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A Too Deferential Man

A little unpremeditated insincerity must be indulged under the stress of
social intercourse. The talk even of an honest man must often represent
merely his wish to be inoffensive or agreeable rather than his genuine
opinion or feeling on the matter in hand. His thought, if uttered, might
be wounding; or he has not the ability to utter it with exactness and
snatches at a loose paraphrase; or he has really no genuine thought on
the question and is driven to fill up the vacancy by borrowing the
remarks in vogue. These are the winds and currents we have all to steer
amongst, and they are often too strong for our truthfulness or our wit.
Let us not bear too hardly on each other for this common incidental
frailty, or think that we rise superior to it by dropping all
considerateness and deference.

But there are studious, deliberate forms of insincerity which it is fair
to be impatient with: Hinze's, for example. From his name you might
suppose him to be German: in fact, his family is Alsatian, but has been
settled in England for more than one generation. He is the superlatively
deferential man, and walks about with murmured wonder at the wisdom and
discernment of everybody who talks to him. He cultivates the low-toned
_tête-à-tête,_ keeping his hat carefully in his hand and often stroking
it, while he smiles with downcast eyes, as if to relieve his feelings
under the pressure of the remarkable conversation which it is his honour
to enjoy at the present moment. I confess to some rage on hearing him
yesterday talking to Felicia, who is certainly a clever woman, and,
without any unusual desire to show her cleverness, occasionally says
something of her own or makes an allusion which is not quite common.
Still, it must happen to her as to every one else to speak of many
subjects on which the best things were said long ago, and in
conversation with a person who has been newly introduced those
well-worn themes naturally recur as a further development of salutations
and preliminary media of understanding, such as pipes, chocolate, or
mastic-chewing, which serve to confirm the impression that our new
acquaintance is on a civilised footing and has enough regard for
formulas to save us from shocking outbursts of individualism, to which
we are always exposed with the tamest bear or baboon. Considered purely
as a matter of information, it cannot any longer be important for us to
learn that a British subject included in the last census holds Shakspere
to be supreme in the presentation of character; still, it is as
admissible for any one to make this statement about himself as to rub
his hands and tell you that the air is brisk, if only he will let it
fall as a matter of course, with a parenthetic lightness, and not
announce his adhesion to a commonplace with an emphatic insistance, as
if it were a proof of singular insight. We mortals should chiefly like
to talk to each other out of goodwill and fellowship, not for the sake
of hearing revelations or being stimulated by witticisms; and I have
usually found that it is the rather dull person who appears to be
disgusted with his contemporaries because they are not always strikingly
original, and to satisfy whom the party at a country house should have
included the prophet Isaiah, Plato, Francis Bacon, and Voltaire. It is
always your heaviest bore who is astonished at the tameness of modern
celebrities: naturally; for a little of his company has reduced them to
a state of flaccid fatigue. It is right and meet that there should be an
abundant utterance of good sound commonplaces. Part of an agreeable
talker's charm is that he lets them fall continually with no more than
their due emphasis. Giving a pleasant voice to what we are all well
assured of, makes a sort of wholesome air for more special and dubious
remark to move in.

Hence it seemed to me far from unbecoming in Felicia that in her first
dialogue with Hinze, previously quite a stranger to her, her
observations were those of an ordinarily refined and well-educated woman
on standard subjects, and might have been printed in a manual of polite
topics and creditable opinions. She had no desire to astonish a man of
whom she had heard nothing particular. It was all the more exasperating
to see and hear Hinze's reception of her well-bred conformities.
Felicia's acquaintances know her as the suitable wife of a distinguished
man, a sensible, vivacious, kindly-disposed woman, helping her husband
with graceful apologies written and spoken, and making her receptions
agreeable to all comers. But you would have imagined that Hinze had been
prepared by general report to regard this introduction to her as an
opportunity comparable to an audience of the Delphic Sibyl. When she had
delivered herself on the changes in Italian travel, on the difficulty of
reading Ariosto in these busy times, on the want of equilibrium in
French political affairs, and on the pre-eminence of German music, he
would know what to think. Felicia was evidently embarrassed by his
reverent wonder, and, in dread lest she should seem to be playing the
oracle, became somewhat confused, stumbling on her answers rather than
choosing them. But this made no difference to Hinze's rapt attention and
subdued eagerness of inquiry. He continued to put large questions,
bending his head slightly that his eyes might be a little lifted in
awaiting her reply.

"What, may I ask, is your opinion as to the state of Art in England?"

"Oh," said Felicia, with a light deprecatory laugh, "I think it suffers
from two diseases--bad taste in the patrons and want of inspiration in
the artists."

"That is true indeed," said Hinze, in an undertone of deep conviction.
"You have put your finger with strict accuracy on the causes of decline.
To a cultivated taste like yours this must be particularly painful."

"I did not say there was actual decline," said Felicia, with a touch of
_brusquerie_. "I don't set myself up as the great personage whom nothing
can please."

"That would be too severe a misfortune for others," says my
complimentary ape. "You approve, perhaps, of Rosemary's 'Babes in the
Wood,' as something fresh and _naïve_ in sculpture?"

"I think it enchanting."

"Does he know that? Or _will_ you permit me to tell him?"

"Heaven forbid! It would be an impertinence in me to praise a work of
his--to pronounce on its quality; and that I happen to like it can be of
no consequence to him."

Here was an occasion for Hinze to smile down on his hat and stroke
it--Felicia's ignorance that her praise was inestimable being peculiarly
noteworthy to an observer of mankind. Presently he was quite sure that
her favourite author was Shakspere, and wished to know what she thought
of Hamlet's madness. When she had quoted Wilhelm Meister on this point,
and had afterwards testified that "Lear" was beyond adequate
presentation, that "Julius Caesar" was an effective acting play, and
that a poet may know a good deal about human nature while knowing little
of geography, Hinze appeared so impressed with the plenitude of these
revelations that he recapitulated them, weaving them together with
threads of compliment--"As you very justly observed;" and--"It is most
true, as you say;" and--"It were well if others noted what you have
remarked."

Some listeners incautious in their epithets would have called Hinze an
"ass." For my part I would never insult that intelligent and
unpretending animal who no doubt brays with perfect simplicity and
substantial meaning to those acquainted with his idiom, and if he feigns
more submission than he feels, has weighty reasons for doing so--I would
never, I say, insult that historic and ill-appreciated animal, the ass,
by giving his name to a man whose continuous pretence is so shallow in
its motive, so unexcused by any sharp appetite as this of Hinze's.

But perhaps you would say that his adulatory manner was originally
adopted under strong promptings of self-interest, and that his absurdly
over-acted deference to persons from whom he expects no patronage is the
unreflecting persistence of habit--just as those who live with the deaf
will shout to everybody else.

And you might indeed imagine that in talking to Tulpian, who has
considerable interest at his disposal, Hinze had a desired appointment
in his mind. Tulpian is appealed to on innumerable subjects, and if he
is unwilling to express himself on any one of them, says so with
instructive copiousness: he is much listened to, and his utterances are
registered and reported with more or less exactitude. But I think he
has no other listener who comports himself as Hinze does--who,
figuratively speaking, carries about a small spoon ready to pick up any
dusty crumb of opinion that the eloquent man may have let drop. Tulpian,
with reverence be it said, has some rather absurd notions, such as a
mind of large discourse often finds room for: they slip about among his
higher conceptions and multitudinous acquirements like disreputable
characters at a national celebration in some vast cathedral, where to
the ardent soul all is glorified by rainbow light and grand
associations: any vulgar detective knows them for what they are. But
Hinze is especially fervid in his desire to hear Tulpian dilate on his
crotchets, and is rather troublesome to bystanders in asking them
whether they have read the various fugitive writings in which these
crotchets have been published. If an expert is explaining some matter on
which you desire to know the evidence, Hinze teases you with Tulpian's
guesses, and asks the expert what he thinks of them.

In general, Hinze delights in the citation of opinions, and would
hardly remark that the sun shone without an air of respectful appeal or
fervid adhesion. The 'Iliad,' one sees, would impress him little if it
were not for what Mr Fugleman has lately said about it; and if you
mention an image or sentiment in Chaucer he seems not to heed the
bearing of your reference, but immediately tells you that Mr Hautboy,
too, regards Chaucer as a poet of the first order, and he is delighted
to find that two such judges as you and Hautboy are at one.

What is the reason of all this subdued ecstasy, moving about, hat in
hand, with well-dressed hair and attitudes of unimpeachable correctness?
Some persons conscious of sagacity decide at once that Hinze knows what
he is about in flattering Tulpian, and has a carefully appraised end to
serve though they may not see it They are misled by the common mistake
of supposing that men's behaviour, whether habitual or occasional, is
chiefly determined by a distinctly conceived motive, a definite object
to be gained or a definite evil to be avoided. The truth is, that, the
primitive wants of nature once tolerably satisfied, the majority of
mankind, even in a civilised life full of solicitations, are with
difficulty aroused to the distinct conception of an object towards which
they will direct their actions with careful adaptation, and it is yet
rarer to find one who can persist in the systematic pursuit of such an
end. Few lives are shaped, few characters formed, by the contemplation
of definite consequences seen from a distance and made the goal of
continuous effort or the beacon of a constantly avoided danger: such
control by foresight, such vivid picturing and practical logic are the
distinction of exceptionally strong natures; but society is chiefly made
up of human beings whose daily acts are all performed either in
unreflecting obedience to custom and routine or from immediate
promptings of thought or feeling to execute an immediate purpose. They
pay their poor-rates, give their vote in affairs political or parochial,
wear a certain amount of starch, hinder boys from tormenting the
helpless, and spend money on tedious observances called pleasures,
without mentally adjusting these practices to their own well-understood
interest or to the general, ultimate welfare of the human race; and when
they fall into ungraceful compliment, excessive smiling or other
luckless efforts of complaisant behaviour, these are but the tricks or
habits gradually formed under the successive promptings of a wish to be
agreeable, stimulated day by day without any widening resources for
gratifying the wish. It does not in the least follow that they are
seeking by studied hypocrisy to get something for themselves. And so
with Hinze's deferential bearing, complimentary parentheses, and
worshipful tones, which seem to some like the over-acting of a part in a
comedy. He expects no appointment or other appreciable gain through
Tulpian's favour; he has no doubleness towards Felicia; there is no
sneering or backbiting obverse to his ecstatic admiration. He is very
well off in the world, and cherishes no unsatisfied ambition that could
feed design and direct flattery. As you perceive, he has had the
education and other advantages of a gentleman without being conscious of
marked result, such as a decided preference for any particular ideas or
functions: his mind is furnished as hotels are, with everything for
occasional and transient use. But one cannot be an Englishman and
gentleman in general: it is in the nature of things that one must have
an individuality, though it may be of an often-repeated type. As Hinze
in growing to maturity had grown into a particular form and expression
of person, so he necessarily gathered a manner and frame of speech which
made him additionally recognisable. His nature is not tuned to the pitch
of a genuine direct admiration, only to an attitudinising deference
which does not fatigue itself with the formation of real judgments. All
human achievement must be wrought down to this spoon-meat--this mixture
of other persons' washy opinions and his own flux of reverence for what
is third-hand, before Hinze can find a relish for it.

He has no more leading characteristic than the desire to stand well with
those who are justly distinguished; he has no base admirations, and you
may know by his entire presentation of himself, from the management of
his hat to the angle at which he keeps his right foot, that he aspires
to correctness. Desiring to behave becomingly and also to make a figure
in dialogue, he is only like the bad artist whose picture is a failure.
We may pity these ill-gifted strivers, but not pretend that their works
are pleasant to behold. A man is bound to know something of his own
weight and muscular dexterity, and the puny athlete is called foolish
before he is seen to be thrown. Hinze has not the stuff in him to be at
once agreeably conversational and sincere, and he has got himself up to
be at all events agreeably conversational. Notwithstanding this
deliberateness of intention in his talk he is unconscious of falsity,
for he has not enough of deep and lasting impression to find a contrast
or diversity between his words and his thoughts. He is not fairly to be
called a hypocrite, but I have already confessed to the more
exasperation at his make-believe reverence, because it has no deep
hunger to excuse it.


George Eliot