The senses perverted by fashion

Nothing has been so often explained, and yet so little understood, as simplicity in writing; and the reason of its remaining so much a mystery is, our own want of simplicity in manners. By our present mode of education, we are forcibly warped from the bias of nature, in mind as well as in body; we are taught to disguise, distort, and alter our sentiments, until our thinking faculty is diverted into an unnatural channel; and we not only relinquish and forget, but also become incapable of our original dispositions. We are totally changed into creatures of art and affectation: our perception is abused, and our senses are perverted; our minds lose their nature, force, and flavour; the imagination, sweated by artificial fire, produces nought but vapid and sickly bloom; the genius, instead of growing like a vigorous tree, that extends its branches on every side, buds, blossoms, and bears delicious fruit, resembles a lopped and stunted yew, tortured into some wretched form, projecting no shade or shelter, displaying no flower, diffusing no fragrance, and producing no fruit, and exhibiting nothing but a barren conceit for the amusement of the idle spectator.

Thus debauched from nature, how can we relish her genuine productions? As well might a man distinguish objects through the medium of a prism, that presents nothing but a variety of colours to the eye: or a maid pining in the green sickness prefer a biscuit to a cinder.

It has often been alleged that the passions can never be wholly deposed, and that by appealing to these, a good writer will always be able to force himself into the hearts of his readers; but even the strongest passions are weakened, nay, sometimes totally extinguished and destroyed, by mutual opposition, dissipation, and acquired insensibility. How often at our theatre has the tear of sympathy and burst of laughter been repressed by a malignant species of pride, refusing approbation to the author and actor, and renouncing society with the audience? I have seen a young creature, possessed of the most delicate complexion, and exhibiting features that indicate sensibility, sit without the least emotion, and behold the most tender and pathetic scenes of Otway, represented with all the energy of action; so happy had she been in her efforts to conquer the prejudices of nature. She had been trained up to the belief that nothing was more awkward, than to betray a sense of shame or sympathy; she seemed to think that a consent of passion with the vulgar, would impair the dignity of her character; and that she herself ought to be the only object of approbation. But she did not consider that such approbation is seldom acquired by disdain; and that want of feeling is a very bad recommendation to the human heart. For my own share, I never fail to take a survey of the female part of an audience, at every interesting incident of the drama. When I perceive the tear stealing down a lady’s cheek, and the sudden sigh escape from her breast, I am attracted towards her by an irresistible emotion of tenderness and esteem; her eyes shine with enchanting lustre, through the pearly moisture that surrounds them; my heart warms at the glow which humanity kindles on her cheek, and keeps time with the accelerated heavings of her snowy bosom ; I at once love her benevolence, and revere her discernment. On the contrary, when I see a fine woman’s face unaltered by the distress of the scene, with which I myself am affected, I resent her indifference as an insult on my own understanding; I suppose her heart to be savage, her disposition unsocial, her organs indelicate, and exclaim, with the fox in the fable, O pulchrum caput, sed cerebrum non habet!

Yet this insensibility is not perhaps owing to any original defect. Nature may have stretched the string, though it has long ceased to vibrate. It may have been displaced and distracted by the first violence offered to the native machine; it may have lost its tone through long disuse; or be so twisted and overstrained as to produce an effect very different from that which was primarily intended. If so little regard is paid to nature when she knocks so powerfully at the breast, she must be altogether neglected and despised in her calmer mood of serene tranquillity, when nothing appears to recommend her but simplicity, propriety, and innocence. A clear, blue sky, spangled with stars, will prove a homely and insipid object to eyes accustomed to the glare of torches, tapers, gilding, and glitter: they will be turned with loathing and disgust from the green mantle of the spring, so gorgeously adorned with buds and foliage, flowers and blossoms, to contemplate a gaudy negligée, striped and intersected with abrupt unfriendly tints, that fetter the masses of light, and distract the vision; and cut and pinked into the most fantastic forms; and flounced and furbelowed, patched and fringed, with all the littleness of art, unknown to elegance. Those ears that are offended by the sweetly wild notes of the thrush, the black-bird, and the nightingale, the distant cawing of the rook, the tender cooing of the turtle, the soft sighing of reeds and osiers, the magic murmur of lapsing streams; will be regaled and ravished by the extravagant and alarming notes of a squeaking fiddle, extracted by a musician who has no other genius than that which lies in his fingers; they will even be entertained with the rattling of coaches, the rumbling of carts, and the delicate cry of cod and mackerel.

The sense of smelling that delights in the scent of excrementitious animal juices, such as musk, civet, and urinous salts, will loath the fragrancy of new mown hay, the hawthorn’s bloom, the sweet briar, the honey-suckle, and the rose; and the organs that are gratified with the taste of sickly veal which has been bled into the palsy, rotten pullets crammed into fevers, brawn made up of dropsical pig, the abortion of pigeons and of poultry, ‘sparagus gorged with the crude unwholesome juice of dung, pease without substance, peaches without taste, and pine-apples without flavour, will certainly nauseate the native, genuine, and salutary taste of Welsh beef, Banstead mutton, Hampshire pork, and barn-door fowls; whose juices are concocted by a natural digestion, and whose flesh is consolidated by free air and exercise.

In such a total perversion of the senses the ideas must be misrepresented, the powers of the imagination disordered, and the judgment of consequence unsound. The disease is attended with a false appetite, which the natural food of the mind will not satisfy. It must have sauces compounded of the most heterogeneous trash. The soul seems to sink into a kind of sleepy idiotism, or childish vacancy of thought. It is diverted by toys and baubles, which can only be pleasing to the most superficial curiosity. It is enlivened by a quick succession of trivial objects, that glisten, and glance, and dance before the eye; and, like an infant kept awake and inspirited by the sound of a rattle, it must not only be dazzled and aroused, but also cheated, hurried and perplexed by the artifice of deception, business, intricacy, and intrigue, which is a kind of low juggle that may be termed the legerdemain of genius. This being the case, it cannot enjoy, nor indeed distinguish, the charms of natural and moral beauty or decorum. The ingenuous blush of native innocence, the plain language of ancient faith and sincerity, the cheerful resignation to the will of heaven, the mutual affection of the charities, the voluntary respect paid to superior dignity or station, the virtue of beneficence extended even to the brute creation, nay, the very crimson glow of health and swelling lines of beauty, are despised, detested, scorned, and ridiculed, as ignorance, rudeness, rusticity, and superstition.

From “The true Use of the Senses perverted by Fashion,” by Tobias Smollett.

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