Baldness and Intellectuality

This is taken from Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac.


One of Judge Methuen's pet theories is that the soul in the human body lies near the center of gravity; this is, I believe, one of the tenets of the Buddhist faith, and for a long time I eschewed it as one might shun a vile thing, for I feared lest I should become identified even remotely with any faith or sect other than Congregationalism.

Yet I noticed that in moments of fear or of joy or of the sense of any other emotion I invariably experienced a feeling of goneness in the pit of my stomach, as if, forsooth, the center of my physical system were also the center of my nervous and intellectual system, the point at which were focused all those devious lines of communication by means of which sensation is instantaneously transmitted from one part of the body to another.

I mentioned this circumstance to Judge Methuen, and it seemed to please him. "My friend," said he, "you have a particularly sensitive soul; I beg of you to exercise the greatest prudence in your treatment of it. It is the best type of the bibliomaniac soul, for the quickness of its apprehensions betokens that it is alert and keen and capable of instantaneous impressions and enthusiasms. What you have just told me convinces me that you are by nature qualified for rare exploits in the science and art of book-collecting. You will presently become bald---perhaps as bald as Thomas Hobbes was---for a vigilant and active soul invariably compels baldness, so close are the relations between the soul and the brain, and so destructive are the growth and operations of the soul to those vestigial features which humanity has inherited from those grosser animals, our prehistoric ancestors."

You see by this that Judge Methuen recognized baldness as prima-facie evidence of intellectuality and spirituality. He has collected much literature upon the subject, and has promised the Academy of Science to prepare and read for the instruction of that learned body an essay demonstrating that absence of hair from the cranium (particularly from the superior regions of the frontal and parietal divisions) proves a departure from the instincts and practices of brute humanity, and indicates surely the growth of the understanding.

It occurred to the Judge long ago to prepare a list of the names of the famous bald men in the history of human society, and this list has grown until it includes the names of thousands, representing every profession and vocation. Homer, Socrates, Confucius, Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Pliny, Maecenas, Julius Caesar, Horace, Shakespeare, Bacon, Napoleon Bonaparte, Dante, Pope, Cowper, Goldsmith, Wordsworth, Israel Putnam, John Quincy Adams, Patrick Henry---these geniuses all were bald. But the baldest of all was the philosopher Hobbes, of whom the revered John Aubrey has recorded that "he was very bald, yet within dore he used to study and sitt bare-headed, and said he never took cold in his head, but that the greatest trouble was to keepe off the flies from pitching on the baldness."

In all the portraits and pictures of Bonaparte which I have seen, a conspicuous feature is that curl or lock of hair which depends upon the emperor's forehead, and gives to the face a pleasant degree of picturesque distinction. Yet this was a vanity, and really a laughable one; for early in life Bonaparte began to get bald, and this so troubled him that he sought to overcome the change it made in his appearance by growing a long strand of hair upon his occiput and bringing it forward a goodly distance in such artful wise that it right ingeniously served the purposes of that Hyperion curl which had been the pride of his youth, but which had fallen early before the ravages of time.

As for myself, I do not know that I ever shared that derisive opinion in which the unthinking are wont to hold baldness. Nay, on the contrary, I have always had especial reverence for this mark of intellectuality, and I agree with my friend Judge Methuen that the tragic episode recorded in the second chapter of II Kings should serve the honorable purpose of indicating to humanity that bald heads are favored with the approval and the protection of Divinity.

In my own case I have imputed my early baldness to growth in intellectuality and spirituality induced by my fondness for and devotion to books. Miss Susan, my sister, lays it to other causes, first among which she declares to be my unnatural practice of reading in bed, and the second my habit of eating welsh-rarebits late of nights. Over my bed I have a gas-jet so properly shaded that the rays of light are concentrated and reflected downward upon the volume which I am reading.

Miss Susan insists that much of this light and its attendant heat falls upon my head, compelling there a dryness of the scalp whereby the follicles have been deprived of their natural nourishment and have consequently died. She furthermore maintains that the welsh-rarebits of which I partake invariably at the eleventh hour every night breed poisonous vapors and subtle megrims within my stomach, which humors, rising by their natural courses to my brain, do therein produce a fever that from within burneth up the fluids necessary to a healthy condition of the capillary growth upon the super- adjacent and exterior cranial integument.

Now, this very declaration of Miss Susan's gives me a potent argument in defense of my practices, for, being bald, would not a neglect of those means whereby warmth is engendered where it is needed result in colds, quinsies, asthmas, and a thousand other banes? The same benignant Providence which, according to Laurence Sterne, tempereth the wind to the shorn lamb provideth defense and protection for the bald. Had I not loved books, the soul in my midriff had not done away with those capillary vestiges of my simian ancestry which originally flourished upon my scalp; had I not become bald, the delights and profits of reading in bed might never have fallen to my lot.

And indeed baldness has its compensations; when I look about me and see the time, the energy, and the money that are continually expended upon the nurture and tending of the hair, I am thankful that my lot is what it is. For now my money is applied to the buying of books, and my time and energy are devoted to the reading of them.

To thy vain employments, thou becurled and pomaded Absalom! Sweeter than thy unguents and cosmetics and Sabean perfumes is the smell of those old books of mine, which from the years and from the ship's hold and from constant companionship with sages and philosophers have acquired a fragrance that exalteth the soul and quickeneth the intellectuals! Let me paraphrase my dear Chaucer and tell thee, thou waster of substances, that

For me was lever han at my beddes hed
A twenty bokes, clothed in black and red
Of Aristotle and his philosophie,
Than robes rich, or fidel, or sautrie;
But all be that I ben a philosopher
Yet have I but litel gold in cofre!

Books, books, books---give me ever more books, for they are the caskets wherein we find the immortal expressions of humanity---words, the only things that live forever! I bow reverently to the bust in yonder corner whenever I recall what Sir John Herschel (God rest his dear soul!) said and wrote: "Were I to pay for a taste that should stand me in stead under every variety of circumstances and be a source of happiness and cheerfulness to me during life, and a shield against its ills, however things might go amiss and the world frown upon me, it would be a taste for reading. Give a man this taste and a means of gratifying it, and you can hardly fail of making him a happy man; unless, indeed, you put into his hands a most perverse selection of books. You place him in contact with the best society in every period of history---with the wisest, the wittiest, the tenderest, the bravest, and the purest characters who have adorned humanity. You make him a denizen of all nations, a contemporary of all ages. The world has been created for him."

For one phrase particularly do all good men, methinks, bless burly, bearish, phrase- making old Tom Carlyle. "Of all things," quoth he, "which men do or make here below by far the most momentous, wonderful, and worthy are the things we call books." And Judge Methuen's favorite quotation is from Babington Macaulay to this effect: "I would rather be a poor man in a garret with plenty of books than a king who did not love reading."

Kings, indeed! What a sorry lot are they! Said George III to Nicol, his bookseller: "I would give this right hand if the same attention had been paid to my education which I pay to that of the prince." Louis XIV. was as illiterate as the lowliest hedger and ditcher. He could hardly write his name; at first, as Samuel Pegge tells us, he formed it out of six straight strokes and a line of beauty, thus: | | | | | | S---which he afterward perfected as best he could, and the result was LOUIS.

Still I find it hard to inveigh against kings when I recall the goodness of Alexander to Aristotle, for without Alexander we should hardly have known of Aristotle. His royal patron provided the philosopher with every advantage for the acquisition of learning, dispatching couriers to all parts of the earth to gather books and manuscripts and every variety of curious thing likely to swell the store of Aristotle's knowledge.

Yet set them up in a line and survey them---these wearers of crowns and these wielders of scepters---and how pitiable are they in the paucity and vanity of their accomplishments! What knew they of the true happiness of human life? They and their courtiers are dust and forgotten.

Judge Methuen and I shall in due time pass away, but our courtiers---they who have ever contributed to our delight and solace---our Horace, our Cervantes, our Shakespeare, and the rest of the innumerable train---these shall never die. And inspired and sustained by this immortal companionship we blithely walk the pathway illumined by its glory, and we sing, in season and out, the song ever dear to us and ever dear to thee, I hope, O gentle reader:

Oh, for a booke and a shady nooke,
  Eyther in doore or out,
With the greene leaves whispering overhead,
  Or the streete cryes all about;
Where I maie reade all at my ease
  Both of the newe and old,
For a jollie goode booke whereon to looke
  Is better to me than golde!


Note: The photograph at the top of this page is a detail from a portrait of William Cullen Bryant.  More proof, perhaps, of Mr. Field's contention concerning baldness and intellectuality..?



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