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The Too Ready Writer

One who talks too much, hindering the rest of the company from taking
their turn, and apparently seeing no reason why they should not rather
desire to know his opinion or experience in relation to all subjects, or
at least to renounce the discussion of any topic where he can make no
figure, has never been praised for this industrious monopoly of work
which others would willingly have shared in. However various and
brilliant his talk may be, we suspect him of impoverishing us by
excluding the contributions of other minds, which attract our curiosity
the more because he has shut them up in silence. Besides, we get tired
of a "manner" in conversation as in painting, when one theme after
another is treated with the same lines and touches. I begin with a
liking for an estimable master, but by the time he has stretched his
interpretation of the world unbrokenly along a palatial gallery, I have
had what the cautious Scotch mind would call "enough" of him. There is
monotony and narrowness already to spare in my own identity; what comes
to me from without should be larger and more impartial than the judgment
of any single interpreter. On this ground even a modest person, without
power or will to shine in the conversation, may easily find the
predominating talker a nuisance, while those who are full of matter on
special topics are continually detecting miserably thin places in the
web of that information which he will not desist from imparting. Nobody
that I know of ever proposed a testimonial to a man for thus
volunteering the whole expense of the conversation.

Why is there a different standard of judgment with regard to a writer
who plays much the same part in literature as the excessive talker plays
in what is traditionally called conversation? The busy Adrastus, whose
professional engagements might seem more than enough for the nervous
energy of one man, and who yet finds time to print essays on the chief
current subjects, from the tri-lingual inscriptions, or the Idea of the
Infinite among the prehistoric Lapps, to the Colorado beetle and the
grape disease in the south of France, is generally praised if not
admired for the breadth of his mental range and his gigantic powers of
work. Poor Theron, who has some original ideas on a subject to which he
has given years of research and meditation, has been waiting anxiously
from month to month to see whether his condensed exposition will find a
place in the next advertised programme, but sees it, on the contrary,
regularly excluded, and twice the space he asked for filled with the
copious brew of Adrastus, whose name carries custom like a celebrated
trade-mark. Why should the eager haste to tell what he thinks on the
shortest notice, as if his opinion were a needed preliminary to
discussion, get a man the reputation of being a conceited bore in
conversation, when nobody blames the same tendency if it shows itself in
print? The excessive talker can only be in one gathering at a time, and
there is the comfort of thinking that everywhere else other
fellow-citizens who have something to say may get a chance of delivering
themselves; but the exorbitant writer can occupy space and spread over
it the more or less agreeable flavour of his mind in four "mediums" at
once, and on subjects taken from the four winds. Such restless and
versatile occupants of literary space and time should have lived earlier
when the world wanted summaries of all extant knowledge, and this
knowledge being small, there was the more room for commentary and
conjecture. They might have played the part of an Isidor of Seville or a
Vincent of Beauvais brilliantly, and the willingness to write everything
themselves would have been strictly in place. In the present day, the
busy retailer of other people's knowledge which he has spoiled in the
handling, the restless guesser and commentator, the importunate hawker
of undesirable superfluities, the everlasting word-compeller who rises
early in the morning to praise what the world has already glorified, or
makes himself haggard at night in writing out his dissent from what
nobody ever believed, is not simply "gratis anhelans, multa agendo nihil
agens"--he is an obstruction. Like an incompetent architect with too
much interest at his back, he obtrudes his ill-considered work where
place ought to have been left to better men.

Is it out of the question that we should entertain some scruple about
mixing our own flavour, as of the too cheap and insistent nutmeg, with
that of every great writer and every great subject?--especially when our
flavour is all we have to give, the matter or knowledge having been
already given by somebody else. What if we were only like the Spanish
wine-skins which impress the innocent stranger with the notion that the
Spanish grape has naturally a taste of leather? One could wish that even
the greatest minds should leave some themes unhandled, or at least leave
us no more than a paragraph or two on them to show how well they did in
not being more lengthy.

Such entertainment of scruple can hardly be expected from the young; but
happily their readiness to mirror the universe anew for the rest of
mankind is not encouraged by easy publicity. In the vivacious Pepin I
have often seen the image of my early youth, when it seemed to me
astonishing that the philosophers had left so many difficulties
unsolved, and that so many great themes had raised no great poet to
treat them. I had an elated sense that I should find my brain full of
theoretic clues when I looked for them, and that wherever a poet had not
done what I expected, it was for want of my insight. Not knowing what
had been said about the play of Romeo and Juliet, I felt myself capable
of writing something original on its blemishes and beauties. In relation
to all subjects I had a joyous consciousness of that ability which is
prior to knowledge, and of only needing to apply myself in order to
master any task--to conciliate philosophers whose systems were at
present but dimly known to me, to estimate foreign poets whom I had not
yet read, to show up mistakes in an historical monograph that roused my
interest in an epoch which I had been hitherto ignorant of, when I
should once have had time to verify my views of probability by looking
into an encyclopaedia. So Pepin; save only that he is industrious while
I was idle. Like the astronomer in Rasselas, I swayed the universe in my
consciousness without making any difference outside me; whereas Pepin,
while feeling himself powerful with the stars in their courses, really
raises some dust here below. He is no longer in his spring-tide, but
having been always busy he has been obliged to use his first impressions
as if they were deliberate opinions, and to range himself on the
corresponding side in ignorance of much that he commits himself to; so
that he retains some characteristics of a comparatively tender age, and
among them a certain surprise that there have not been more persons
equal to himself. Perhaps it is unfortunate for him that he early gained
a hearing, or at least a place in print, and was thus encouraged in
acquiring a fixed habit of writing, to the exclusion of any other
bread-winning pursuit. He is already to be classed as a "general
writer," corresponding to the comprehensive wants of the "general
reader," and with this industry on his hands it is not enough for him to
keep up the ingenuous self-reliance of youth: he finds himself under an
obligation to be skilled in various methods of seeming to know; and
having habitually expressed himself before he was convinced, his
interest in all subjects is chiefly to ascertain that he has not made a
mistake, and to feel his infallibility confirmed. That impulse to
decide, that vague sense of being able to achieve the unattempted, that
dream of aerial unlimited movement at will without feet or wings, which
were once but the joyous mounting of young sap, are already taking shape
as unalterable woody fibre: the impulse has hardened into "style," and
into a pattern of peremptory sentences; the sense of ability in the
presence of other men's failures is turning into the official arrogance
of one who habitually issues directions which he has never himself been
called on to execute; the dreamy buoyancy of the stripling has taken on
a fatal sort of reality in written pretensions which carry consequences.
He is on the way to become like the loud-buzzing, bouncing Bombus who
combines conceited illusions enough to supply several patients in a
lunatic asylum with the freedom to show himself at large in various
forms of print. If one who takes himself for the telegraphic centre of
all American wires is to be confined as unfit to transact affairs, what
shall we say to the man who believes himself in possession of the
unexpressed motives and designs dwelling in the breasts of all
sovereigns and all politicians? And I grieve to think that poor Pepin,
though less political, may by-and-by manifest a persuasion hardly more
sane, for he is beginning to explain people's writing by what he does
not know about them. Yet he was once at the comparatively innocent stage
which I have confessed to be that of my own early astonishment at my
powerful originality; and copying the just humility of the old Puritan,
I may say, "But for the grace of discouragement, this coxcombry might
have been mine."

Pepin made for himself a necessity of writing (and getting printed)
before he had considered whether he had the knowledge or belief that
would furnish eligible matter. At first perhaps the necessity galled him
a little, but it is now as easily borne, nay, is as irrepressible a
habit as the outpouring of inconsiderate talk. He is gradually being
condemned to have no genuine impressions, no direct consciousness of
enjoyment or the reverse from the quality of what is before him: his
perceptions are continually arranging themselves in forms suitable to a
printed judgment, and hence they will often turn out to be as much to
the purpose if they are written without any direct contemplation of the
object, and are guided by a few external conditions which serve to
classify it for him. In this way he is irrevocably losing the faculty of
accurate mental vision: having bound himself to express judgments which
will satisfy some other demands than that of veracity, he has blunted
his perceptions by continual preoccupation. We cannot command veracity
at will: the power of seeing and reporting truly is a form of health
that has to be delicately guarded, and as an ancient Rabbi has solemnly
said, "The penalty of untruth is untruth." But Pepin is only a mild
example of the fact that incessant writing with a view to printing
carries internal consequences which have often the nature of disease.
And however unpractical it may be held to consider whether we have
anything to print which it is good for the world to read, or which has
not been better said before, it will perhaps be allowed to be worth
considering what effect the printing may have on ourselves. Clearly
there is a sort of writing which helps to keep the writer in a
ridiculously contented ignorance; raising in him continually the sense
of having delivered himself effectively, so that the acquirement of more
thorough knowledge seems as superfluous as the purchase of costume for a
past occasion. He has invested his vanity (perhaps his hope of income)
in his own shallownesses and mistakes, and must desire their prosperity.
Like the professional prophet, he learns to be glad of the harm that
keeps up his credit, and to be sorry for the good that contradicts him.
It is hard enough for any of us, amid the changing winds of fortune and
the hurly-burly of events, to keep quite clear of a gladness which is
another's calamity; but one may choose not to enter on a course which
will turn such gladness into a fixed habit of mind, committing ourselves
to be continually pleased that others should appear to be wrong in order
that we may have the air of being right.

In some cases, perhaps, it might be urged that Pepin has remained the
more self-contented because he has _not_ written everything he believed
himself capable of. He once asked me to read a sort of programme of the
species of romance which he should think it worth while to write--a
species which he contrasted in strong terms with the productions of
illustrious but overrated authors in this branch. Pepin's romance was to
present the splendours of the Roman Empire at the culmination of its
grandeur, when decadence was spiritually but not visibly imminent: it
was to show the workings of human passion in the most pregnant and
exalted of human circumstances, the designs of statesmen, the
interfusion of philosophies, the rural relaxation and converse of
immortal poets, the majestic triumphs of warriors, the mingling of the
quaint and sublime in religious ceremony, the gorgeous delirium of
gladiatorial shows, and under all the secretly working leaven of
Christianity. Such a romance would not call the attention of society to
the dialect of stable-boys, the low habits of rustics, the vulgarity of
small schoolmasters, the manners of men in livery, or to any other form
of uneducated talk and sentiments: its characters would have virtues and
vices alike on the grand scale, and would express themselves in an
English representing the discourse of the most powerful minds in the
best Latin, or possibly Greek, when there occurred a scene with a Greek
philosopher on a visit to Rome or resident there as a teacher. In this
way Pepin would do in fiction what had never been done before: something
not at all like 'Rienzi' or 'Notre Dame de Paris,' or any other attempt
of that kind; but something at once more penetrating and more
magnificent, more passionate and more philosophical, more panoramic yet
more select: something that would present a conception of a gigantic
period; in short something truly Roman and world-historical.

When Pepin gave me this programme to read he was much younger than at
present. Some slight success in another vein diverted him from the
production of panoramic and select romance, and the experience of not
having tried to carry out his programme has naturally made him more
biting and sarcastic on the failures of those who have actually written
romances without apparently having had a glimpse of a conception equal
to his. Indeed, I am often comparing his rather touchingly inflated
_naïveté_ as of a small young person walking on tiptoe while he is
talking of elevated things, at the time when he felt himself the author
of that unwritten romance, with his present epigrammatic curtness and
affectation of power kept strictly in reserve. His paragraphs now seem
to have a bitter smile in them, from the consciousness of a mind too
penetrating to accept any other man's ideas, and too equally competent
in all directions to seclude his power in any one form of creation, but
rather fitted to hang over them all as a lamp of guidance to the
stumblers below. You perceive how proud he is of not being indebted to
any writer: even with the dead he is on the creditor's side, for he is
doing them the service of letting the world know what they meant better
than those poor pre-Pepinians themselves had any means of doing, and he
treats the mighty shades very cavalierly.

Is this fellow--citizen of ours, considered simply in the light of a
baptised Christian and tax-paying Englishman, really as madly
conceited, as empty of reverential feeling, as unveracious and careless
of justice, as full of catch-penny devices and stagey attitudinising as
on examination his writing shows itself to be? By no means. He has
arrived at his present pass in "the literary calling" through the
self-imposed obligation to give himself a manner which would convey the
impression of superior knowledge and ability. He is much worthier and
more admirable than his written productions, because the moral aspects
exhibited in his writing are felt to be ridiculous or disgraceful in the
personal relations of life. In blaming Pepin's writing we are accusing
the public conscience, which is so lax and ill informed on the momentous
bearings of authorship that it sanctions the total absence of scruple in
undertaking and prosecuting what should be the best warranted of
vocations.

Hence I still accept friendly relations with Pepin, for he has much
private amiability, and though he probably thinks of me as a man of
slender talents, without rapidity of _coup d'oeil_ and with no
compensatory penetration, he meets me very cordially, and would not, I
am sure, willingly pain me in conversation by crudely declaring his low
estimate of my capacity. Yet I have often known him to insult my betters
and contribute (perhaps unreflectingly) to encourage injurious
conceptions of them--but that was done in the course of his professional
writing, and the public conscience still leaves such writing nearly on
the level of the Merry-Andrew's dress, which permits an impudent
deportment and extraordinary gambols to one who in his ordinary clothing
shows himself the decent father of a family.


George Eliot