The Glass Walking Stick



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TRICKS OF MEMORY


1910

THERE are many books which we think we have read when we have not. There are, at least, many that we think we remember when we do not. An original picture, perhaps, was imprinted upon the brain, but it has changed with our own changing minds. We only remember our remembrances. There is many a man who thinks he can recall the works of Swift or of Goldsmith; but, indeed, he himself is the principal author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ or ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’, which he recalls. Macaulay, with his close reading and miraculous memory, was quite certain that the Blatant Beast was killed at the end of ‘The Faerie Queene’; but it was not. A brilliant and scholarly friend of mine quoted a stanza as one in which not one word could safely be altered — and quoted it wrong. Hundreds of highly educated people are quite fixed in false versions touching facts that they could easily verify. The editor of a Church newspaper (in rebuking Radicals) asseverated again and again, after contradiction and challenge, that the Catechism commands a child ‘to do his duty in that state of life to which it has pleased God to call him’. Of course the Catechism says no such thing, but the editor was so certain that he would not even open his prayer-book to see. Hundreds of people are sure that Milton wrote, ‘Tomorrow to fresh fields and pastures new’. Hundreds of people are sure that Jesuits preached that the end justifies the means; many of them are sure that they have seen some Jesuit’s statement to that effect; but they have not.

But it is a stranger thing still that memory can thus trick us about the main artistic effect of really fine books. Until about a year ago I believed that I had a vivid recollection of ‘Robinson Crusoe’, So, indeed, I had, of certain images of the wreck and island; above all of the admirable fact that Crusoe had two swords instead of one. That is one of the touches of the true Defoe; the very inspired poetry of the accidental and the rough-and-tumble; the very romance of the unromantic. But I found I had completely forgotten the really sublime introduction to the tale, which gives it all its spiritual dignity — the narrative of Crusoe’s impiety; his two escapes from shipwreck and opportunities for repentance; and, finally, the falling upon him of this strange judgement: food, security, silence — a judgement stranger than death.

With this case in mind I am in no position to exult over my fellow-critics when they prove that they have not read properly the books that, as it happens, I have read properly. But I have been somewhat singularly impressed with the most cultivated and authoritative criticisms of the dramatic version of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, in so far as they refer to Stevenson’s original romance. Of the play I cannot speak, but with the romance I am very well acquainted, which is more than can be said of those who have lightly and gracefully criticized it on the present occasion. Most of them said that Stevenson was a charming artist but no philosopher; that his inadequacy as a thinker was well represented in the tale of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, which they proceeded to describe with the wildest inaccuracy of detail and a complete oblivion of the design. One idea, above all, has established itself firmly in their minds and I daresay in many other people’s. They think that in Stevenson’s tale Jekyll is the good self and Hyde the bad self; or, in other words, that the protagonist is wholly good when he is Jekyll and wholly bad when he is Hyde.

Now, if Hamlet had killed his uncle in the first act, if Othello had appeared as a mari complaisant, it could not have upset the whole point of Shakespeare’s story more than this upsets the whole point of Stevenson’s story. Stevenson’s story has nothing to do with pathological pedantries about ‘dual personality’. That was mere machinery; and as he himself seems to have thought, even unfortunate machinery. The business of the powders I think he himself thought clumsy; but he had to make the tale a modern novel and work the transformations by medicine, unless he was prepared to tell it as a primeval fairy-tale and make them by magic. But he did not care a jot about either compared with the mystical idea in the transformation itself; and that had nothing to do with powders or dual personalities, but only with heaven and hell — like ‘Robinson Crusoe’.

Stevenson goes out of his way to emphasize the fact that Jekyll, as Jekyll, was by no means perfect but was rather a morally damaged piece of goods. He had ‘a sly cast’, in spite of his handsome presence; he was nervous and secretive though not ill-natured. Jekyll is not the good man; Jekyll is the ordinary mixed, moderately humane man, whose character has begun to suffer from some evil drug or passion. Now, that which is thus sucking and draining him is the habit of being Hyde; and it is here that the fine moral of Stevenson comes in, a moral as superior as it is opposite to that popularly put into his mouth. So far from preaching that man can be success fully divided into two men, good and evil, he specifically preached that man cannot be so divided, even by monstrosity and miracle; that, even in the extravagant case of Jekyll, the good is still dragged down by the mere existence of the bad. The moral of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is not that man can be cut in two; it is that man cannot be cut in two.

Hyde is the innocence of evil. He stands for the truth (attested by a hundred tales of hypocrites and secret sins) that there is in evil, though not in good, this power of self-isolation, this hardening of the whole exterior, so that a man becomes blind to moral beauties or deaf to pathetic appeals. A man in pursuit of some immoral mania does attain an abominable simplicity of soul; he does act from one motive alone. Therefore he does be come like Hyde, or like that blood-curdling figure in Grimm’s fairy-tales, ‘a little man made of iron’. But the whole of Stevenson’s point would have been lost if Jekyll had exhibited the same horrible homogeneity. Precisely because Jekyll, with all his faults, possesses goodness, he possesses also the consciousness of sin, humility. He knows all about Hyde, as angels know about devils. And Steven son specially points out that this contrast between the blind swiftness of evil and the almost bewildered omniscience of good is not a peculiarity of this strange case, but is true of the permanent problem of your conscience and mine. If I get drunk I shall forget dignity; but if I keep sober I may still desire drink. Virtue has the heavy burden of knowledge; sin has often something of the levity of sinlessness.





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