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Sclerosis of the Tastes

The other day one of those convertible familiars of the Easy Chair, who

"Change and pass and come again,"

looked in upon it, after some months' absence, with the effect of having aged considerably in the interval. But this was only his latest avatar; he was no older, as he was no younger, than before; to support a fresh character, he had to put on an appropriate aspect, and having, at former interviews, been a poet, a novelist, a philosopher, a reformer, a moralist, he was now merely looking the part of a veteran observer, of a psychologist grown gray in divining the character of others from his own consciousness.

"Have you ever noticed," he began, "that the first things we get stiff in, as we advance in life, are our tastes? We suppose that it is our joints which feel the premonitions of age; and that because we no longer wish to dance or play ball or sprint in college races we are in the earliest stage of that sapless condition when the hinges of the body grind dryly upon one another, and we lose a good inch of our stature, through shrinkage, though the spine still holds us steadfastly upright."

"Well, isn't that so?" the Easy Chair asked, tranquilly.

"It may be so, or it may not be so," the veteran observer replied. "Ultimately, I dare say, it is so. But what I wish to enforce is the fact that before you begin to feel the faintest sense of stiffening joints you are allowing yourself to fall into that voluntary senescence which I call getting stiff in the tastes. It is something that I think we ought to guard ourselves against as a sort of mental sclerosis which must end fatally long before we have reached the patriarchal age which that unbelieving believer Metchnikoff says we can attain if we fight off physical sclerosis. He can only negatively teach us how to do this, but I maintain we can have each of us in our power the remedy against stiffening tastes."

"I don't see how," the Easy Chair said, more to provoke the sage to explanation than to express dissent.

"I will teach you how," he said, "if you will allow me to make it a personal matter, and use you in illustration."

"Why not use yourself?"

"Because that would be egotistical, and the prime ingredient of my specific against getting stiff in the tastes is that spiritual grace which is the very antidote, the very antithesis of egotism. Up to a certain point, a certain time, we are usefully employed in cultivating our tastes, in refining them, and in defining them. We cannot be too strenuous in defining them; and, as long as we are young, the catholicity of youth will preserve us from a bigoted narrowness. In æsthetic matters—and I imagine we both understand that we are dealing with these—the youngest youth has no tastes; it has merely appetites. All is fish that comes to its net; if anything, it prefers the gaudier of the finny tribes; it is only when it becomes sophisticated that its appetites turn into tastes, and it begins to appreciate the flavor of that diseased but pearl-bearing species of oyster which we call genius, because we have no accurate name for it. With the appreciation of this flavor comes the overpowering desire for it, the incessant and limitless search for it. To the desire for it whole literatures owe their continued existence, since, except for the universal genius-hunger of youth, the classics of almost all languages would have perished long ago. When indiscriminate and omnivorous youth has explored those vast and mostly lifeless seas, it has found that the diseased oyster which bears the pearls is the rarest object in nature. But having once formed the taste for it, youth will have no other flavor, and it is at this moment that its danger of hardening into premature age begins. The conceit of having recognized genius takes the form of a bigoted denial of its existence save in the instances recognized. This conceit does not admit the possibility of error or omission in the search, and it does not allow that the diseased oyster can transmit its pearl-bearing qualities and its peculiar flavors; so that the attitude of aging youth, in the stiffening of its tastes, is one of rejection toward all new bivalves, or, not to be tediously metaphorical, books."

The veteran observer fell silent at this point, and the Easy Chair seized the occasion to remark: "Yes, there is something in what you say. But this stiffening of the tastes, this sclerosis of the mind, is hardly an infectious disease——"

"Ah, but it is infectious," the veteran observer exclaimed, rousing himself, "infectious as far as the victim can possibly make it so. He wishes nothing so much as to impart his opinions in all their rigidity to everybody else. Take your own case, for instance——"

"No, we would rather not," the Easy Chair interposed.

"But you must make the sacrifice," the veteran observer persisted. "You will allow that you are extremely opinionated?"

"Not at all."

"Well, then, that you are devoutly conscientious in the tenure of your æsthetic beliefs?"

"Something like that, yes."

"And you cannot deny that in times past you have tried your best to make others think with you?"

"It was our duty."

"Well, let it pass for that. It amounted to an effort to make your mental sclerosis infectious, and it was all the worse because, in you, the stiffening of the tastes had taken the form of aversions rather than preferences. You did not so much wish your readers to like your favorite authors as to hate all the others. At the time when there was a fad for making lists of The Hundred Best Authors, I always wondered that you didn't put forth some such schedule."

"We had the notion of doing something of the kind," the Easy Chair confessed, "but we could not think of more than ten or a dozen really first-rate authors, and if we had begun to compile a list of the best authors we should have had to leave out most of their works. Nearly all the classics would have gone by the board. What havoc we should have made with the British poets! The Elizabethan dramatists would mostly have fallen under the ban of our negation, to a play, if not to a man. Chaucer, but for a few poems, is impossible; Spenser's poetry is generally duller than the Presidents' messages before Mr. Roosevelt's time; Milton is a trial of the spirit in three-fourths of his verse; Wordsworth is only not so bad as Byron, who thought him so much worse; Shakespeare himself, when he is reverently supposed not to be Shakespeare, is reading for martyrs; Dante's science and politics outweigh his poetry a thousandfold, and so on through the whole catalogue. Among the novelists——"

"No, don't begin on the novelists! Every one knows your heresies there, and would like to burn you along with the romances which I've no doubt you would still commit to the flames. I see you are the Bourbon of criticism; you have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. But why don't you turn your adamantine immutability to some practical account, and give the world a list of The Hundred Worst Books?"

"Because a hundred books out of the worst would be a drop out of the sea; there would remain an immeasurable welter of badness, of which we are now happily ignorant, and from which we are safe, as long as our minds are not turned to it by examples."

"Ah," our visitor said, "I see that you are afraid to confess yourself the popular failure as a critic which you are. You are afraid that if you made a list of The Hundred Worst Books you would send the classes to buying them in the most expensive binding, and the masses to taking them out of all the public libraries."

"There is something in what you say," the Easy Chair confessed. "Our popular failure as a critic is notorious; it cannot be denied. The stamp of our disapproval at one time gave a whole order of fiction a currency that was not less than torrential. The flood of romantic novels which passed over the land, and which is still to be traced in the tatters of the rag-doll heroes and heroines caught in the memories of readers along its course, was undoubtedly the effect of our adverse criticism. No, we could not in conscience compile and publish a list of The Hundred Worst Books; it would be contrary, for the reasons you give, to public morals."

"And don't you think," the observer said, with a Socratic subtlety that betrayed itself in his gleaming eye, in the joyous hope of seeing his victim fall into the pit that his own admissions had digged for him, "and don't you think that it would also bring to you the unpleasant consciousness of having stiffened in your tastes?"

"It might up to a certain point," we consented. "But we should prefer to call it confirmed in our convictions. Wherever we have liked or disliked in literature it has been upon grounds hardly distinguishable from moral grounds. Bad art is a vice; untruth to nature is the eighth of the seven deadly sins; a false school in literature is a seminary of crime. We are speaking largely, of course——"

"It certainly sounds rather tall," our friend sarcastically noted, "and it sounds very familiar."

"Yes," we went on, "all the ascertained veracities are immutable. One holds to them, or, rather, they hold to one, with an indissoluble tenacity. But convictions are in the region of character and are of remote origin. In their safety one indulges one's self in expectations, in tolerances, and these rather increase with the lapse of time. We should say that your theory of the stiffening tastes is applicable to the earlier rather than the later middle life. We should say that the tastes if they stiffen at the one period limber at the other; their forbidding rigidity is succeeded by an acquiescent suppleness. One is aware of an involuntary hospitality toward a good many authors whom one would once have turned destitute from the door, or with a dole of Organized Charity meal-tickets at the best. But in that maturer time one hesitates, and possibly ends by asking the stranger in, especially if he is young, or even if he is merely new, and setting before him the cold potato of a qualified approval. One says to him: 'You know I don't think you are the real thing quite, but taking you on your own ground you are not so bad. Come, you shall have a night's lodging at least, and if you improve, if you show a tendency to change in the right direction, there is no telling but you may be allowed to stay the week. But you must not presume; you must not take this frosty welcome for an effect of fire from the hearth where we sit with our chosen friends.' Ten to one the stranger does not like this sort of talk, and goes his way—the wrong way. But, at any rate, one has shown an open mind, a liberal spirit; one has proved that one has not stiffened in one's tastes; that one can make hopeful allowances in hopeful cases."

"Such as?" the observer insinuated.

"Such as do not fit the point exactly. Very likely the case may be that of an old or elderly author. It has been only within a year or two that we have formed the taste for an English writer, no longer living, save in his charming books. James Payn was a favorite with many in the middle Victorian period, but it is proof of the flexibility of our tastes that we have only just come to him. After shunning Anthony Trollope for fifty years, we came to him, almost as with a rush, long after our half-century was past. Now, James Payn is the solace of our autumnal equinox, and Anthony Trollope we read with a constancy and a recurrence surpassed only by our devotion to the truth as it is in the fiction of the Divine Jane; and Jane Austen herself was not an idol of our first or even our second youth, but became the cult of a time when if our tastes had stiffened we could have cared only for the most modern of the naturalists, and those preferably of the Russian and Spanish schools. A signal proof of their continued suppleness came but the other day when we acquainted ourselves with the work of the English novelist, Mr. Percy White, and it was the more signal because we perceived that he had formed himself upon a method of Thackeray's, which recalled that master, as the occasional aberrations of Payn and Trollope recall a manner of him. But it is Thackeray's most artistic method which Mr. White recalls in his studies of scamps and snobs; he allows them, as Thackeray allows Barry Lyndon and the rest, to tell their own stories, and in their unconsciousness of their own natures he finds play for an irony as keen and graphic as anything in fiction. He deals with the actual English world, and the pleasure he gave us was such as to make us resolve to return to Thackeray's vision of his own contemporaneous English world at the first opportunity. We have not done so yet; but after we have fortified ourselves with a course of Scott and Dickens, we are confident of being able to bear up under the heaviest-handed satire of Vanity Fair. As for The Luck of Barry Lyndon and The Yellowplush Papers, and such like, they have never ceased to have their prime delight for us. But their proportion is quite large enough to survive from any author for any reader; as we are often saying, it is only in bits that authors survive; their resurrection is not by the whole body, but here and there a perfecter fragment. Most of our present likes and dislikes are of the period when you say people begin to stiffen in their tastes. We could count the authors by the score who have become our favorites in that period, and those we have dropped are almost as many. It is not necessary to say who they all are, but we may remark that we still read, and read, and read again the poetry of Keats, and that we no longer read the poetry of Alexander Smith. But it is through the growth of the truly great upon his mature perception that the aging reader finds novel excellences in them. It was only the other day that we picked up Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, and realized in it, from a chance page or two, a sardonic quality of insurpassable subtlety and reach. This was something quite new to us in it. We had known the terrible pathos of the story, its immeasurable tragedy, but that deadly, quiet, pitiless, freezing irony of a witness holding himself aloof from its course, and losing, for that page or two, the moralist in the mere observer, was a revelation that had come to that time of life in us when you think the tastes stiffen and one refuses new pleasures because they are new."

Our visitor yawned visibly, audibly. "And what is all this you have been saying? You have made yourself out an extraordinary example of what may be done by guarding against the stiffening of the tastes after the end of second youth. But have you proved that there is no such danger? Or was your idea simply to celebrate yourself? At moments I fancied something like that."

We owned the stroke with an indulgent smile. "No, not exactly that. The truth is we have been very much interested by your notion—if it was yours, which is not altogether probable—and we have been turning its light upon our own experience, in what we should not so much call self-celebration as self-exploitation. One uses one's self as the stuff for knowledge of others, or for the solution of any given problem. There is no other way of getting at the answers to the questions."

"And what is your conclusion as to my notion, if it is mine?" the veteran observer asked, with superiority.

"That there is nothing in it. The fact is that the tastes are never so tolerant, so liberal, so generous, so supple as they are at that time of life when they begin, according to your notion, to stiffen, to harden, to contract. We have in this very period formed a new taste—or taken a new lease of an old one—for reading history, which had been dormant all through our first and second youth. We expect to see the time when we shall read the Elizabethan dramatists with avidity. We may not improbably find a delight in statistics; there must be a hidden charm in them. We may even form a relish for the vagaries of pseudo-psychology——"

At this point we perceived the veteran observer had vanished and that we were talking to ourselves.

William Dean Howells