A Consolatory Essay, by A.K.H. Boyd,
Almost every man is what, if he were a horse, would be called a screw. Almost every man is unsound. Indeed, my reader, I might well say even more than this. It would be no more than truth, to say that there does not breathe any human being who could satisfactorily pass a thorough examination of his physical and moral nature by a competent inspector.
I do not here enter on the etymological question, why an unsound horse is called a screw. Let that be discussed by abler hands. Possibly the phrase set out at length originally ran, that an unsound horse was an animal in whose constitution there was a screw loose. And the jarring effect produced upon any machine by looseness on the part of a screw which ought to be tight, is well known to thoughtful and experienced minds. By a process of gradual abbreviation, the phrase indicated passed into the simpler statement, that the unsound steed was himself a screw. By a bold transition, by a subtle intellectual process, the thing supposed to be wrong in the animal’s physical system was taken to mean the animal in whose physical system the thing was wrong. Or, it is conceivable that the use of the word screw implied that the animal, possibly in early youth, had got some unlucky twist or wrench, which permanently damaged its bodily nature, or warped its moral development. A tendon perhaps received a tug which it never quite got over. A joint was suddenly turned in a direction in which Nature had not contemplated its ever turning: and the joint never played quite smoothly and sweetly again. In this sense, we should discern in the use of the word screw, something analogous to the expressive Scotticism, which says of a perverse and impracticable man, that he is a thrown person; that is, a person who has got a thraw or twist; or rather, a person the machinery of whose mind works as machinery might be conceived to work which had got a thraw or twist. The reflective reader will easily discern that a complex piece of machinery, by receiving an unlucky twist, even a slight twist, would be put into a state in which it would not go sweetly, or would not go at all.
After this excursus, which I regard as not unworthy the attention of the eminent Dean of Westminster, who has for long been, through his admirable works, my guide and philosopher in all matters relating to the study of words, I recur to the grand principle laid down at the beginning of the present dissertation, and say deliberately, that ALMOST EVERY MAN THAT LIVES, IS WHAT, IF HE WERE A HORSE, WOULD BE CALLED A SCREW. Almost every man is unsound. Every man (to use the language of a veterinary surgeon) has in him the seeds of unsoundness. You could not honestly give a warranty with almost any mortal. Alas! my brother; in the highest and most solemn of all respects, if soundness ascribed to a creature implies that it is what it ought to be, who shall venture to warrant any man sound!
I do not mean to make my readers uncomfortable, by suggesting that every man is physically unsound: I speak of intellectual and moral unsoundness. You know, the most important thing about a horse is his body; and accordingly when we speak of a horse’s soundness or unsoundness, we speak physically; we speak of his body. But the most important thing about a man is his mind; and so, when we say a man is sound or unsound, we are thinking of mental soundness or unsoundness. In short, the man is mainly a soul; the horse is mainly and essentially a body. And though the moral qualities even of a horse are of great importance,--such qualities as vice (which in a horse means malignity of temper), obstinacy, nervous shyness (which carried out into its practical result becomes shying); still the name of screw is chiefly suggestive of physical defects. Its main reference is to wind and limb. The soundness of a horse is to the philosophic and stable mind suggestive of good legs, shoulders, and hoofs; of uncongested lungs and free air-passages; of efficient eyes and entire freedom from staggers. It is the existence of something wrong in these matters which constitutes the unsound horse, or screw.
But though the great thing about rational and immortal man is the soul: and though accordingly the most important soundness or unsoundness about him is that which has its seat THERE; still, let it be said that even as regards physical soundness there are few men whom a veterinary surgeon would pass, if they were horses. Most educated men are physically in very poor condition. And particularly the cleverest of our race, in whom intellect is most developed and cultivated, are for the most part in a very unsatisfactory state as regards bodily soundness. They rub on: they manage somehow to get through their work in life; but they never feel brisk or buoyant. They never know high health, with its attendant cheerfulness. It is a rare case to find such a combination of muscle and intellect as existed in Christopher North: the commoner type is the shambling Wordsworth, whom even his partial sister thought so mean-looking when she saw him walking with a handsome man. Let it be repeated, most civilized men are physically unsound. For one thing, most educated men are broken-winded. They could not trot a quarter of a mile without great distress. I have been amused, when in church I have heard a man beyond middle age singing very loud, and plainly proud of his volume of voice, to see how the last note of the line was cut short for want of wind. I say nothing of such grave signs of physical unsoundness as little pangs shooting about the heart, and little dizzinesses of the brain; these matters are too serious for this page. But it is certain that educated men, for the most part, have great portions of their muscular system hardly at all developed, through want of exercise. The legs of even hard brain-workers are generally exercised a good deal; for the constitutional exercise of such is usually walking. But in large town such men give fair play to no other thews and sinews. More especially the arms of such men are very flabby. The muscle is soft, and slender. If the fore legs of a horse were like that, you could not ride him but at the risk of your neck.
Still, the great thing about man is the mind; and when I set out by declaring that almost every man is unsound, I was thinking of mental unsoundness. Most minds are unsound. No horse is accepted as sound in which the practiced eye of the veterinarian can find some physical defect, something, away from normal development and action. And if the same rule be applied to us, my readers; if every man is mentally a screw, in whose intellectual and moral development a sharp eye can detect something not right in the play of the machinery or the formation of it; then I fancy that we may safely lay it down as an axiom, that there is not upon the face of the earth a perfectly sane man. A sane mind means a healthy mind; that is, a mind that is exactly what it ought to be. Where shall we discover such a one? My reader, you have not got it. I have not got it. Nobody has got it. No doubt, at the first glance, this seems startling; but I intend this essay to be a consolatory one, and I wish to show you that in this world it is well if means will fairly and decently suffice for their ends, even though they be very far from being all that we could wish. God intends not that this world should go on upon a system of optimism. It is enough, if things are so, that they will do. They might do far better. And let us remember, that though a veterinary surgeon would tell you that there is hardly such a thing as a perfectly sound horse in Britain, still in Britain there is very much work done, and well done, by horses. Even so, much work, fair work, passable work, noble work, magnificent work, may be turned off, and day by day is turned off, by minds which, in strict severity, are no better than good, workable, or showy screws.
Many minds, otherwise good and even noble, are unsound upon the point of Vanity. Nor is the unsoundness one that requires any very sharp observer to detect. It is very often extremely conspicuous; and the merest block-head can discern, and can laugh at, the unfortunate defect in one who is perhaps a great and excellent man. Many minds are off the balance in the respect of Suspiciousness; many in that of absurd Prejudice. Many are unsound in the matters of Silliness, Pettiness, Pettedness, Perversity, or general Unpleasantness and Thrawn-ness. Multitudes of men are what in Scotland is called Cat-witted. I do not know whether the word is intelligible in England. It implies a combination of littleness of nature, small self-conceit, readiness to take offence, determination in little things to have one’s own way, and general impracticability. There are men to whom even the members of their own families do not like to talk about their plans and views: who will suddenly go off on a long journey without telling anyone in the house till the minute before they go; and concerning whom their nearest relatives think it right to give you a hint that they are rather peculiar in temper, and you must mind how you talk to them. There are human beings whom to manage into doing the simplest and most obvious duty, needs, on your part, the tact of a diplomatist combined with the skill of a driver of refractory pigs. In short, there are in human beings all kinds of mental twists and deformities. There are mental lameness and broken-windedness. Mental and moral shying is extremely common. As for biting, who does not know it? We have all seen human biters; not merely backbiters, but creatures who like to leave the marks of their teeth upon people present too. There are many kickers; men who in running with others do (so to speak) kick over the traces, and viciously lash out at their companions with little or no provocation. There are men who are always getting into quarrels, though in the main warm-hearted and well-meaning. There are human jibbers: creatures that lie down in the shafts instead of manfully (or horsefully) putting their neck to the collar, and going stoutly at the work of life. There are multitudes of people who are constantly suffering from depression of spirits, a malady which appears in countless forms. There is not a human being in whose mental constitution there is not something wrong; some weakness, some perversion, some positive vice. And if you want further proof of the truth of what I am saying, given by one whose testimony is worth much more than mine, go and read that eloquent and kindly and painfully fascinating book lately published by Dr. Forbes Winslow, on Obscure Diseases of the Brain and Mind; and you will leave off with the firmest conviction that every breathing mortal is mentally a screw.
And yet, my reader, if you have some knowledge of horse-flesh, and if you have been accustomed in your progress through life (in the words of Dr. Johnson) to practice observation, and to look about you with extensive view, your survey must have convinced you that great part of the coaching and other horse work of this country is done, and fairly done, by screws. These poor creatures are out in all kinds of weather, and it seems to do them little harm. Any one who knows how snug, dry, and warm a gentleman’s horses are kept, and how often with all that they are unfit for their duty, will wonder to see poor cab horses shivering on the stand hour after hour on a winter day, and will feel something of respect mingle with his pity for the thin, patient, serviceable screws. Horses that are lame, broken-winded, and vicious, pull the great bulk of all the weight that horses pull. And they get through their work somehow. Not long since, sitting on the box of a highland coach of most extraordinary shape, I traveled through Glenorchy and along Loch Awe side. The horses were wretched to look at, yet they took the coach at a good pace over that very up and down road, which was divided into very long stages. At last, amid a thick wood of dwarf oaks, the coach stopped to receive its final team. It was an extraordinary place for a coach to change horses. There was not a house near: the horses had walked three miles from their stable. They were by far the best team that had drawn the coach that day. Four tall greys, nearly white with age; but they looked well and went well, checking the coach stoutly as they went down the precipitous descents, and ascending the opposite hills at a tearing gallop. No doubt you could see various things amiss. They were blowing a little; one or two were rather blind; and all four a little stiff at starting. They were all screws. The dearest of them had not cost the coach proprietor seven pounds; yet how well they went over the eleven-mile stage into Inverary!
Now in like manner, a great part of the mental work that is done, is done by men who mentally are screws. The practical every-day work of life is done, and respectably done, by very silly, weak, prejudiced people. Mr. Carlyle has stated, that the population of Britain consists of ‘seventeen millions of people, mostly fools.’ I shall endeavor by and bye to make some reservation upon the great author’s sweeping statement; but here it is enough to remark that even Mr. Carlyle would admit that the very great majority of these seventeen millions get very decently and creditably through the task which God sets them in this world. Let it be admitted that they are not so wise as they should be; yet surely it may be admitted too, that they possess that in heart and head which makes them good enough for the rough and homely wear of life. No doubt they blow and occasionally stumble, they sometimes even bite and kick a little; yet somehow they get the coach along. For it is to be remembered that the essential characteristic of a screw is, that though unsound, it can yet by management be got to go through a great deal of work. The screw is not dead lame, nor only fit for the knacker; it falls far short of the perfection of a horse, but still it is a horse, after all, and it can fulfill in some measure a horse’s duty. You see, my friend, the moderation of my view. I do not say that men in general are mad, but only that men in general are screws. There is a little twist in their intellectual or moral nature; there is something wanting or something wrong; they are silly, conceited, egotistical, and the like; yet decently equal to the work of this world. By judicious management you may get a great deal of worthy work out of the unsound minds of other men; and out of your own unsound mind. But always remember that you have an imperfect and warped machine to get on with; do not expect too much of it; and be ready to humor it and yield to it a little. Just as a horse which is lame and broken-winded can yet by care and skill be made to get creditably through a wonderful amount of labor; so may a man, low-spirited, foolish, prejudiced, ill-tempered, soured, and wretched, be enabled to turn off a great deal of work for which the world may be the better. A human being who is really very weak and silly, may write many pages which shall do good to his fellow men, or which shall at the least amuse them. But as you carefully drive an unsound horse, walking him at first starting, not trotting him down hill, making play at parts of the road which suit him; so you must manage many men, or they will break down or bolt out of the path. Above all, so you must manage your own mind, whose weaknesses and wrong impulses you know best, if you would keep it cheerful, and keep it in working order. The showy, unsound horse can go well perhaps, but it must be shod with leather, otherwise it would be dead-lame in a mile. And just in that same fashion we human beings, all more or less of screws mentally and morally, need all kinds of management, on the part of our friends and on our own part, or we should go all wrong. There is something truly fearful when we find that clearest-headed and soberest-hearted of men, the great Bishop Butler, telling us that all his life long he was struggling with horrible morbid suggestions, devilish is what he calls them, which, but for being constantly held in check with the sternest effort of his nature, would have driven him mad. Oh, let the uncertain, unsound, unfathomable human heart be wisely and tenderly driven! And as there are things which with the unsound horse you dare not venture on at all, so with the fallen mind. You who know your own horse, know that you dare not trot him hard down hill. And you who know your own mind and heart, know that there are some things of which you dare not think; thoughts on which your only safety is resolutely to turn your back. The management needful here is the management of utter avoidance. How often we find poor creatures who have passed through years of anxiety and misery, and experienced savage and deliberate cruelty which it is best to forget, lashing themselves up to wrath and bitterness by brooding over these things, on which wisdom would bid them try to close their eyes for ever!
But not merely do screws daily draw cabs and stage-coaches: screws have won the Derby and the St. Leger. A noble-looking thorough-bred has galloped by the winning-post at Epsom at the rate of forty miles an hour, with a white bandage tightly tied round one of its fore-legs: and thus publicly confessing its unsoundness, and testifying to its trainer’s fears, it has beaten a score of steeds which were not screws, and borne off from them the blue ribbon of the turf. Yes, my reader: not only will skilful management succeed in making unsound animals do decently the hum-drum and prosaic task-work of the equine world; it will succeed occasionally in making unsound animals do in magnificent style the grandest things that horses ever do at all. Don’t you see the analogy I mean to trace? Even so, not merely do Mr. Carlyle’s seventeen millions of fools get somehow through the petty work of our modern life, but minds which no man could warrant sound and free from vice, turn off some of the noblest work that ever was done by mortal. Many of the grandest things ever done by human minds, have been done by minds that were incurable screws. Think of the magnificent service done to humankind by James Watt. It is positively impossible to calculate what we all owe to the man that gave us the steam-engine. It is sober truth that the inscription in Westminster Abbey tells, when it speaks of him as among the ‘best benefactors’ of the race. Yet what an unsound organization that great man had! Mentally, what a screw! Through most of his life, he suffered the deepest misery from desperate depression of spirits; he was always fancying that his mind was breaking down: he has himself recorded that he often thought of casting off, by suicide, the unendurable burden of life. And Still, what work the rickety machine got through! With tearing headaches, with a sunken chest, with the least muscular of limbs, with the most melancholy of temperaments, worried and tormented by piracies of his great inventions, yet doing so much and doing it so nobly, was not James Watt like the lame race-horse that won the Derby? As for Byron, he was unquestionably a very great man; and as a poet, he is in his own school without a rival. Still, he was a screw. There was something morbid and unsound about his entire development. In many respects he was extremely silly. It was extremely silly to take pains to represent that he was morally much worse than he really was. The greatest blockheads I know are distinguished by the same characteristic. Oh, empty-headed Noodle! who have more than once dropped hints in my presence as to the awful badness of your life, and the unhappy insight which your life has given you into the moral rottenness of society, don’t do it again. I always thought you a contemptible fool: but next time I mean to tell you so. Wordsworth was a screw. Though one of the greatest of poets, he was dreadfully twisted by inordinate egotism and vanity: the result partly of original constitution, and partly of living a great deal too much alone in that damp and misty lake country. lie was like a spavined horse. Coleridge, again, was a jibber. He never would pull in the team of life. There is something unsound in the mind of the man who fancies that because he is a genius, he need not support his wife and children. Even the sensible and exemplary Southey was a little unsound in the matter of a crotchety temper, needlessly ready to take offence. He was always quarrelling with his associates in the Quarterly Review: with the editor and the publisher. Perhaps you remember how on one occasion he wrought himself up into a fever of wrath with Mr. Murray, because that gentleman suggested a subject on which he wished Southey to write for the Quarterly, and begged him to put his whole strength to it, the subject being one which was just then of great interest and importance. ‘Flagrant insolence,’ exclaimed Southey. ‘Think of the fellow bidding me put my whole strength to an article in his six-shilling Review!’ Now, reader, there you see the evil consequence of a man who is a little of a screw in point of temper, living in the country. Most reasonable men would never have discerned any insult in Mr. Murray’s request: but even if such a one had thought it a shade too authoritatively expressed, he would, if he had lived in town, gone out to the crowded street, gone down to his club, and in half an hour have entirely forgotten the little disagreeable impression. But a touchy man, dwelling in the country, gets the irritative letter by the morning’s post, is worried by it all the forenoon, and goes out and broods on the offence through all his solitary afternoon walk,--a walk in which he does not see a face, perhaps, and certainly does not exchange a sentence with any human being whose presence is energetic enough to turn the current of thought into a healthier direction. And so, by the evening he has got the little offence into the point of view in which it looks most offensive: he is in a rage at being asked to do his best in writing anything for a six-shilling publication. Why on earth not do so? Is not the mind unsoundly sensitive that finds an offence in a request like that? My brilliant brethren who write for Fraser, don’t you put your whole strength to articles to be published in a periodical that sells for half-a-crown?
You could not have warranted manly Samuel Johnson sound, on the points of prejudice and bigotry. There was something unsound in that unreasoning hatred of everything Scotch. Rousseau was altogether a screw. He was mentally lame, broken-winded, a shyer, a kicker, a jibber, a biter: he would do anything but run right on and do his duty. Shelley was a notorious screw. I should say, indeed, that his unsoundness passed the limit of practical sanity, and that on certain points he was unquestionably mad. You could not have warranted Keats sound. You could not deny the presence of a little perverse twist even in the noble mind and heart of the great Sir Charles Napier. The great Emperor Napoleon was cracky, if not cracked, on various points. There was unsoundness in his strange belief in his Fate. Neither Bacon nor Newton was entirely sound. But the mention of Newton suggests to me the single specimen of human kind who might stand even before him: and reminds me that Shakespeare was as sound as any mortal can be. Any defect in him extends no farther than to his taste: and possibly where we should differ from him, he is right and we are wrong. You could not say that Shakespeare was mentally a screw. The noblest of all genius is sober and reasonable: it is among geniuses of the second order that you find something so warped, so eccentric, so abnormal, as to come up to our idea of a screw. Sir Walter Scott was sound: save perhaps in the matter of his veneration for George IV., and of his desire to take rank as one of the country gentlemen of Roxburghshire.
To sum up: let it be admitted that very noble work has been turned off by minds in so far unhinged. It is not merely that great wits are to madness near allied, it is that great wits are sometimes actually in part mad. Madness is a matter of degree. The slightest departure from the normal and healthy action of the mind is an approximation to it. Every mind is a little unsound; but you don’t talk of insanity till the unsoundness becomes very glaring, and unfits for the duty of life. Just as almost every horse is a little lame: one leg steps a hair-breadth shorter than the other, or is a thought less muscular, or the hoof is a shade too sensitive; but you don’t talk of lameness till the creature’s head begins to go up and down, or till it plainly shrinks from putting its foot to the ground. Southey’s wrath about the six-shilling Review, and his brooding on Murray’s slight offence, was a step in the direction of marked delusion such as conveys a man to Harwell or Morningside. And the sensitive, imaginative nature, which goes to the production of some of the human mind’s best productions, is prone to such little deviations from that which is strictly sensible and right. You do not think, gay young readers, what poor unhappy half-cracked creatures may have written the pages which thrill you or amuse you; or painted the picture before which you pause so long. I know hardly any person who ever published anything; but I have sometimes thought that I should like to see assembled in one chamber, on the first of any month, all the men and women who wrote all the articles in all the magazines for that month. Some of them doubtless would be very much like other people; but many would certainly be very odd-looking and odd-tempered samples of humankind. The history of some would be commonplace enough, but that of many would be very curious. A great many readers, I dare say, would like to stand in a gallery, and look at the queer individuals assembled below. Magazine articles, of course, are not (speaking generally) specimens of the highest order of literature; but still, some experience, some thought, some observation, have gone to produce even them. And it is unquestionably out of deep sorrow, out of the travail of heart and nature, that the finest and noblest of all human thoughts have come.
As for the ordinary task-work of life, it must, beyond all question, be generally done by screws,--that is, by folk whose mental organization is unsound on some point. Vain people, obstinate people, silly people, evil-foreboding people, touchy people, twaddling people, carry on the work-day world. Not that it would be giving a fair account of them to describe them thus, and leave the impression that such are their essential characteristics. They are all that has been said; but there is in most a good substratum of practical sense; and they do fairly, or even remarkably well, the particular thing which it is their business in this life to do. When Mr. Carlyle said that the population of Britain consists of so many millions, ‘mostly fools,’ he conveys a quite wrong impression. No doubt there are some who are silly out and out, who are always fools, and essentially fools. No doubt almost all, if you questioned them on great matters of which they have hardly thought, would express very foolish and absurd opinions. But then these absurd opinions are not the staple production of their minds. These are not a fair sample of their ordinary thoughts. Their ordinary thoughts are, in the main, sensible and reasonable, no doubt. Once upon a time, while a famous criminal trial was exciting vast interest, I heard a man in a railway-carriage, with looks of vast slyness and of special stores of information, tell several others that the judge and the counsel on each side had met quietly the evening before to arrange what the verdict should be; and that though the trial would go on to its end to delude the public, still the whole thing was already settled. Now, my first impulse was to regard the man with no small interest, and to say to myself, There, unquestionably, is a fool. But, on reflection, I felt I was wrong. No doubt he talked like a fool on this point. No doubt he expressed himself in terms worthy of an asylum for idiots. But the man may have been a very shrewd and sensible man in matters with which he was accustomed to deal: he was a horse-dealer, I believe, and I doubt not sharp enough at market; and the idiotic appearance he made was the result of his applying his understanding to a matter quite beyond his experience and out of his province. But a man is not properly to be called a fool, even though occasionally he says and does very foolish things, if the great preponderance of the things he says and does be reasonable. No doubt Mr. Carlyle is right in so far as this: that in almost every man there is an element of the fool. Almost all have a vein of folly running through them, and cropping out at the surface now and then. But in most men that is not the characteristic part of their nature. There is more of the sensible man than of the fool.
For the forms of unsoundness in those who are mental screws of the commonplace order; they are endless. You sometimes meet an intellectual defect like that of the conscientious blockhead James II., who thought that to differ from him in opinion was to doubt his word and call him a liar. An unsoundness common to all uneducated people is, that they cannot argue any question without getting into a rage and roaring at the top of their voice. This unsoundness exists in a good many educated men too. A peculiar twist of some minds is this—that instead of maintaining by argument the thesis they are maintaining, which is probably that two and two make five, they branch off and begin to adduce arguments which do not go to prove that, but to prove that the man who maintains that two and two make four is a fool, or even a ruffian. Some good men are subject to this infirmity—that if you differ from them on any point whatever, they regard the fact of your differing from them as proof, not merely that you are intellectually stupid, but that you are morally depraved. Some really good men and women cannot let slip an opportunity of saying anything that may be disagreeable. And this is an evil that tends to perpetuate itself; for when Mr. Snarling comes and says to you something uncomplimentary of yourself or your near relations, instead of your doing what you ought to do, and pitying poor Snarling, and recommending him some wholesome medicine, you are strongly tempted to retort in kind: and thus you sink yourself to Snarling’s level, and you carry on the row. Your proper course is either to speak kindly to poor Snarling, or not to speak to him at all. There is something unsound about the man whom you never heard say a good word of any mortal, but whom you have heard say a great many bad words of a great many mortals. There is unsoundness verging on entire insanity in the man who is always fancying that all about him are constantly plotting to thwart his plans and damage his character. There is unsoundness in the man who is constantly getting into furious altercations with his fellow passengers in steamers and rail-ways, or getting into angry and lengthy correspondence with anybody in the newspapers or otherwise. There is unsoundness in the man who is ever telling you amazing stories which he fancies prove himself to be the bravest, cleverest, swiftest of mankind, but which (on his own showing) prove him to be a vapouring goose. There is unsoundness in the man or woman who turns green with envy as a handsome carriage drives past, and then says with awful bitterness that he or she would not enter such a shabby old conveyance. There is unsoundness in the mortal whose memory is full to repletion of contemptible little stories going to prove that all his neighbors are rogues or fools. There is unsoundness in the unfortunate persons who are always bursting into tears and boohooing out that nobody loves them. Nobody will, so long as they boohoo. Let them stop boohooing. There is unsoundness in the mental organization of the sneaky person who stays a few weeks in a family, and sets each member of it against all the rest by secretly repeating to each exaggerated and malicious accounts of what has been paid as to him or her by the others. There is unsoundness in the perverse person who resolutely docs the opposite of what you wish and expect: who won’t go the pleasure excursion you had arranged on his account, or partake of the dish which has been cooked for his special eating. There is unsoundness in the deluded and unamiable person who, by a grim, repellent, Pharisaic demeanor and address excites in the minds of young persons gloomy and repulsive ideas of religion, which wiser and better folk find it very hard to rub away. ‘Will my father be there?’ said a little Scotch boy to some one who had been telling him of the Happiest Place in the universe, and recounting its joys. ‘Yes,’ was the reply. Said the little man, with prompt decision, ‘Then I’ll no gang!’ He must have been a wretched screw of a Christian who left that impression on a young child’s heart. There is unsoundness in the man who cannot listen to the praises of another man’s merit without feeling as though this were something taken from himself. And it is amusing, though sad, to gee how such folk take for granted in others the same pretty enviousness which they feel in themselves. They will go to one writer, painter, preacher, and begin warmly to praise the doings of another man in the same vocation; and when I have seen the man addressed listen to and add to the praises with the hearty, self-forgetting sincerity of a generous mind, I have witnessed the bitter disappointment of the petty malignants at the failure of their poisoned dart. Generous honesty quite baffles such. If their dart ever wounds you, reader, it is because you deserve that it should. There is unsoundness in the kindly, loveable man, whose opinions are preposterous, and whose conversation that of a jackass. But still, who can help loving the man, occasionally to be met, whose heart is right and whose talk is twaddle? Let me add, that I have met with one or two cases in which conscience was quite paralyzed, but all the other intellectual faculties were right. Surely there is no more deplorable instance of the mental screw. You may find the notorious cheat who is never out of church, and who fancies himself a most creditable man. You will find the malicious tale-bearer and liar, who attends all the prayer-meetings within her reach, and who thanks God (like an individual in former days) that she is so much better than other women.
In the case of commonplace screws, if they do their work well, it is for the most part in spite of their being screws. It is because they are sound in the main, in those portions of their mental constitution which their daily work calls into play; and because they are seldom required to do those things which their unsoundness makes them unfit to do. You know, if a horse never fell lame except when smartly trotted down a hill four miles long, you might say that for practical purposes that horse was never lame at all. For the single contingency to which its powers are unequal would hardly ever occur. In like manner, if the mind of a tradesman is quite equal to the management of his business and the respectable training of his family, you may say that the tradesman’s mind is for practical purposes a sound and good one; although if called to consider some important political question, such as that of the connection of Church and State, his judgment might be purely idiotical. You see, he is hardly ever required to put his mind (so to speak) at a hill at which it would break down. I have walked a mile along the road with a respectable Scotch farmer, talking of country matters; and I have concluded that I had hardly ever conversed with a shrewder and more sensible man. But having accidentally chanced to speak of a certain complicated political question, I found that quoad hoc my friend’s intellect was that of a baby. I had just come upon the four-mile descent which would knock up the horse which for ordinary work was sound.
Yes, reader, in the case of commonplace screws, if hey do their work well, it is in spite of their being screws. But in the case of great geniuses who are screws, it is often because of their unsoundness that they do the fine things they do. It is the hectic beauty which his morbid mind cast upon his page, that made Byron the attractive and fascinating poet that he is to young and inexperienced minds. Had his views been sounder and his feeling healthier, he might have been but a commonplace writer after all. In poetry, and in all imaginative writing, we look for beauty, not for sense; and we all know that what is properly disease and unsoundness sometimes adds to beauty. You know the delicate flush, the bright eyes, the long eyelashes, which we often see in a young girl on whom consumption is doing its work. You know the peachy complexion which often goes with undeveloped scrofula. And had Charles Lamb not been trembling on the verge of insanity, the Essays of Elia would have wanted great part of their strange, undefinable charm. Had Ford and Massinger led more regular lives and written more reasonable sentiments, what a caput mortuum their tragedies would be! Had Coleridge been a man of homely common-sense, he would never have written Christabel. I remember in my boyhood reading The Ancient Mariner to a hard-headed lawyer of no literary taste. He listened to the poem, and merely remarked that its author was a horrible fool.
There is no doubt that physical unsoundness often is a cause of mental excellence. Some of the best women on earth are the ugliest. Their ugliness cut them off from the enjoyment of the gaieties of life; they did not care to go to a ball-room and sit all the evening without once being asked to dance; and so they learned to devote themselves to better things. You have seen the pretty sister, a frivolous, silly flirt; the homely sister, quietly devoting herself to works of Christian charity. Ugly people, we often hear it said, cry up the beauties of the mind. It may be added, that ugly people possess a very large proportion of those beauties. And a great deal of the best intellectual work is done by men who are physically screws; by men who are nearly blind, broken-winded, lame, and weakly. We all know what the Apostle Paul was physically; we know too what the world owes to that dwarfish, bald, stammering man. I never in my life read anything more touching than the story of that poor weakly creature, Dr. George Wilson, the Professor of Technology in the University of Edinburgh. Poor weakly creature, only in a physical sense; what a noble intellectual and moral nature dwelt within that slender frame! You remember how admirably he did his work, though in a condition of almost ceaseless bodily weakness and suffering; how he used to lecture often with a great blister on his chest; how his lungs and his entire system were the very poorest that could just retain his soul. I never saw him; but I have seen his portrait. You see the intellectual kindly face; but it is but the weakly shadow of a physical man. But it was only physically that George Wilson was a poor type of humanity. What noble health and excellence there were in that noble mind and heart! So amiable, so patient, so unaffectedly pious, so able and industrious; a beautiful example of a great, good, memorable and truly loveable man. Let us thank God for George Wilson: for his life and his example. Hundreds of poor souls ready to sink into morbid despair of ever doing anything good, will get fresh hope and heart from his story. It is well, indeed, that there have been some in whom the physical system equals the moral; men like Christopher North and Sydney Smith,--men in whom the play of the lungs was as good as the play of the imagination, and whose literal heart was as excellent as their metaphysical. We have all seen examples in which the noblest intellect and kindest disposition were happily blended with the stoutest limbs and the pleasantest face. And the sound mind in the sound body is doubtless the perfection of the human being. I have walked many miles and many hours over the heather, with one of the ablest men in Britain: a man whom at fourscore his country can heartily trust with perhaps the gravest charge which any British subject can undertake. And I have witnessed with great delight the combination of the keenest head and best heart, with physical strength and activity which quite knock up men younger by forty years.
When I was reading Dr. Forbes Winslow’s book, already named, a very painful idea was impressed upon me. Dr. Winslow gives us to understand that madness is for the most part a condition of most awful suffering. I used to think that though there might be dreadful misery on the way to madness, yet once reason was fairly overthrown, the suffering was over. This appears not to be so. All the miserable depression of spirits, all the incapacity to banish distressing fears and suspicions, which paved the way to real insanity, exist in even intensified degree when insanity has actually been reached. The poor maniac fancies he is surrounded by burning fires, that he is encircled by writhing snakes, that he is in hell, tormented by devils; and we must remember that the misery caused by firmly believing a thing which does not exist, is precisely the same as that which would be occasioned to a sane person if the things imagined were facts. It seems, too, that many insane people are quite aware that they are insane, which of course aggravates what they have to endure. It must be a dreadful thing when the mind passes the point up to which it is still useful and serviceable, though unsound, and enters upon the stage of recognized insanity. It must be dreadful to feel that you are not quite yourself; that something is wrong; that you cannot discard suspicions and fears which still you are aware are foolish and groundless. This is a melancholy stage, and if it last long a very perilous one. Great anxiety, if continued for any length of time, is almost certain to lead to some measure of insanity. The man who night and day is never free from the thought of how he is to pay his way, to maintain his children, is going mad. It is thoroughly evil when one single thought conies to take entire possession of the mind. It shows the brain is going. It is no wonder, my friendly reader, that so many men are mentally screws! There is something perfectly awful in reading what are the premonitory symptoms of true insanity. Read this, my friend, and be afraid of yourself. Here are what Dr. Winslow says indicates that insanity is drawing near. Have you never seen it? Have you never felt it?
The patient is irritable, and fractious, peevish, and pettish. He is morbidly anxious about trifles: slight ruffles on the surface, and trivial annoyances in the family circle or during the course of business, worry, flurry, tease and fret him, nothing satisfying or soothing his mind, and everything, to his distempered fancy, going wrong within the sacred precincts of domestic life. He is quick at fancying affronts, and greatly exaggerates the slightest and most trifling acts of supposed inattention. The least irregularity on the part of the domestics excites, angers, and vexes him. He is suspicious of and quarrels with his nearest relations, and mistrusts his best, kindest, and most faithful friends. While in this premonitory stage of mental derangement, bordering closely on an attack of acute insanity, he twists, distorts, misconceives, misconstrues, and perverts in a most singular manner every look, gesture, action, and word of those closely associated, and nearly related to him.
Considering that Dr. Winslow does really in that paragraph sketch the moral characteristics of at least a score of people known to every one of us, all this is alarming enough. And considering, too, how common a thing sleeplessness is among men who go through hard mental work, or who are pressed by many cares and anxieties, it is even more alarming to read, that—
Wakefulness is one of the most constant concomitants of some types of incipient brain disease, and in many cases a certain forerunner of insanity. It is an admitted axiom in medicine, that the brain cannot be in a healthy condition while a state of sleeplessness exists.
But I pass away from this part of my subject. I do not believe that it is good for either my readers or myself to look from a medical point of view at those defects or morbid manifestations in our mental organization which stamp us screws. We accept the fact, generally; without going into details. It is a bad thing for a man to be always feeling his pulse after every little exertion, and fancying that its acceleration or irregularity indicates that something is wrong. Such a man is in the fair way to settled hypochondria. And I think it is even worse to be always watching closely the play of the mental machine, and thinking that this process or that emotion is not as it ought to be. Let a man work his mind fairly and moderately, and not worry himself as to its state. The mind can get no more morbid habit than that of continually watching itself for a stumble. Except in the case of metaphysicians, whose business it is to watch and analyze the doings of the mind, the mind ought to be like the stomach. You know that your stomach is right, because you never feel that you have one; but the work intended for that organ is somehow done. And common folk should know that they have minds, only by finding the ends fairly attained, which are intended to be attained by that most sensitive and ticklish piece of machinery.
I think that it is a piece of practical wisdom in driving the mental screw, to be careful how you allow it to dwell too constantly upon any one topic. If you allow yourself to think too much of any subject, you will get a partial craze upon that; you will come to vastly overrate its importance. You will make yourself uncomfortable about it. There once was a man who mused long upon the notorious fact that almost all human beings stoop consider ably. Few hold themselves as upright as they ought. And this notion took such hold upon the poor man’s mind, that, waking or sleeping, he could not get rid of it; and he published volume after volume to prove the vast extent of the evils which come of this bad habit of stooping, and to show that to get fairly rid of this bad habit would be the regeneration of the human race, physically and morally. We know how authors exaggerate the claims of their subject; and I can quite imagine a very earnest man feeling afraid to think too much and long about any existing evil, for fear it should greaten on his view into a thing so large and pernicious, that he should be constrained to give all his life to wrestling with that one thing, and attach to it an importance which would make his neighbors think him a monomaniac. If you think long and deeply upon any subject, it grows in apparent magnitude and weight; if you think of it too long, it may grow big enough to exclude the thought of all things besides. If it be an existing and prevalent evil you are thinking of, you may come to fancy that if that one thing were done away, it would be well with the human race: all evil would go with it. I can conceive the process by which, without mania, without anything worse than the workable unsoundness of the practically sound mind, one might come to think as the man who wrote against stooping thought. For myself, I feel the force of this law so deeply, that there are certain evils of which I am afraid to think much, for fear I should come to be able to think of nothing else and nothing more. I remember, when I was a boy, there was a man in London who constantly advertised himself in the newspapers as the Inventor of the only Rational System of Writing in the Universe. His system was, I believe, to move in writing, not the fingers merely, but the entire arm from the shoulder. This may be an improvement perhaps: and that man had brooded over the mischiefs of moving the fingers in writing till these mischiefs shut out the view of the rest of creation, or at least till he saw nothing but irrationality in writing otherwise. All the millions who wrote by the fingers were cracked. The writing-master, in short, though possibly a reasonable man on other subjects, was certainly unsound upon this. You may allow yourself to speculate on the chance of being bitten by a mad dog, or of being maimed by a railway accident, till you grow morbid on these points. If you live in the country, you may give in to the idea that your house will be broken into at night by burglars, till, every time you wake in the dark hours, you may fancy you hear the centre-bit at work boring through the window-shutters down stairs. A very clever woman once told me, that for a year she yielded so much to the fear that she had left, a spark behind her in any room into which she had gone with a lighted candle, which spark would set the house on fire, that she could not be easy till she had groped her way back in the dark to see that things were right. Now, ye readers whose minds must be carefully driven (I mean all the readers who will ever see this page), don’t give in to these fancies. As you would carefully train your horse to pass the corner he always shies at, so break your mind of this bad habit. And in breaking your mind of the smallest bad habit, I would counsel you to resort to the same kindly Helper whose aid you would ask in breaking your mind of the greatest and worst. It is not a small matter, the existence in the mind of any tendency or characteristic which is unsound. We know what lies in that direction. You are like the railway-train which, with breaks unapplied, is stealing the first yard down the incline at the rate of a mile in two hours; but if that train be not pulled up, in ten minutes it may be tearing down to destruction at sixty miles an hour.
I have said that almost every human being is mentally a screw; that all have some intellectual peculiarity, some moral twist, away from the normal standard of Tightness. Let it, be added, that it is little wonder that the fact should be as it is. I do not think merely of a certain unhappy warping, of an old original wrench, which human nature long ago received, and from which it never has recovered. I am not writing as a theologian; and so I do not suggest the grave consideration that human nature, being fallen, need not be expected to be the right-working machinery that it may have been before it fell. But I may at least say, look how most people are educated; consider the kind of training they get, and the incompetent hands that train them: what chance have they of being anything but screws? Ah, my reader, if horses were broken by people as unfit for their work as most of the people who form human minds, there would not be a horse in the world that would not be dead lame. You do not trust your thorough-bred colt, hitherto unhandled, to any one who is not understood to have a thorough knowledge of the characteristics and education of horses. But in numberless instances, even in the better classes of society, a thing which needs to be guarded against a thousand wrong tendencies, and trained up to a thousand right things from which it is ready to shrink, the most sensitive and complicated thing in nature, the human soul, is left to have its character formed by hands as hopelessly unfit for the task as the Lord Chancellor is to prepare the winner of the next St. Leger. You find parents and guardians of children systematically following a course of treatment calculated to bring out the very worst tendencies of mind and heart that are latent in the little things given to their care. If a young horse has a tendency to shy, how carefully the trainer seeks to win him away from the habit. But if a poor little boy has a hasty temper, you may find his mother taking the greatest pains to irritate that temper. If the little fellow have some physical or mental defect, you have seen parents who never miss an opportunity of throwing it in the boy’s face; parents who seem to exult in the thought that they know the place where a touch will always cause to wince,--the sensitive, unprotected point where the dart of malignity will never fail to get home. If a child has said or done some wrong or foolish thing, you will find parents who are constantly raking up the remembrance of it, for the pure pleasure of giving pain. Even so would a kindly man, who knows that his horse has just come down and cut himself, take pains whenever he came to a bit of road freshly macadamized to bring down the poor horse on the sharp stones, again with his bleeding knees. And even where you do not find positive malignity in those entrusted with the training of human minds, you find hopeless imcompetency exhibited in many other ways; outrageous silliness and vanity, want of honesty, and utter want of sense. I say it deliberately, instead of wondering that most minds are such screws, I wonder with indescribable surprise that they are not a thousand times worse. For they are like trees pruned and trained into ugliness and barrenness. They are like horses carefully tutored to shy, kick, rear, and bite. It says something hopeful as to what may yet be made of human beings, that most of them are no worse than they are. Some parents, fancying too that they are educating their children on Christian principles, educate them in such fashion that the only wonder is that the children do not end at the gallows.
Let us recognize the fact in all our treatment of others, that we have to deal with screws. Let us not think, as some do, that by ignoring a fact you make it cease to be a fact. I have seen a man pulling his lame horse up tight, and flicking it with his whip, and trying to drive it as if it were not lame. Now, that won’t do. The poor horse makes a desperate effort, and runs a step or two as if sound. But in a little the heavy head falls upon the bit at each step, and perhaps the creature comes down bodily with a tremendous smash. If it were only his idiotic master that was smashed, I should not mind. So have I seen parents refusing to see or allow for the peculiarities of their children, insisting on driving the poor screw as though it were perfect in wind and limb. So have I seen people refusing to see or allow for the peculiarities of those around them; ignoring the depressed spirits, the unhappy twist, the luckless perversity of temper, in a servant, an acquaintance, a friend, which, rightly managed, would still leave them most serviceable screws; but which, determinedly ignored, will land in uselessness and misery. I believe there are people who (in a moral sense), if they have a crooked stick, fancy that by using it as if it were straight, it will become straight. If you have got a rifle that sends its ball somewhat to the left side, you (if you are not a fool) allow for that in shooting. If you have a friend of sterling value, but of crotchety temper, you (if you are not a fool) allow for that. If you have a child who is weak, desponding, and early old, you (if you are not a hopeless idiot) remember that, and allow for it, and try to make the best of it. But if you be an idiot, you will think it deep diplomacy, and adamantine firmness, and wisdom beyond Solomon’s, to shut your eyes to the state of facts; to tug sharply the poor screw’s mouth, to lash him violently, to drive him as though he were sound. Probably you will come to a smash: alas! that the smash will probably include more than you.
Not, reader, that all human beings thus idiotically ignore the fact that it is with screws they have to deal. It is very touching to see, as we sometimes see, people trying to make the best of awful screws. You are quite pleased if your lame horse trots four or five miles without showing very gross unsoundness, though of course this is but a poor achievement. And even so, I have been touched to see the child quite happy at having coaxed a graceless father to come for once to church; and the wife quite happy when the blackguard bully, her husband, for once evinces a little kindness. It was not much they did, you see: but remember what wretched screws did it, and be thankful if they do even that little. I have heard a mother repeat, with a pathetic pride, a connected sentence said by her idiot boy. You remember how delighted Miss Trotwood was, in Mr. Dickens’s beautiful story, with Mr. Dick’s good sense, when he said something which in anybody else would have been rather silly. But Mr. Dick, you see, was just out of the Asylum, and no more. How pleased you are to find a relation, who is a terrific fool, merely behaving like anybody else!
Yes: there is a good deal of practical resignation in this world. We get reconciled to having and to being screws. We grow reconciled to the fact that our possessions, our relations, our friends, are very far indeed from being what we could wish. We grow reconciled to the fact, and we try to make the best of it, that we ourselves are screws: that in temper, in judgment, in talent, in tact, we are a thousand miles short of being what we ought; and that we can hope for little more than decently, quietly, sometimes wearily and sadly, to plod along the path in life which God in his kindness and wisdom has set us. We come to look with interest, but without a vestige of envy, at those who are cleverer and better off than ourselves. A great many good people are so accustomed to things going against them, that they are rather startled when things go as they could have desired: they can stand disappointment, but success puts them out, it is so unwonted a thing. The lame horse, the battered old gig,--they feel at home with these; but they would be confused if presented with my friend Smith’s drag, with its beautiful steeds, all but thoroughbred, and perfectly sound. To struggle on with a small income, manifold worries, and lowly estimation,--to these things they have quietly reconciled themselves. But give them wealth, and peace, and fame (if these things can be combined), and they would hardly know what to do. Yesterday I walked up a very long flight of steps in a very poor part of the most beautiful city in Britain. Just before me, a feeble old woman, bent down apparently by eighty years, was slowly ascending. She had a very large bundle on her back, and she supported herself by a short stick in her withered, trembling hand. If it had been in the country, I should most assuredly have carried up the poor creature’s bundle for her; but I am sorry to say I had not moral courage to offer to do so in town: for a parson with a great sackcloth bundle on his back, would be greeted in that district with depreciatory observations. But I kept close by her, to help her if she fell; and when I got to the top of the steps I passed her and went on. I looked sharply at the poor old face in passing; I see it yet. I see the look of cowed, patient, quiet, hopeless submission: I saw she had quite reconciled her mind to bearing her heavy burden, and to the far heavier load of years, and infirmities, and poverty, she was bearing too. She had accepted those for her portion in this life. She looked for nothing better. She was like the man whose horse has been broken-winded and lame so long, that he has come almost to think that every horse is a screw. I see yet the quiet, wearied, surprised look she cast up at me as I passed: a look merely of surprise to see an entire coat in a place where my fellow-creatures (every one deserving as much as me) for the most part wear rags. I do not think she even wished to possess an equally entire garment: she looked at it with interest merely as the possession of some one else. She did not even herself (as we Scotch say) to anything better than the rags she had worn so long. Long experience had subdued her to what she is.
But short experience does so too. We early learn to be content with screws, and to make the best of imperfect means. As I have been writing that last paragraph, I have been listening to a colloquy outside my study door, which is partly open. The parties engaged in the discussion were a certain little girl of five years old, and her nurse. The little girl is going out to spend the day at the house of a little companion; and she is going to take her doll with her. I heard various sentences not quite distinctly, which conveyed to me a general impression of perplexity; and at length, in a cheerful, decided voice, the little girl said, ‘The people will never know it has got no legs!’ The doll, you see, was unsound. Accidents had brought it to an imperfect state. But that wise little girl had done what you and I, my reader, must try to do very frequently: she had made up her mind to make the best of a screw.
I learn a lesson, as I close my essay, from the old woman of eighty, and the little girl of five. Let us seek to reconcile our minds both to possessing screws, and (harder still) to being screws. Let us make the best of our imperfect possessions, and of our imperfect selves. Let us remember that a great deal of good can be done by means which fall very far short of perfection; that our moderate abilities, honestly and wisely husbanded and directed, may serve valuable ends in this world before we quit it,--ends which may remain after we are gone. I do not suppose that judicious critics, in pointing out an author’s faults, mean that he ought to stop writing altogether. There are hopeless cases in which he certainly ought: cases in which the steed passes being a screw, and is fit only for the hounds. But in most instances the critic would be quite wrong, if he argued what because his author has many flaws and defects, he should write no more. With all its errors, what he writes may be much better than nothing; as the serviceable screw is better than no horse at all. And if the critic’s purpose is merely to show the author that the author is a screw,--why, if the author have any sense at all, he knows that already. He does not claim to be wiser than other men; and still less to be better: yet he may try to do his best. With many defects and errors, still fair work may be turned off. I will not forget the lame horses that took the coach so well to Inverary. And I remember certain words in which one who is all but the greatest English poet declared that under the heavy visitation of God he would do his utmost still. Here is the resolution of a noble screw:--
I argue not
Against Heaven’s hand or will, nor bate a jot
Of heart or hope; but still bear up and steer
This is taken from Recreations of a Country Parson.
Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved