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Of Cleverness


Crichton is an extremely clever person--abnormally, indeed almost
unnaturally, so. He is not merely clever at this or that, but clever all
round; he gives you no consolations. He goes about being needlessly
brilliant. He caps your jests and corrects your mistakes, and does your
special things over again in newer and smarter ways. Any really
well-bred man who presumed so far would at least be plain or physically
feeble, or unhappily married by way of apology, but the idea of so much
civility seems never to have entered Crichton's head. He will come into
a room where we are jesting perhaps, and immediately begin to flourish
about less funny perhaps but decidedly more brilliant jests, until at
last we retire one by one from the conversation and watch him with
savage, weary eyes over our pipes. He invariably beats me at chess,
invariably. People talk about him and ask my opinion of him, and if I
venture to criticise him they begin to look as though they thought I was
jealous. Grossly favourable notices of his books and his pictures crop
up in the most unlikely places; indeed I have almost given up newspapers
on account of him. Yet, after all----

This cleverness is not everything. It never pleases me, and I doubt
sometimes if it pleases anyone. Suppose you let off some clever little
thing, a subtlety of expression, a paradox, an allusive suggestive
picture; how does it affect ordinary people? Those who are less clever
than yourself, the unspecialised, unsophisticated average people, are
simply annoyed by the puzzle you set them; those who are cleverer find
your cleverness mere obvious stupidity; and your equals, your
competitors in cleverness, are naturally your deadly rivals. The fact is
this cleverness, after all, is merely egotism in its worst and unwisest
phase. It is an incontinence of brilliance, graceless and aggressive, a
glaring swagger. The drunken helot of cleverness is the creature who
goes about making puns. A mere step above comes the epigram, the
isolated epigram framed and glazed. Then such impressionist art as
Crichton's pictures, mere puns in paint. What they mean is nothing, they
arrest a quiet decent-minded man like myself with the same spasmodic
disgust as a pun in literature--the subject is a transparent excuse;
they are mere indecent and unedifying exhibitions of himself. He thinks
it is something superlative to do everything in a startling way. He
cannot even sign his name without being offensive. He lacks altogether
the fundamental quality of a gentleman, the magnanimity to be
commonplace. I----

On the score of personal dignity, why should a young man of respectable
antecedents and some natural capacity stoop to this kind of thing? To be
clever is the last desperate resort of the feeble, it is the merit of
the ambitious slave. You cannot conquer _vi et armis_, you cannot
stomach a decent inferiority, so you resort to lively, eccentric, and
brain-wearying brilliance to ingratiate yourself. The cleverest animal
by far is the monkey, and compare that creature's undignified activity
with the mountainous majesty of the elephant!

And I cannot help thinking, too, that cleverness must be the greatest
obstacle a man can possibly have in his way upward in the world. One
never sees really clever people in positions of trust, never widely
influential or deeply rooted. Look, for instance, at the Royal Academy,
at the Judges, at----But there! The very idea of cleverness is an
all-round readiness and looseness that is the very negation of

Whenever Crichton has been particularly exasperating, getting himself
appreciated in a new quarter, or rising above his former successes, I
find some consolation in thinking of my Uncle Augustus. He was the
glory of our family. Even Aunt Charlotte's voice drooped a little in the
mention of his name. He was conspicuous for an imposing and even
colossal stupidity: he rose to eminence through it, and, what is more,
to wealth and influence. He was as reliable, as unlikely to alter his
precise position, or do anything unexpected, as the Pyramids of Egypt. I
do not know any topic upon which he was not absolutely uninformed, and
his contributions to conversation, delivered in that ringing baritone of
his, were appallingly dull. Often I have seen him utterly flatten some
cheerful clever person of the Crichton type with one of his simple
garden-roller remarks--plain, solid, and heavy, which there was no
possibility either of meeting or avoiding. He was very successful in
argument, and yet he never fenced. He simply came down. It was, so to
speak, a case of small sword _versus_ the avalanche. His moral inertia
was tremendous. He was never excited, never anxious, never jaded; he was
simply massive. Cleverness broke upon him like shipping on an ironbound
coast. His monument is like him--a plain large obelisk of coarse
granite, unpretending in its simple ugliness and prominent a mile off.
Among the innumerable little white sorrows of the cemetery it looks
exactly as he used to look among clever people.

Depend upon it cleverness is the antithesis of greatness. The British
Empire, like the Roman, was built up by dull men. It may be we shall be
ruined by clever ones. Imagine a regiment of lively and eccentric
privates! There never was a statesman yet who had not some ballast of
stupidity, and it seems to me that part at least of the essentials of a
genius is a certain divine dulness. The people we used to call the
masters--Shakespeare, Raphael, Milton, and so forth--had a certain
simplicity Crichton lacks. They do not scintillate nearly so much as he
does, and they do not give that same uncomfortable feeling of internal
strain. Even Homer nods. There are restful places in their work, broad
meadows of breezy flatness, calms. But Crichton has no Pacific Ocean to
mitigate his everlasting weary passage of Cape Horn: it is all point
and prominence, point and prominence.

No doubt this Crichton is having a certain vogue now, but it cannot
last. I wish him no evil, of course, but I cannot help thinking he will
presently have had his day. This epoch of cleverness must be very near
its last flare. The last and the abiding thought of humanity is peace. A
dull man will presently be sought like the shadow of a great rock in a
thirsty land. Dulness will be the New Genius. "Give us dull books,"
people will cry, "great dull restful pictures. We are weary, very
weary." This hectic, restless, incessant phase in which we
travail--_fin-de-siècle_, "decadent," and all the rest of it--will pass
away. A chubby, sleepy literature, large in aim, colossal in execution,
rotund and tranquil will lift its head. And this Crichton will become a
classic, Messrs. Mudie will sell surplus copies of his works at a
reduction, and I shall cease to be worried by his disgusting success.

H.G. Wells