy and transient
inclination, but a breadth of ideal association which informs every
material object, every incidental fact with far-reaching memories and
stored residues of passion, bringing into new light the less obvious
relations of human existence. The illusion to which it is liable is not
that of habitually taking duck-ponds for lilied pools, but of being more
or less transiently and in varying degrees so absorbed in ideal vision
as to lose the consciousness of surrounding objects or occurrences; and
when that rapt condition is past, the sane genius discriminates clearly
between what has been given in this parenthetic state of excitement, and
what he has known, and may count on, in the ordinary world of
experience. Dante seems to have expressed these conditions perfectly in
that passage of the _Purgatorio_ where, after a triple vision which has
made him forget his surroundings, he says--

"Quando l'anima mia tornò di fuori
Alle cose che son fuor di lei vere,
Io riconobbi i miei non falsi errori."--
(c xv)


He distinguishes the ideal truth of his entranced vision from the series
of external facts to which his consciousness had returned. Isaiah gives
us the date of his vision in the Temple--"the year that King Uzziah
died"--and if afterwards the mighty-winged seraphim were present with
him as he trod the street, he doubtless knew them for images of memory,
and did not cry "Look!" to the passers-by.

Certainly the seer, whether prophet, philosopher, scientific discoverer,
or poet, may happen to be rather mad: his powers may have been used up,
like Don Quixote's, in their visionary or theoretic constructions, so
that the reports of common-sense fail to affect him, or the continuous
strain of excitement may have robbed his mind of its elasticity. It is
hard for our frail mortality to carry the burthen of greatness with
steady gait and full alacrity of perception. But he is the strongest
seer who can support the stress of creative energy and yet keep that
sanity of expectation which consists in distinguishing, as Dante does,
between the _cose che son vere_ outside the individual mind, and the
_non falsi errori_ which are the revelations of true imaginative power.


George Eliot