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    Of Cleverness

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    Chapter 13
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    APROPOS OF ONE CRICHTON

    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
    stability.

    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.
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