Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 16.djvu/103

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93
INTELLECTUAL STRAINING IN AUTHORSHIP.

INTELLECTUAL STRAINING IN AUTHORSHIP.

WE hear a good deal of the joylessness of the present generation, and no doubt there is a greater unrest and a greater impatience among those who lead the forward movement of thought than in any former time. And partly, no doubt, this is due to want of trust, want of power to lean on any invisible hand; partly, too, to a habit closely connected with this want of trust—a habit contracted by men of the greatest intellect, of straining to see or say something new, as if such straining were the only healthy condition of the mind, as if without it one must sink into a sort of death. Carlyle was one of the first to set the example of this straining. His genius, great as it is, may be almost said to have grown out of the taste for abrupt changes of light and shadow, in the flickerings of which he has contrived to set so considerable a tract of life, both domestic and historic. His peculiar dialect itself is a great instrument for startling men, for giving them little shocks or thrills of unexpected impression. Very often, too, he has succeeded, as some great photographers have succeeded, in producing a very powerful impression by deliberately taking his portraits out of focus. Carlyle's influence is in this respect more or less reflected in Ruskin, who has taught the younger generation of Oxford men so much and yet often so grotesquely, who has fostered so much more excitement of mind than is healthy, and who has accustomed them to so much disproportion between the vehemence of what he says and its truth. And, of those of our younger generation who go abroad for tuition, how many prefer Victor Hugo to any home-bred master for this very reason alone—that his genius is so irregular and grotesque, that it combines so much excitement with so much insight, that there is such a piercing glance and so little law! It is the same in the New World. There are many who believe that Ralph Waldo Emerson is the greatest of living sages. And certainly his career has been calm and sedate enough, and there is real penetration in his glance. But, though he has never thrown much of emotional excitement into his teaching, his philosophy means nothing, if it does not mean that you get a truer view of life by standing on intellectual tiptoe and straining at a universal truth that is not quite within your reach than you do by humbly putting together what you may really be said to understand. There is no greater contrast between intellectual men than there is between the sedate calm of Emerson and the transcendental exultation or anguish of Victor Hugo. But, on a purely intellectual theme, the one reminds us curiously of the other. Here is a preface furnished by Emerson to a series of portraits of the hundred greatest men of the human race, which has just been begun by an enterprising publisher.[1]

  1. Messrs. Sampson Low & Co.