Path of Vision; pocket essays of East and West/Part Second, 9
THE CURIOSITY OF THE OCCIDENTAL
CURIOSITY with the Occidentals, though it degenerates at times into a vulgar inquisitiveness, is a commendable quality of the mind. It is accepted as a shiboleth of culture; it is condoned as an avowal of ignorance; it is welcomed as a bid for intellectual or even social intimacy: but it is seldom looked upon as a breach of etiquette.
But with the Orientals, curiosity is decidedly bad manners. Accept the exterior and divine the interior, is generally the prevailing humor. Indeed, the curious one is invariably looked upon with either suspicion or disdain. He is shunned as a beggar, rebuked as a thief. For the Oriental would prefer a man to pick his purse than to pick his heart or mind. Where the impulse, however, is irresistible, defying, the custom is to apply the subtle, circuitous method. That is why, I suppose, so much more is accomplished in a given time by the people of the western world.
The tendency in one case is to overtax the imagination, in the other, to overtax the mind. The Oriental, it might be said, grows by repression, the Occidental, by expression. But both methods, to be sure, do not exclude the possibility of a morbid growth. On the contrary, they stimulate it.
The Oriental's curiosity about nature, for instance, is transformed into superlatives of admiration. He approaches it ecstatically, poetically and revels in its external beauty and loveliness. The Occidental approaches it designedly, scientifically and tries to get at the secret of its power to transform it into material well-being. The difference is not only in the point of view, but in the procedure as well.
The reaction is not always startling, nor always agreeable. A Persian and a Parisian were dining one day with a French woman in a Paris restaurant. She was of a reticent beauty, affecting the mysterious. She spread a banquet of her studied demure charms before both her admirers, but was very careful not to unveil her soul. The Parisian talked to her in the argot of the French novel, which she understood and accepted at its face value; the Persian addressed her in a language of repressed emotions, which she likely misunderstood, but better appreciated. The Parisian amused her with his undisguised curiosity, the Persian attracted her with a silent something that was burrowing perhaps under her feet or secretly fingering the forbidding veil of her mystery.
And she was least likely to mistake the motive that wore a mask. She feared the Oriental, it is true, but she was fascinated by him. For she felt that to him she was, above all and beneath all, a woman and, therefore, a mystery. And as such, she should be reverently approached or austerely eschewed. The Persian's curiosity, if he had any, permitted of no other alternative. The result was that her fear and suspicion, although he did not recognize her intellectual attainments and her brilliancy of mind, were not devoid of a certain quality of respect, secret or expressed. And that is because he was, though obviously incurious, unquestionably sincere. The Parisian, on the other hand, though his curiosity was engaging, animating,—though he delighted in the banquet she spread before him of her intellectual charms and was lavish in his adulation,—could not but betray the insincerity that wore for its secret purpose the mask of culture.
Even with the occidentals, curiosity may be complex in its origin and significance. It is the instigator of all shades of moods and manners. For whether direct or artful, it may be innate or acquired or assumed. And it may be actuated by self-interest, by pride, and sometimes by snobbery. In the first, one wishes to know and to profit by the knowledge; in the second, one seeks knowledge only to know what others ignore; while in the third, the curious one is but the slave of fashion.
There is still another phase to this pecking tendency of the mind. Often in society, curiosity is but a kind of espionage; it is indisputably the handmaiden of gossip. But clothed in good manners, it passes as one of the excellences of human intercourse; and not infrequently it engenders scandal and brings about the ruin of an established home or fortune.
On the other hand, there is the individual that affects an incuriousness only to impress upon us a real, or to flaunt a fictitious, superiority. When one is well travelled, well read,—has had a varied and rich experience,—has tasted of all the cups and courses of life; is as familiar amidst the superstitious squalor of Calcutta as in the high-lackered halls of London or New York; is terribly at ease with the fallaheen of Egypt as with the dons of Oxford, one's curiosity is seldom moved. But even in its latencies and repressions, in its immobility, however serene, it can be provoking, irritating. And what is worse, it can be insincere.
The gentleman in the centre of the drawing room, surrounded by a knot of admirers, has wonderful dignity and poise, is to the manner born. Yes, indeed. He is one of the celebrities of the day:—a poet, scholar, diplomat and an illustrious citizen of the Republic. But when you are relating in his presence some curious instance of racial degeneracy or superiority in the aborigines of Yucatan, or some idiomatic vernacular enormities of a religious revival in America, or some anthropologic anomalies in the Bulus of Central Africa, he listens patronizingly and nods with an all-knowing brow, to be sure; but when he gets back to his library, he will hasten, I promise you, to the dictionary or the encyclopedia to look up a word or a name he deliberately remembered which had escaped his circumambient comprehension. His lack of curiosity is commendable, indeed; but you wish, after having politely unbuttoned your mind and bowed before the image of his sublime reserve, that he would condescend at least to an interrogation.
The incuriousness of the Oriental is only partly akin to this. For while the absurd gravity of the venerable sheikh might sit amidst profundities unmoved, indifferent, serene, there is little or nothing behind it to spur him to a dictionary or an encyclodia or even a book of travel. Whether in the East or in the West, there is something unpleasant, indecorous—I had almost said indecent—in the attitude of these culture-conscious princes of dignity and poise. Even at best, it is an attitude that provokes hostility. It argues against the 'sweetness and light' of culture. And when you are certain that your words in the end will cozen out of the lips of reserve but an exclamation of mashallah, you turn with to a hammal or a fakir instead; or to a dapper clerk or a grocer, when you know that your remarks are to be punctuated by Solemn Dignity with the vapidities of 'how-curious' or the vaguenesses of 'how-interesting'.