Gryll Grange, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter 19

A Symposium — Transatlantic Tendencies — After-Dinner Lectures — Education

Trincq est ung mot panomphée, célébré et entendu de toutes nations, et nous signifie, beuuez. Et ici maintenons que non rire, ains boyre est le propre de l’homme. Je ne dy boyre simplement et absolument, car aussy bien boyvent les bestes; je dy boyre vin bon et fraiz. — Rabelais: 1. v. c. 45.

Some guests remained. Some departed and returned. Among these was Mr. MacBorrowdale. One day after dinner, on one of his reappearances, Lord Curryfin said to him —

‘Well, Mr. MacBorrowdale, in your recent observations, have you found anything likely to satisfy Jack of Dover, if he were prosecuting his inquiry among us?’

Mr. MacBorrowdale. Troth, no, my lord. I think, if he were among us, he would give up the search as hopeless. He found it so in his own day, and he would find it still more so now. Jack was both merry and wise. We have less mirth in practice; and we have more wisdom in pretension, which Jack would not have admitted.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. He would have found it like Juvenal’s search for patriotic virtue, when Catiline was everywhere, and Brutus and Cato were nowhere.1

Lord Curryfin. Well, among us, if Jack did not find his superior, or even his equal, he would not have been at a loss for company to his mind. There is enough mirth for those who choose to enjoy it, and wisdom too, perhaps as much as he would have cared for. We ought to have more wisdom, as we have clearly more science.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Science is one thing, and wisdom is another. Science is an edged tool, with which men play like children, and cut their own fingers. If you look at the results which science has brought in its train, you will find them to consist almost wholly in elements of mischief. See how much belongs to the word Explosion alone, of which the ancients knew nothing. Explosions of powder-mills and powder-magazines; of coal-gas in mines and in houses; of high-pressure engines in ships and boats and factories. See the complications and refinements of modes of destruction, in revolvers and rifles and shells and rockets and cannon. See collisions and wrecks and every mode of disaster by land and by sea, resulting chiefly from the insanity for speed, in those who for the most part have nothing to do at the end of the race, which they run as if they were so many Mercuries speeding with messages from Jupiter. Look at our scientific drainage, which turns refuse into poison. Look at the subsoil of London, whenever it is turned up to the air, converted by gas leakage into one mass of pestilent blackness, in which no vegetation can flourish, and above which, with the rapid growth of the ever-growing nuisance, no living thing will breathe with impunity. Look at our scientific machinery, which has destroyed domestic manufacture, which has substituted rottenness for strength in the thing made, and physical degradation in crowded towns for healthy and comfortable country life in the makers. The day would fail, if I should attempt to enumerate the evils which science has inflicted on mankind. I almost think it is the ultimate destiny of science to exterminate the human race.

Lord Curryfin. You have gone over a wide field, which we might exhaust a good bin of claret in fully discussing. But surely the facility of motion over the face of the earth and sea is both pleasant and profitable. We may now see the world with little expenditure of labour or time.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. You may be whisked over it, but you do not see it. You go from one great town to another, where manners and customs are not even now essentially different, and with this facility of intercourse become progressively less and less so. The intermediate country — which you never see, unless there is a show mountain, or waterfall, or ruin, for which there is a station, and to which you go as you would to any other exhibition — the intermediate country contains all that is really worth seeing, to enable you to judge of the various characteristics of men and the diversified objects of Nature.

Lord Curryfin. You can suspend your journey if you please, and see the intermediate country, if you prefer it.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. But who does prefer it? You travel round the world by a hand-book, as you do round an exhibition-room by a catalogue.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. Not to say that in the intermediate country you are punished by bad inns and bad wine; of which I confess myself intolerant. I knew an unfortunate French tourist, who had made the round of Switzerland, and had but one expression for every stage of his journey: Mauvaise auberge!

Lord Curryfin. Well, then, what say you to the electric telegraph, by which you converse at the distance of thousands of miles? Even across the Atlantic, as no doubt we shall yet do.

Mr. Gryll. Some of us have already heard the doctor’s opinion on that subject.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I have no wish to expedite communication with the Americans. If we could apply the power of electrical repulsion to preserve us from ever hearing anything more of them, I should think that we had for once derived a benefit from science.

Mr. Gryll. Your love for the Americans, doctor, seems something like that of Cicero’s friend Marius for the Greeks. He would not take the nearest road to his villa, because it was called the Greek Road.2 Perhaps if your nearest way home were called the American Road, you would make a circuit to avoid it.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I am happy to say I am not put to the test. Magnetism, galvanism, electricity, are ‘one form of many names.’3 Without magnetism we should never have discovered America; to which we are indebted for nothing but evil; diseases in the worst forms that can afflict humanity, and slavery in the worst form in which slavery can cast. The Old World had the sugar-cane and the cotton-plant, though it did not so misuse them. Then, what good have we got from America? What good of any kind, from the whole continent and its islands, from the Esquimaux to Patagonia?

Mr. Gryll. Newfoundland salt-fish, doctor.

The Rev. Dr. Opindan. That is something, but it does not turn the scale.

Mr. Gryll. If they have given us no good, we have given them none.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. We have given them wine and classical literature; but I am afraid Bacchus and Minerva have equally “Scattered their bounty upon barren ground.”

On the other hand, we have given the red men rum, which has been the chief instrument of their perdition. On the whole, our intercourse with America has been little else than an interchange of vices and diseases.

Lord Curryfin. Do you count it nothing to have substituted civilised for savage men?

The Rev, Dr. Opimian. Civilised. The word requires definition. But looking into futurity, it seems to me that the ultimate tendency of the change is to substitute the worse for the better race; the Negro for the Red Indian. The Red Indian will not work for a master. No ill-usage will make him. Herein he is the noblest specimen of humanity that ever walked the earth. Therefore, the white man exterminates his race. But the time will come when by mere force of numbers the black race will predominate, and exterminate the white. And thus the worse race will be substituted for the better, even as it is in St. Domingo, where the Negro has taken the place of the Caraib. The change is clearly for the worse.

Lord Curryfin. You imply that in the meantime the white race is better than the red.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I leave that as an open question. But I hold, as some have done before me, that the human mind degenerates in America, and that the superiority, such as it is, of the white race, is only kept up by intercourse with Europe. Look at the atrocities in their ships. Look at their Congress and their Courts of Justice; debaters in the first; suitors, even advocates, sometimes judges, in the second, settling their arguments with pistol and dagger. Look at their extensions of slavery, and their revivals of the slave-trade, now covertly, soon to be openly. If it were possible that the two worlds could be absolutely dissevered for a century, I think a new Columbus would find nothing in America but savages.

Lord Curryfin. You look at America, doctor, through your hatred of slavery. You must remember that we introduced it when they were our colonists. It is not so easily got rid of. Its abolition by France exterminated the white race in St. Domingo, as the white race had exterminated the red. Its abolition by England ruined our West Indian colonies.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Yes, in conjunction with the direct encouragement of foreign slave labour, given by our friends of liberty under the pretext of free trade. It is a mockery to keep up a squadron for suppressing the slave-trade on the one hand, while, on the other hand, we encourage it to an extent that counteracts in a tenfold degree the apparent power of suppression. It is a clear case of false pretension.

Mr. Gryll. You know, doctor, the Old World had slavery throughout its entire extent; under the Patriarchs, the Greeks, the Romans; everywhere in short. Cicero thought our island not likely to produce anything worth having, excepting slaves;4 and of those none skilled, as some slaves were, in letters and music, but all utterly destitute of both. And in the Old World the slaves were of the same race with the masters. The Negroes are an inferior race, not fit, I am afraid, for anything else.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Not fit, perhaps, for anything else belonging to what we call civilised life. Very fit to live on little, and wear nothing, in Africa; where it would have been a blessing to themselves and the rest of the world if they had been left unmolested; if they had had a Friar Bacon to surround their entire continent with a wall of brass.

Mr. Falconer. I am not sure, doctor, that in many instances, even yet, the white slavery of our factories is not worse than the black slavery of America. We have done much to amend it, and shall do more. Still, much remains to be done.

The Rev. Dr. Opimiun. And will be done, I hope and believe. The Americans do nothing to amend their system. On the contrary, they do all they can to make bad worse. Whatever excuse there may be for maintaining slavery where it exists, there can be none for extending it into new territories; none for reviving the African slave-trade. These are the crying sins of America. Our white slavery, so far as it goes, is so far worse, that it is the degradation of a better race. But if it be not redressed, as I trust it will be, it will work out its own retribution. And so it is of all the oppressions that are done under the sun. Though all men but the red men will work for a master, they will not fight for an oppressor in the day of his need. Thus gigantic empires have crumbled into dust at the first touch of an invader’s footstep. For petty, as for great oppressions, there is a day of retribution growing out of themselves. It is often long in coming. Ut sit magna, tamen eerie lenla ira Deoruni est.5 But it comes.

Raro anteccdentem scelestum

Deseruit pede poena claudo.6

Lord Curryfin. I will not say, doctor, ‘I’ve seen, and sure I ought to know.’ But I have been in America, and I have found there, what many others will testify, a very numerous class of persons who hold opinions very like your own: persons who altogether keep aloof from public life, because they consider it abandoned to the rabble; but who are as refined, as enlightened, as full of sympathy for all that tends to justice and liberty, as any whom you may most approve amongst ourselves.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Of that I have no doubt But I look to public acts and public men.

Lord Curryfin. I should much like to know what Mr. MacBorrowdale thinks of all this.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. Troth, my lord, I think we have strayed far away from the good company we began with. We have lost sight of Jack of Dover. But the discussion had one bright feature. It did not interfere with, it rather promoted, the circulation of the bottle: for every man who spoke pushed it on with as much energy as he spoke with, and those who were silent swallowed the wine and the opinion together, as if they relished them both.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. So far, discussion may find favour. In my own experience I have found it very absorbent of claret. But I do not think it otherwise an incongruity after dinner, provided it be carried on, as our disquisitions have always been, with frankness and good humour. Consider how much instruction has been conveyed to us in the form of conversations at banquet, by Plato and Xenophon and Plutarch. I read nothing with more pleasure than their Symposia: to say nothing of Athenaeus, whose work is one long banquet.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. Nay, I do not object to conversation on any subject. I object to after-dinner lectures. I have had some unfortunate experiences. I have found what began in conversation end in a lecture. I have, on different occasions, met several men, who were in that respect all alike. Once started they never stopped. The rest of the good company, or rather the rest which without them would have been good company, was no company. No one could get in a word. They went on with one unvarying stream of monotonous desolating sound. This makes me tremble when a discussion begins. I sit in fear of a lecture.

Lord Curryfin. Well, you and I have lectured, but never after dinner. We do it when we have promised it, and when those who are present expect it. After dinner, I agree with you, it is the most doleful blight that can fall on human enjoyment.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. I will give you one or two examples of these postprandial inflictions. One was a great Indian reformer. He did not open his mouth till he had had about a bottle and a half of wine. Then he burst on us with a declamation on all that was wrong in India, and its remedy. He began in the Punjab, travelled to Calcutta, went southward, got into the Temple of Juggernaut, went southward again, and after holding forth for more than an hour, paused for a moment. The man who sate next him attempted to speak: but the orator clapped him on the arm, and said: ‘Excuse me: now I come to Madras.’ On which his neighbour jumped up and vanished. Another went on in the same way about currency. His first hour’s talking carried him just through the Restriction Act of ninety-seven. As we had then more than half-a-century before us, I took my departure. But these were two whom topography and chronology would have brought to a close. The bore of all bores was the third. His subject had no beginning, middle, nor end. It was education. Never was such a journey through the desert of mind: the Great Sahara of intellect. The very recollection makes me thirsty.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. If all the nonsense which, in the last quarter of a century, has been talked on all other subjects were thrown into one scale, and all that has been talked on the subject of education alone were thrown into the other, I think the latter would preponderate.

Lord Curryfin. We have had through the whole period some fine specimens of nonsense on other subjects: for instance, with a single exception, political economy.

Mr. MacBorrowdale. I understand your lordship’s politeness as excepting the present company. You need not except me. I am ‘free to confess,’ as they say ‘in another place,’ that I have talked a great deal of nonsense on that subject myself.

Lord Curryfin. Then, we have had latterly a mighty mass on the purification of the Thames.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. Allowing full weight to the two last-named ingredients, they are not more than a counterpoise to Competitive Examination, which is also a recent exotic belonging to education.

Lord Curryfin. Patronage, it used to be alleged, considered only the fitness of the place for the man, not the fitness of the man for the place. It was desirable to reverse this.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. True: but —

‘dum vitant stulli vitium, in contraria currunl.’ 7

Questions which can only be answered by the parrotings of a memory crammed to disease with all sorts of heterogeneous diet can form no test of genius, taste, judgment, or natural capacity. Competitive Examination takes for its norma: ‘It is better to learn many things ill than one thing well’; or rather: ‘It is better to learn to gabble about everything than to understand anything.’ This is not the way to discover the wood of which Mercuries are made. I have been told that this precious scheme has been borrowed from China: a pretty fountain-head for moral and political improvement: and if so, I may say, after Petronius: ‘This windy and monstrous loquacity has lately found its way to us from Asia, and like a pestilential star has blighted the minds of youth otherwise rising to greatness.’8

Lord Curryfin. There is something to be said on behalf of applying the same tests, addressing the same questions, to everybody.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I shall be glad to hear what can be said on that behalf.

Lord Curryfin (after a pause). ‘Mass,’ as the second grave-digger says in Hamlet, ‘I cannot tell.’

A chorus of laughter dissolved the sitting.

1 Et Catilinam quocumque in populo videas, quocumque sub axe: sed nee Brutus erit, Bruti nec avunculus usquam. — Juv. Sat. xiv. 41–43.

2 Non enim te puto Graecos ludos desiderare: praesertim quum Graecos ita non âmes, ut ne ad villain quidem tuam via Grasca ire soleas. — Cicero: Ep. ad Div, vii. i.

3 (Greek phrase)—Æschylus: Prometheus.

4 Etiam illud jam cognitum est, neque argenti scripulum esse ullum in ilia insula, neque ullam spem praedae, nisi ex mancipiis: ex quibus nullos puto te literis aut musicis eruditos expectare. — Cicero: ad Atticum, iv. 16.

A hope is expressed by Pomponius Mela, 1. iii, c. 6 (he wrote under Claudius), that, by the success of the Roman arms, the island and its savage inhabitants would soon be better known. It is amusing enough to peruse such passages in the midst of London. — Gibbon: c. i.

5 The anger of the Gods, though great, is slow.

6 The foot of Punishment, though lame, O’ertakes at last preceding Wrong.

7 When fools would from one vice take flight. They rush into its opposite. — Hor. Sal. i. 2, 24.

8 Nuper ventosa isthaec et enormis loquacitas Athenas ex Asia commigravit, animosque juvenum, ad magna surgentes, veluti pestilenti quodam sidere afflavit.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24