Manners and social usages,

CHAPTER LIV.THE MANNERS OF THE SYMPATHETIC.


Next Section || Previous Section || Table of Contents


Page 441 { page image viewer }

Sympathy is the most delicate tendril of the mind, and the most fascinating gift which nature can give to us. The most precious associations of the human heart cluster around the word, and we love to remember those who have sorrowed with us in sorrow, and rejoiced with us when we were glad. But for the awkward and the shy, the sympathetic are the very worst company. They do not wish to be sympathized with–they wish to be with people who are cold and indifferent; they like shy people like themselves. Put two shy people in a room together, and they begin to talk with unaccustomed glibness. A shy woman always attracts a shy man. But women who are gifted with that rapid, gay impressionability which puts them en rapport with their surroundings, who have fancy and an excitable disposition, a quick susceptibility to the influences around them, are very charming in general society, but they are terrible to the awkward and the shy. They sympathize too much, they are too aware of that burning shame which the sufferer desires to conceal.

The moment that a shy person sees before him a perfectly unsympathetic person, one who is neither thinking nor caring for him, his shyness begins to flee;

Page 442 { page image viewer }

the moment that he recognizes a fellow-sufferer he begins to feel a reinforcement of energy. If he be a lover, especially, the almost certain embarrassment of the lady inspires him with hope and with renewed courage. A woman who has a bashful lover, even if she is afflicted with shyness, has been known to find a way to help the poor fellow out of his dilemma more than once. Hawthorne, who has left us the most complete and most tragic history of shyness which belongs to “that long rosary on which the blushes of a life are strung,” found a woman (the most perfect character, apparently, who ever married and made happy a great genius) who, fortunately for him, was shy naturally, although without that morbid shyness which accompanied him through life. Those who knew Mrs. Hawthorne later found her possessed of great fascination of manner, even in general society, where Hawthorne was quite impenetrable. The story of his running down to the Concord River and taking boat to escape his visitors has been long familiar to us all. Mrs. Hawthorne, no doubt, with a woman’s tact and a woman’s generosity, overcame her own shyness in order to receive those guests whom Hawthorne ran away from, and through life remained his better angel. It was through this absence of expressed sympathy that English people became very agreeable to Hawthorne. He describes, in his “Note Book,” a speech made by him at a dinner in England: “When I was called upon,” he says, “I rapped my head, and it returned a hollow sound.”

He had, however, been sitting next to a shy English lawyer, a man who won upon him by his quiet, unobtrusive

Page 443 { page image viewer }

simplicity, and who, in some well-chosen words, rather made light of dinner-speaking and its terrors. When Hawthorne finally got up and made his speech, his “voice, meantime, having a far-off and remote echo,” and when, as we learn from others, a burst of applause greeted the few well-chosen words drawn up from that full well of thought, that pellucid rill of “English undefiled,” the unobtrusive gentleman by his side applauded, and said to him, “It was handsomely done.” The compliment pleased the shy man. It is the only compliment to himself which Hawthorne ever recorded.

Now, had Hawthorne been congratulated by a sympathetic, effusive American who had clapped him on the back, and who had said, “Oh, never fear–you will speak well!” he would have said nothing. The shy sprite in his own eyes would have read in his neighbor’s eyes the dreadful truth that his sympathetic neighbor would have indubitably betrayed–a fear that he would not do well. The phlegmatic and stony Englishman neither felt nor cared whether Hawthorne spoke well or ill; and, although pleased that he did speak well, invested no particular sympathy in the matter, either for or against, and so spared Hawthorne’s shyness the last bitter drop in the cup, which would have been a recognition of his own moral dread. Hawthorne bitterly records his own sufferings. He says, in one of his books, “At this time I acquired this accursed habit of solitude.” It has been said that the Hawthorne family were, in the earlier generation, afflicted with shyness almost as a disease–certainly a curious freak of nature in a family descended from

Page 444 { page image viewer }

robust sea-captains. It only goes to prove how far away are the influences which control our natures and our actions.

Whether, if Hawthorne had not been a shy man, afflicted with a sort of horror of his species at times, always averse to letting himself go, miserable and morbid, we should have been the inheritors of the great fortune which he has left us, is not for us to decide. Whether we should have owned “The Gentle Boy,” the immortal “Scarlet Letter,” “The House with Seven Gables,” the “Marble Faun,” and all the other wonderful things which grew out of that cluded and gifted nature, had he been born a cheerseful, popular, and sympathetic boy, with a dancing-school manner, instead of an awkward and shy youth (although an exceedingly handsome one), we cannot tell. That is the great secret behind the veil. The answer is not yet made, the oracle has not spoken, and we must not invade the penumbra of genius.

It has always been a comfort to the awkward and the shy that Washington could not make an after-dinner speech; and the well-known anecdote–“Sit down, Mr. Washington, your modesty is even greater than your valor “–must have consoled many a voiceless hero. Washington Irving tried to welcome Dickens, but failed in the attempt, while Dickens was as voluble as he was gifted. Probably the very surroundings of sympathetic admirers unnerved both Washington and Irving, although there are some men who can never “speak on their legs,” as the saying goes, in any society.

Page 445 { page image viewer }

Other shy men–men who fear general society, and show embarrassment in the every-day surroundings–are eloquent when they get on their feet. Many a shy boy at college has astonished his friends by his ability in an after-dinner speech. Many a voluble, glib boy, who has been appointed the orator of the occasion, fails utterly, disappoints public expectation, and sits down with an uncomfortable mantle of failure upon his shoulders. Therefore, the ways of shyness are inscrutable. Many a woman who has never known what it was to be bashful or shy has, when called upon to read a copy of verses, even to a circle of intimate friends, lost her voice, and has utterly broken down, to her own and her friends’ great astonishment.

The voice is a treacherous servant; it deserts us, trembles, makes a failure of it, is “not present or accounted for” often when we need its help. It is not alone in the shriek of the hysterical that we learn of its lawlessness, it is in its complete retirement. A bride, often, even when she felt no other embarrassment, has found that she had no voice with which to make her responses. It simply was not there!

A lady who was presented at court, and who felt–as she described herself–wonderfully at her ease, began talking, and, without wishing to speak loud, discovered that she was shouting like a trumpeter. The somewhat unusual strain which she had put upon herself, during the ordeal of being presented at the English court, revenged itself by an outpouring of voice which she could not control.

Many shy people have recognized in themselves this

Page 446 { page image viewer }

curious and unconscious elevation of the voice. It is not so common as a loss of voice, but it is quite as uncontrollable.

The bronchial tubes play us another trick when we are frightened: the voice is the voice of somebody else, it has no resemblance to our own. Ventriloquism might well study the phenomena of shyness, for the voice becomes bass that was treble, and soprano that which was contralto.

“I dislike to have Wilthorpe come to see me,” said a very shy woman–“I know my voice will squeak so.” With her Wilthorpe, who for some reason drove her into an agony of shyness, had the effect of making her talk in a high, unnatural strain, excessively fatiguing.

The presence of one’s own family, who are naturally painfully sympathetic, has always had upon the bashful and the shy a most evil effect.

“I can never plead a cause before my father?” “Nor I before my son,” said two distinguished lawyers. “If mamma is in the room, I shall never be able to get through my part,” said a young amateur actor.

But here we must pause to note another exception in the laws of shyness.

In the false perspective of the stage shyness often disappears. The shy man, speaking the words, and assuming the character of another, often loses his shyness. It is himself of whom he is afraid, not of Tony Lumpkin or of Charles Surface, of Hamlet or of Claude Melnotte. Behind their masks he can speak well; but if he at his own dinner-table essays to speak, and

Page 447 { page image viewer }

mamma watches him with sympathetic eyes, and his brothers and sisters are all listening, he fails.

“Lord Percy sees me fall.”

Yet it is with our own people that we must stand or fall, live or die; it is in our own circle that we must conquer our shyness.

Now, these reflections are not intended as an argument against sympathy properly expressed. A reasonable and judiciously expressed sympathy with our fellow-beings is the very highest attribute of our nature. “It unravels secrets more surely than the highest critical faculty. Analysis of motives that sway men and women is like the knife of the anatomist: it works on the dead. Unite sympathy to observation, and the dead Spring to life.” It is thus to the shy, in their moments of tremor, that we should endeavor to be calmly unsympathetic; not cruel, but indifferent, unobservant.

Now, women of genius who obtain a reflected comprehension of certain aspects of life through sympathy often arrive at the admirable result of apprehending the sufferings of the shy without seeming to observe them. Such a woman, in talking to a shy man, will not seem to see him; she will prattle on about herself, or tell some funny anecdote of how she was tumbled out into the snow, or how she spilled her glass of claret at dinner, or how she got just too late to the lecture; and while she is thus absorbed in her little improvised autobiography, the shy man gets hold of himself and ceases to be afraid of her. This is the secret of tact.

Page 448 { page image viewer }

Madame Récamier, the famous beauty, was always somewhat shy. She was not a wit, but she possessed the gift of drawing out what was best in others. Her biographers have blamed her that she had not a more impressionable temper, that she was not more sympathetic. Perhaps (in spite of her courage when she took up contributions in the churches dressed as a Neo-Greek) she was always hampered by shyness. She certainly attracted all the best and most gifted of her time, and had a noble fearlessness in friendship, and a constancy which she showed by following Madame de Staël into exile, and in her devotion to Ballenche and Chateaubriand. She had the genius of friendship, a native sincerity, a certain reality of nature–those fine qualities which so often accompany the shy that we almost, as we read biography and history, begin to think that shyness is but a veil for all the virtues.

Perhaps to this shyness, or to this hidden sympathy, did Madame Récamier owe that power over all men which survived her wonderful beauty. The blind and poor old woman of the Abbaye had not lost her charm; the most eminent men and women of her day followed her there, and enjoyed her quiet (not very eloquent) conversation. She had a wholesome heart; it kept her from folly when she was young, from a too over-facile sensitiveness to which an impressionable, sympathetic temperament would have betrayed her. Her firm, sweet nature was not flurried by excitement; she had a steadfastness in her social relations which has left behind an everlasting renown to her name.

Page 449 { page image viewer }

And what are, after all, these social relations which call for so much courage, and which can create so much suffering to most of us as we conquer for them our awkwardness and our shyness? Let us pause for a moment, and try to be just. Let us contemplate these social ethics, which call for so much that is, perhaps, artificial and troublesome and contradictory. Society, so long as it is the congregation of the good, the witty, the bright, the intelligent, and the gifted, is the thing most necessary to us all. We are apt to like it and its excitements almost too well, or to hate it, with its excesses and its mistakes, too bitterly. We are rarely just to society.

The rounded and harmonious and temperate understanding and use of society is, however, the very end and aim of education. We are born to live with each other and not for ourselves; if we are cheerful, our cheerfulness was given to us to make bright the lives of those about us; if we have genius, that is a sacred trust; if we have beauty, wit, joyousness, it was given us for the delectation of others, not for ourselves; if we are awkward and shy, we are bound to break the crust and to show that within us is beauty, cheerfulness, and wit. “It is but the fool who loves excess.” The best human being should moderately like society.
29

Advertisements