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    Ch. 11 - Talk and Talkers II

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    Chapter 12
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    IN the last paper there was perhaps too much about mere debate; and
    there was nothing said at all about that kind of talk which is
    merely luminous and restful, a higher power of silence, the quiet
    of the evening shared by ruminating friends. There is something,
    aside from personal preference, to be alleged in support of this
    omission. Those who are no chimney-cornerers, who rejoice in the
    social thunderstorm, have a ground in reason for their choice.
    They get little rest indeed; but restfulness is a quality for
    cattle; the virtues are all active, life is alert, and it is in
    repose that men prepare themselves for evil. On the other hand,
    they are bruised into a knowledge of themselves and others; they
    have in a high degree the fencer's pleasure in dexterity displayed
    and proved; what they get they get upon life's terms, paying for it
    as they go; and once the talk is launched, they are assured of
    honest dealing from an adversary eager like themselves. The
    aboriginal man within us, the cave-dweller, still lusty as when he
    fought tooth and nail for roots and berries, scents this kind of
    equal battle from afar; it is like his old primaeval days upon the
    crags, a return to the sincerity of savage life from the
    comfortable fictions of the civilised. And if it be delightful to
    the Old Man, it is none the less profitable to his younger brother,
    the conscientious gentleman I feel never quite sure of your urbane
    and smiling coteries; I fear they indulge a man's vanities in
    silence, suffer him to encroach, encourage him on to be an ass, and
    send him forth again, not merely contemned for the moment, but
    radically more contemptible than when he entered. But if I have a
    flushed, blustering fellow for my opposite, bent on carrying a
    point, my vanity is sure to have its ears rubbed, once at least, in
    the course of the debate. He will not spare me when we differ; he
    will not fear to demonstrate my folly to my face.

    For many natures there is not much charm in the still, chambered
    society, the circle of bland countenances, the digestive silence,
    the admired remark, the flutter of affectionate approval. They
    demand more atmosphere and exercise; "a gale upon their spirits,"
    as our pious ancestors would phrase it; to have their wits well
    breathed in an uproarious Valhalla. And I suspect that the choice,
    given their character and faults, is one to be defended. The
    purely wise are silenced by facts; they talk in a clear atmosphere,
    problems lying around them like a view in nature; if they can be
    shown to be somewhat in the wrong, they digest the reproof like a
    thrashing, and make better intellectual blood. They stand
    corrected by a whisper; a word or a glance reminds them of the
    great eternal law. But it is not so with all. Others in
    conversation seek rather contact with their fellow-men than
    increase of knowledge or clarity of thought. The drama, not the
    philosophy, of life is the sphere of their intellectual activity.
    Even when they pursue truth, they desire as much as possible of
    what we may call human scenery along the road they follow. They
    dwell in the heart of life; the blood sounding in their ears, their
    eyes laying hold of what delights them with a brutal avidity that
    makes them blind to all besides, their interest riveted on people,
    living, loving, talking, tangible people. To a man of this
    description, the sphere of argument seems very pale and ghostly.
    By a strong expression, a perturbed countenance, floods of tears,
    an insult which his conscience obliges him to swallow, he is
    brought round to knowledge which no syllogism would have conveyed
    to him. His own experience is so vivid, he is so superlatively
    conscious of himself, that if, day after day, he is allowed to
    hector and hear nothing but approving echoes, he will lose his hold
    on the soberness of things and take himself in earnest for a god.
    Talk might be to such an one the very way of moral ruin; the school
    where he might learn to be at once intolerable and ridiculous.

    This character is perhaps commoner than philosophers suppose. And
    for persons of that stamp to learn much by conversation, they must
    speak with their superiors, not in intellect, for that is a
    superiority that must be proved, but in station. If they cannot
    find a friend to bully them for their good, they must find either
    an old man, a woman, or some one so far below them in the
    artificial order of society, that courtesy may he particularly
    exercised.

    The best teachers are the aged. To the old our mouths are always
    partly closed; we must swallow our obvious retorts and listen.
    They sit above our heads, on life's raised dais, and appeal at once
    to our respect and pity. A flavour of the old school, a touch of
    something different in their manner - which is freer and rounder,
    if they come of what is called a good family, and often more timid
    and precise if they are of the middle class - serves, in these
    days, to accentuate the difference of age and add a distinction to
    gray hairs. But their superiority is founded more deeply than by
    outward marks or gestures. They are before us in the march of man;
    they have more or less solved the irking problem; they have battled
    through the equinox of life; in good and evil they have held their
    course; and now, without open shame, they near the crown and
    harbour. It may be we have been struck with one of fortune's
    darts; we can scarce be civil, so cruelly is our spirit tossed.
    Yet long before we were so much as thought upon, the like calamity
    befell the old man or woman that now, with pleasant humour, rallies
    us upon our inattention, sitting composed in the holy evening of
    man's life, in the clear shining after rain. We grow ashamed of
    our distresses, new and hot and coarse, like villainous roadside
    brandy; we see life in aerial perspective, under the heavens of
    faith; and out of the worst, in the mere presence of contented
    elders, look forward and take patience. Fear shrinks before them
    "like a thing reproved," not the flitting and ineffectual fear of
    death, but the instant, dwelling terror of the responsibilities and
    revenges of life. Their speech, indeed, is timid; they report
    lions in the path; they counsel a meticulous footing; but their
    serene, marred faces are more eloquent and tell another story.
    Where they have gone, we will go also, not very greatly fearing;
    what they have endured unbroken, we also, God helping us, will make
    a shift to bear.

    Not only is the presence of the aged in itself remedial, but their
    minds are stored with antidotes, wisdom's simples, plain
    considerations overlooked by youth. They have matter to
    communicate, be they never so stupid. Their talk is not merely
    literature, it is great literature; classic in virtue of the
    speaker's detachment, studded, like a book of travel, with things
    we should not otherwise have learnt. In virtue, I have said, of
    the speaker's detachment, - and this is why, of two old men, the
    one who is not your father speaks to you with the more sensible
    authority; for in the paternal relation the oldest have lively
    interests and remain still young. Thus I have known two young men
    great friends; each swore by the other's father; the father of each
    swore by the other lad; and yet each pair of parent and child were
    perpetually by the ears. This is typical: it reads like the germ
    of some kindly comedy.

    The old appear in conversation in two characters: the critically
    silent and the garrulous anecdotic. The last is perhaps what we
    look for; it is perhaps the more instructive. An old gentleman,
    well on in years, sits handsomely and naturally in the bow-window
    of his age, scanning experience with reverted eye; and chirping and
    smiling, communicates the accidents and reads the lesson of his
    long career. Opinions are strengthened, indeed, but they are also
    weeded out in the course of years. What remains steadily present
    to the eye of the retired veteran in his hermitage, what still
    ministers to his content, what still quickens his old honest heart
    - these are "the real long-lived things" that Whitman tells us to
    prefer. Where youth agrees with age, not where they differ, wisdom
    lies; and it is when the young disciple finds his heart to beat in
    tune with his gray-bearded teacher's that a lesson may be learned.
    I have known one old gentleman, whom I may name, for he in now
    gathered to his stock - Robert Hunter, Sheriff of Dumbarton, and
    author of an excellent law-book still re-edited and republished.
    Whether he was originally big or little is more than I can guess.
    When I knew him he was all fallen away and fallen in; crooked and
    shrunken; buckled into a stiff waistcoat for support; troubled by
    ailments, which kept him hobbling in and out of the room; one foot
    gouty; a wig for decency, not for deception, on his head; close
    shaved, except under his chin - and for that he never failed to
    apologise, for it went sore against the traditions of his life.
    You can imagine how he would fare in a novel by Miss Mather; yet
    this rag of a Chelsea veteran lived to his last year in the
    plenitude of all that is best in man, brimming with human kindness,
    and staunch as a Roman soldier under his manifold infirmities. You
    could not say that he had lost his memory, for he would repeat
    Shakespeare and Webster and Jeremy Taylor and Burke by the page
    together; but the parchment was filled up, there was no room for
    fresh inscriptions, and he was capable of repeating the same
    anecdote on many successive visits. His voice survived in its full
    power, and he took a pride in using it. On his last voyage as
    Commissioner of lighthouses, he hailed a ship at sea and made
    himself clearly audible without a speaking trumpet, ruffling the
    while with a proper vanity in his achievement. He had a habit of
    eking out his words with interrogative hems, which was puzzling and
    a little wearisome, suited ill with his appearance, and seemed a
    survival from some former stage of bodily portliness. Of yore,
    when he was a great pedestrian and no enemy to good claret, he may
    have pointed with these minute guns his allocutions to the bench.
    His humour was perfectly equable, set beyond the reach of fate;
    gout, rheumatism, stone and gravel might have combined their forces
    against that frail tabernacle, but when I came round on Sunday
    evening, he would lay aside Jeremy Taylor's LIFE OF CHRIST and
    greet me with the same open brow, the same kind formality of
    manner. His opinions and sympathies dated the man almost to a
    decade. He had begun life, under his mother's influence, as an
    admirer of Junius, but on maturer knowledge had transferred his
    admiration to Burke. He cautioned me, with entire gravity, to be
    punctilious in writing English; never to forget that I was a
    Scotchman, that English was a foreign tongue, and that if I
    attempted the colloquial, I should certainly, be shamed: the remark
    was apposite, I suppose, in the days of David Hume. Scott was too
    new for him; he had known the author - known him, too, for a Tory;
    and to the genuine classic a contemporary is always something of a
    trouble. He had the old, serious love of the play; had even, as he
    was proud to tell, played a certain part in the history of
    Shakespearian revivals, for he had successfully pressed on Murray,
    of the old Edinburgh Theatre, the idea of producing Shakespeare's
    fairy pieces with great scenic display. A moderate in religion, he
    was much struck in the last years of his life by a conversation
    with two young lads, revivalists "H'm," he would say - "new to me.
    I have had - h'm - no such experience." It struck him, not with
    pain, rather with a solemn philosophic interest, that he, a
    Christian as he hoped, and a Christian of so old a standing, should
    hear these young fellows talking of his own subject, his own
    weapons that he had fought the battle of life with, - "and - h'm -
    not understand." In this wise and graceful attitude he did justice
    to himself and others, reposed unshaken in his old beliefs, and
    recognised their limits without anger or alarm. His last recorded
    remark, on the last night of his life, was after he had been
    arguing against Calvinism with his minister and was interrupted by
    an intolerable pang. "After all," he said, "of all the 'isms, I
    know none so bad as rheumatism." My own last sight of him was some
    time before, when we dined together at an inn; he had been on
    circuit, for he stuck to his duties like a chief part of his
    existence; and I remember it as the only occasion on which he ever
    soiled his lips with slang - a thing he loathed. We were both
    Roberts; and as we took our places at table, he addressed me with a
    twinkle: "We are just what you would call two bob." He offered me
    port, I remember, as the proper milk of youth; spoke of "twenty-
    shilling notes"; and throughout the meal was full of old-world
    pleasantry and quaintness, like an ancient boy on a holiday. But
    what I recall chiefly was his confession that he had never read
    OTHELLO to an end. Shakespeare was his continual study. He loved
    nothing better than to display his knowledge and memory by adducing
    parallel passages from Shakespeare, passages where the same word
    was employed, or the same idea differently treated. But OTHELLO
    had beaten him. "That noble gentleman and that noble lady - h'm -
    too painful for me." The same night the hoardings were covered
    with posters, "Burlesque of OTHELLO," and the contrast blazed up in
    my mind like a bonfire. An unforgettable look it gave me into that
    kind man's soul. His acquaintance was indeed a liberal and pious
    education. All the humanities were taught in that bare dining-room
    beside his gouty footstool. He was a piece of good advice; he was
    himself the instance that pointed and adorned his various talk.
    Nor could a young man have found elsewhere a place so set apart
    from envy, fear, discontent, or any of the passions that debase; a
    life so honest and composed; a soul like an ancient violin, so
    subdued to harmony, responding to a touch in music - as in that
    dining-room, with Mr. Hunter chatting at the eleventh hour, under
    the shadow of eternity, fearless and gentle.

    The second class of old people are not anecdotic; they are rather
    hearers than talkers, listening to the young with an amused and
    critical attention. To have this sort of intercourse to
    perfection, I think we must go to old ladies. Women are better
    hearers than men, to begin with; they learn, I fear in anguish, to
    bear with the tedious and infantile vanity of the other sex; and we
    will take more from a woman than even from the oldest man in the
    way of biting comment. Biting comment is the chief part, whether
    for profit or amusement, in this business. The old lady that I
    have in my eye is a very caustic speaker, her tongue, after years
    of practice, in absolute command, whether for silence or attack.
    If she chance to dislike you, you will be tempted to curse the
    malignity of age. But if you chance to please even slightly, you
    will be listened to with a particular laughing grace of sympathy,
    and from time to time chastised, as if in play, with a parasol as
    heavy as a pole-axe. It requires a singular art, as well as the
    vantage-ground of age, to deal these stunning corrections among the
    coxcombs of the young. The pill is disguised in sugar of wit; it
    is administered as a compliment - if you had not pleased, you would
    not have been censured; it is a personal affair - a hyphen, A TRAIT
    D'UNION, between you and your censor; age's philandering, for her
    pleasure and your good. Incontestably the young man feels very
    much of a fool; but he must be a perfect Malvolio, sick with self-
    love, if he cannot take an open buffet and still smile. The
    correction of silence is what kills; when you know you have
    transgressed, and your friend says nothing and avoids your eye. If
    a man were made of gutta-percha, his heart would quail at such a
    moment. But when the word is out, the worst is over; and a fellow
    with any good-humour at all may pass through a perfect hail of
    witty criticism, every bare place on his soul hit to the quick with
    a shrewd missile, and reappear, as if after a dive, tingling with a
    fine moral reaction, and ready, with a shrinking readiness, one-
    third loath, for a repetition of the discipline.

    There are few women, not well sunned and ripened, and perhaps
    toughened, who can thus stand apart from a man and say the true
    thing with a kind of genial cruelty. Still there are some - and I
    doubt if there be any man who can return the compliment. The class
    of man represented by Vernon Whitford in THE EGOIST says, indeed,
    the true thing, but he says it stockishly. Vernon is a noble
    fellow, and makes, by the way, a noble and instructive contrast to
    Daniel Deronda; his conduct is the conduct of a man of honour; but
    we agree with him, against our consciences, when he remorsefully
    considers "its astonishing dryness." He is the best of men, but
    the best of women manage to combine all that and something more.
    Their very faults assist them; they are helped even by the
    falseness of their position in life. They can retire into the
    fortified camp of the proprieties. They can touch a subject and
    suppress it. The most adroit employ a somewhat elaborate reserve
    as a means to be frank, much as they wear gloves when they shake
    hands. But a man has the full responsibility of his freedom,
    cannot evade a question, can scarce be silent without rudeness,
    must answer for his words upon the moment, and is not seldom left
    face to face with a damning choice, between the more or less
    dishonourable wriggling of Deronda and the downright woodenness of
    Vernon Whitford.

    But the superiority of women is perpetually menaced; they do not
    sit throned on infirmities like the old; they are suitors as well
    as sovereigns; their vanity is engaged, their affections are too
    apt to follow; and hence much of the talk between the sexes
    degenerates into something unworthy of the name. The desire to
    please, to shine with a certain softness of lustre and to draw a
    fascinating picture of oneself, banishes from conversation all that
    is sterling and most of what is humorous. As soon as a strong
    current of mutual admiration begins to flow, the human interest
    triumphs entirely over the intellectual, and the commerce of words,
    consciously or not, becomes secondary to the commencing of eyes.
    But even where this ridiculous danger is avoided, and a man and
    woman converse equally and honestly, something in their nature or
    their education falsifies the strain. An instinct prompts them to
    agree; and where that is impossible, to agree to differ. Should
    they neglect the warning, at the first suspicion of an argument,
    they find themselves in different hemispheres. About any point of
    business or conduct, any actual affair demanding settlement, a
    woman will speak and listen, hear and answer arguments, not only
    with natural wisdom, but with candour and logical honesty. But if
    the subject of debate be something in the air, an abstraction, an
    excuse for talk, a logical Aunt Sally, then may the male debater
    instantly abandon hope; he may employ reason, adduce facts, be
    supple, be smiling, be angry, all shall avail him nothing; what the
    woman said first, that (unless she has forgotten it) she will
    repeat at the end. Hence, at the very junctures when a talk
    between men grows brighter and quicker and begins to promise to
    bear fruit, talk between the sexes is menaced with dissolution.
    The point of difference, the point of interest, is evaded by the
    brilliant woman, under a shower of irrelevant conversational
    rockets; it is bridged by the discreet woman with a rustle of silk,
    as she passes smoothly forward to the nearest point of safety. And
    this sort of prestidigitation, juggling the dangerous topic out of
    sight until it can be reintroduced with safety in an altered shape,
    is a piece of tactics among the true drawing-room queens.

    The drawing-room is, indeed, an artificial place; it is so by our
    choice and for our sins. The subjection of women; the ideal
    imposed upon them from the cradle, and worn, like a hair-shirt,
    with so much constancy; their motherly, superior tenderness to
    man's vanity and self-importance; their managing arts - the arts of
    a civilised slave among good-natured barbarians - are all painful
    ingredients and all help to falsify relations. It is not till we
    get clear of that amusing artificial scene that genuine relations
    are founded, or ideas honestly compared. In the garden, on the
    road or the hillside, or TETE-A-TETE and apart from interruptions,
    occasions arise when we may learn much from any single woman; and
    nowhere more often than in married life. Marriage is one long
    conversation, chequered by disputes. The disputes are valueless;
    they but ingrain the difference; the heroic heart of woman
    prompting her at once to nail her colours to the mast. But in the
    intervals, almost unconsciously and with no desire to shine, the
    whole material of life is turned over and over, ideas are struck
    out and shared, the two persons more and more adapt their notions
    one to suit the other, and in process of time, without sound of
    trumpet, they conduct each other into new worlds of thought.
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