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- Without Prejudice - 5/66 -


an opinion formed without reasoning and maintained in despite of it, I claim to write absolutely without prejudice. The syllogism is my lord and king. A kind-hearted lady said I had a cruel face. It is true. I am absolutely remorseless in tracking down a _non sequitur_, pitiless in forcing data to yield up their implicit conclusions. "Logic! Logic!" snorted my friend the Poet. "Life is not logical. We cannot be logical." "Of course not," said I; "I should not dream of asking men to live logically: all I ask is that they should argue logically."

But to be unprejudiced does not mean to have no convictions. The superficial confuse definiteness with prejudice, forgetting that definite opinions may be the result of careful judgment. Post-judiced I trust I am. But prejudiced? Heaven forfend! Why, 'tis because I do not wish to bind myself to anything that I may say in them that I mark these personal communications "Without Prejudice"! For I do not at all mind contradicting myself. If it were some one of reverend years or superior talents I might hesitate, but between equals----! Contradiction is the privilege of _camaraderie_ and the essence of _causerie_. We agree to differ--I and myself. I am none of your dogmatic fellows with pigeon-holes for minds, and whatever I say I do not stick to. And I will tell you why. There is hardly a pretty woman of my acquaintance who has not asked for my hand. Owing to this passion for palmistry in polite circles, I have discovered that I possess as many characters as there are palmists. Do you wonder, therefore, if, with such a posse of personalities to pick from, I am never alike two days running? With so varied a psychological wardrobe at command, it would be mere self-denial to be faithful to one's self. I leave that to the one-I'd who can see only one side of a question. Said Tennyson to a friend (who printed it): "'In Memoriam' is more optimistic than I am"; and there is more of the real man in that little remark than in all the biographies. The published prophet has to live up to his public halo. So have I seen an actress on tour slip from a third-class railway carriage into a brougham. Tennyson was not mealy-mouthed, but then he did not bargain for an audience of phonographs. Nowadays it is difficult to distinguish your friends from your biographers. The worst of it is that the land is thick with fools who think nothing of a great man the moment they discover he was a man. Tennyson was all the greater for his honest doubt. The cocksure centuries are passed for ever. In these hard times we have to work for our opinions; we cannot rely on inheriting them from our fathers.

I write with a capital I at the risk of being accused of egotism. Apparently it is more modest to be conceited in the third person, like the child who says "Tommy is a good boy," or in the first person plural, like the leader-writer of "The Times," who bids the Continent tremble at his frown. By a singular fallacy, which ought scarcely to deceive children, it is forgotten that everything that has ever been written since the world began has been written by some one person, by an "I," though that "I" might have been omitted from the composition or replaced by the journalistic "we." To some extent the journalist does sink his personality in that imaginary personality of his paper, a personality built up, like the human personality, by its past; and the result is a pompous, colourless, lifeless simulacrum. But in every other department of letters the trail of the "I" is over every page and every sentence. The most impersonal essays and poems are all in a sense egoistic. Everything should really be between inverted commas with an introductory _Thus say I_. But as these are omitted, as being understood, they come at last to be _mis_understood.

In the days ere writing was invented, this elementary error was not possible. The words were heard issuing from the lips of a single man; every opinion, every law of conduct, must have been at first formulated through the lips of some one man. And to this day, in spite of the wilderness of tradition and authority by which we are overgrown, the voice of the one man is still our only living source of inspiration and help. Every new thought must pass through the brain, every moral ideal through the conscience, of an individual. Voices, voices, we want--not echoes. Better the mistaken voice of honest individuality than the soulless bleat of the flock. There are too many of Kipling's Tomlinsons in the world, whose consciences are wholly compact of _on dits_, on whom the devil himself, sinned they never so sadly, would refuse to waste his good pit-coal. "Bad taste"--that opprobrious phrase which, worse than the accusation of a crime, cannot be refuted, for it is the king of the question-beggars,--"bad taste" is responsible for half the reticence that marks current writing, for the failure to prick the bladders of every species that bloat themselves all around us. "Good taste" is the staunchest ally of hypocrisy, and corruption is the obverse side of civilisation. I do not believe in these general truths that rule the market. What is "true for all" is false for each. It is the business of every man to speak out, to be himself, to contribute his own thought to the world's thinking--to be egoistic. To be egoistic is not to be egotistic. Egoism should be distinguished from egotism. The egoist thinks for himself, the egotist about himself. Mr. Meredith's Sir Willoughby should not have been styled the _Egoist_. The egoist offers his thought to his fellow-men, the egotist thinks it is the only thought worth their acceptance. These papers of mine joyously plead guilty to egoism, but not to egotism. If they, for instance, pretend to appraise the powers of my contemporaries, they do not pretend to be more than an individual appraisal. Whoever wants another opinion can go somewhere else. There is no lack of practitioners in criticism, more or less skilful. There must be a struggle for existence among opinions, as among all other things, and the egoist is content to send the children of his thought into the thick of the fray, confident that the fittest will survive. Only he is not so childish as to make-believe that an impersonal dignified something-not-himself that makes for the ink-pot is speaking--and not he himself, he "with his little I." The affectation of modesty is perhaps the most ludicrous of all human shams. I am reminded of the two Jews who quarrelled in synagogue, during the procession of palm-branches, because each wanted to be last, as befitted the humblest man in Israel, which each claimed to be. This is indeed "the pride that apes humility." There is a good deal of this sort of pride in the careful and conscientious suppression of the egoistic in books and speeches. I have nothing of this modesty to be proud of. I know that I am cleverer than the man in the street, though I take no credit to myself for it, as it is a mere accident of birth, and on the whole a regrettable one. It was this absence of modesty from my composition that recently enabled me to propose the toast of literature coupled with the name of Mr. Zangwill. I said that I could wish that some one more competent and distinguished than myself had been chosen to do justice to such a toast and to such a distinguished man of letters, but I did my best to pay him the tribute he deserved ere I sat down amid universal applause. When I rose amid renewed cheers to reply, I began by saying that I could wish that some one more competent and distinguished than myself had been chosen to respond to so important a toast--the last speaker had considerably overrated my humble achievements in the fields of literature. So that you see I could easily master the modest manner, if I took any pains or set any store by it. But in my articles of faith the "I" is just what I would accentuate most, the "I" through which for each of us the universe flows, by which any truth must be perceived in order to be true, and which is not to be replaced by that false abstraction, the communal mind. Here are a laughing philosopher's definitions of some cardinal things:

Philosophy--All my I. Art--All my Eye. Religion--All my Ay.

Also at the outset let it be distinctly understood that I write without any prejudice in favour of grammar. The fear of the critics is the beginning of pedantry. I detest your scholiast whose footnotes would take Thackeray to task for his "and whiches," and your professor who disdains the voice of the people, which is the voice of the god of grammar. I know all the scholiast has to say (surely he is the silly [Greek: scholastikos] of Greek anecdote), and indeed I owe all my own notions of diction to a work on "Style" written by him. It was from the style of this work that I learnt what to avoid. The book reminded me of my old schoolmaster, who grew very angry with me for using the word "ain't," and vociferated "Ain't! How often am I to tell you ain't ain't a word?" I suppose one may take it for granted that the greater the writer the worse the grammar. "Fools follow rules. Wise men precede them." (Query: this being a quotation from myself, was I bound to put the inverted commas?) Shakespeare has violated every rule of the schoolroom, and the more self-conscious stylist of our own day--Stevenson--would be caned for composition. I find him writing "They are not us," which is almost as blasphemous as "It's me." His reputation has closed the critics' eyes to such sentences as these in his essay on "Some Portraits by Raeburn": "Each of his portraits are not only a piece of history ..."; "Neither of the portraits of Sir Walter Scott were very agreeable to look upon." Stevenson is a master, but not a schoolmaster, of English. Of course bad grammar does not make a genius, any more than bad morals. (Note how much this sentence would lose in crispness if I made it grammatical by tacking on "do.") My friend the musician complained to me that when he studied harmony and form he was told he must not do this, that and the other; whereas, when he came to look into the works of the great composers he found they made a practice of all the three. "Am I a genius?" he queried pathetically. "If so, I could do as I please. I wish I knew." Every author who can read and write is in the same predicament: on the one hand his own instinct for a phrase or a sentence, on the other the contempt of every honest critic. The guardians of the laws of English have a stock of taboos; but unlike the guardians of the laws of England they credit every disregard of them to ignorance. They cannot conceive of malice aforethought. We are forbidden, for example, to use the word "phenomenal" in the sense of "extraordinary." But, with Mr. Crummles's Infant Phenomenon in everybody's mind, can we expect the adjective to shake off the old associations of its parent noun?

Last year I culled an amusing sentence from a "Standard" criticism of a tale of adventure: "The story is a well-told, and in spite of the word 'unreliable,' a well-written one." Now just as many foolish persons object to "a ... one" as to "unreliable." As for the first phrase, I am sure so great a writer as Tom Hood would have pronounced it A1, while "unreliable" is defended with unusual warmth by Webster's Dictionary. The contention that "reliable" should be "reli-on-able," is ridiculous, and Webster's argument is "laughable," which should obviously be "laugh-at-able." These remarks are made quite without prejudice, for personally I have little to complain of. (By the way, this sentence is as open to blame as that of the professor who told his pupils "You must not use a preposition to end a sentence with.") Though I have sat under an army of critics, I have but once been accused of inelegant English, and then it was only by a lady who wrote that my slipshod style "aggravated" her.

Finally it will be remarked that by dispensing with illustrations I preserve intact my egoism and the dignity of a rival art. Nothing can be more absurd than the conventional illustration which merely attempts to picture over again what the writer has already pictured in words. Not only is the effort superfluous, a waste of force, but the artist's picture is too often in flat contradiction of the text. Whom are you to believe, the author or the artist? the man who tells you that the heroine is ethereal, or the man who plainly demonstrates that she is podgy? How often, too, do the people dress differently in the words and in the picture, not to speak of the shifting backgrounds! Dickens had so much difficulty with his illustrations because he saw his characters so much more clearly than any other novelist; the sight of his inner eye was so good. And one can understand, too, how Cruikshank came to fancy he had created Oliver Twist, much as an actor imagines he "creates" a character. The true collaboration between author and artist requires that the work should be divided between them, not reduplicated. Those parts of the story which need the intervention of words should be allotted to the writer, while to the artist should be entrusted the parts better told by pencil. Neither need trench on the other's province. Description--which so many readers skip already--would be abolished. Even incidents--such as


Without Prejudice - 5/66

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