Richard Dowling.

Ignorant Essays

Respecting the Canadian nuns whose convent was beleaguered and infested by ghostly enemies that came not by ones or twos but in battalions, I had a fancy at the time. I do not intend using the terminologies or theories of the dissecting room, or the language of physiology found in books. I am not sure the fancy is wholly my own, but some of it is original. I shall suppose that the nerves are not only capable of various conditions of health and disease, but of large structural alteration in life; structural alteration not yet recorded or observed in fact; structural alteration which, if you will, exists in life but disappears instantly at death. In fine, I mean rather to illustrate my fancy than to describe anything that exists or could exist. Before letting go the last strand of sense, let me say that talking of nerves being highly strung is sheer nonsense, and not good nonsense either. The muscles it is that are highly strung. The poor nerves are merely insulated wires from the battery in the head. Their tension is no more affected by the messages that go over them, than an Atlantic cable is tightened or loosened by the signals indicating fluctuations in the Stock Exchanges of London and New York.

The nerves, let us suppose, in their normal condition of health have three skins over the absolute sentient tissue. In the ideal man in perfect health, let us say Hodge, the man whose privilege it is to draw nutrition, propagate, and rot, the three skins are always at their thickest and toughest. Now genius is a disease, and it falls, as ladies of Mrs. Gamps degree say, on the nerves. That is, the first of these skins having been worn away or never supplied by nature, the patient sees visions and dreams dreams. The man of genius is not exactly under delusions. He does not think he is in China because he is writing of Canton in London, but his optic nerve, wanting the outer coating, can build up images out of statistics until the images are as full of line and colour and as incapable of change at will as the image of a barrel of cider which occupies Hodges retina when it is imminent to his desires, present to his touch. The sensibility of the nerves of genius is greater than the sensibility of the nerves of Hodge. Not all the eloquence of an unabridged dictionary could create an image in Hodges mind of a thing he had never seen. From a brief description a painter of genius could make a picture not a likeness of course of Canton, although he had never been outside the four corners of these kingdoms. The painting would not, in all likelihood, be in the least like Canton, but it would be very like the image formed in the painters mind of that city. In the painter such an image comes and goes at will. He can either see it or not see it as he pleases. It is the result of the brain reacting on the nerve. It relies on data and combination. It is his slave, not his master. Before it can be formed there must be great increase of sensibility.

Hodge is crude silver, the painter is the polished mirror. The painter can see things which are not, things which he himself makes in his mind. His invention is at least as vivid as his memory.

I suppose then that the man of genius, the painter or poet, is one who, having lost the first skin, or portion of the first skin of his nerves, can create and see in his minds eye things never seen by the eye of any other man, and see them as vividly as men of no genius can see objects of memory.

Now peel off the second skin. The more exquisitely sensitive or the innermost skin of the nerve is exposed. Things which the eye of genius could not invent or even dream of are revealed. A drop of putrid water under the microscope becomes a lake full of terrifying monsters large enough to destroy man. Heard through the microphone the sap ascending a tree becomes loud as a torrent. Seen through a telescope nebulous spots in the sky become clusters of constellations. Divested of its second skin the nerve becomes sensitive to influences too rare and fine for the perception of the optic nerve in a more protected state. Beings that bear no relation whatever to weight or the law of impenetrability, float about and flash hither and thither swifter than lightning. The air and other ponderable matter are nothing to them. They are no more than the shadows or reflections of action, the imperishable progeny of thought. Here lies disclosed to the partly emancipated nerve the Canton of the painters vision. Here the city he made to himself is as firm and sturdy and solid and full of life as the Canton of this day on the southern coast of China. Here throng the unrecorded visions of all the poets. Here are the counterfeits of all the dead in all their phases. Here float the dreams of men, the unbroken scrolls of life and action and thought complete of all beings, man and beast, that have lived since time began. In the world of matter nothing is lost; in the world of spirit nothing is lost either.

If instead of taking the whole of this imaginary skin off the optic nerve, we simply injure it ever so slightly, the nerve may become alive to some of these spirits; and this premature perception of what is around all of us, but perceived by few, we call seeing ghosts. It may be objected that all space is not vast enough to afford room for such a stupendous panorama. When we begin to talk of limits of space to anything beyond our knowledge and the touch of our inch-tape, we talk like fools. There is no good in allotting space with a two-foot rule. It is all the same whether we divide zero into infinity or infinity into zero. The answer is the same; I dont know how many times it goes. Take a cubic inch of air outside your window and see the things packed into it. Here interblent we find all together resistance and light and sound and odour and flavour. We must stop there, for we have got to the end, not of what is packed into that cubic inch of air, but to the end of the things in it revealed to our senses. If we had five more senses we should find five more qualities; if we had five thousand senses, five thousand qualities. But even if we had only our own senses in higher form we should see ghosts.

If the third skin were removed from the optic nerve all things we now call opaque would become transparent, owing to the naked nerve being sensitive to the latent light in every body. The whole round world would become a crystal ball, the different degrees of what we now call opacity being indicated merely by a faint chromatic modification. What we now regard as brilliant sunlight would then be dense shadow. Apocalyptic ranges of colour would be disclosed, beginning with what is in our present condition the least faint trace of tint and ascending through a thousand grades to white, white brighter far than the sun our present eyes blink upon. Burnished brass flaming in our present sun would then be the beginning of the chromatic scale descending in the shadow of yellow, burnished copper of red, burnished tin of black, burnished steel of blue. So intense then would the sensibility of the optic nerve become that the satellites attendant on the planets in the system of the suns, called fixed stars, would blaze brighter than our own moon reflected in the sea. To the eye matter would cease to be matter in its present, gross obstructive sense. It would be no more than a delicate transparent pigment in the wash of a water-colour artist. The gross rotundity of the earth would be, in the field of the human eye, a variegated transparent globe of reduced luminousness and enormous scales and chords of colour. The Milky Way would then be a concave measureless ocean of prismatic light with pendulous opaline spheres.

The figures of dreams and ghosts may be as real as we are pleased to consider ourselves. What arrogance of us to say they are our own creation! They may look upon themselves as superior to us, as we look upon ourselves as superior to the jelly-fish. No doubt we are to ghosts the baser order, the spirits stained with the woad of earth, low creatures who give much heed to heat and cold, and food and motion. They are the sky-children, the chosen people. They are nothing but circumscribed will wedded to incorporeal reasons of the nobler kind, and with scopes the contemplation of which would split our tenement of clay. They are the arch-angelic hierarchs of man, the ultimate condition of the race, the spirit of this planet distilled by the sun.


In no list I met of the best hundred books, when that craze took the place of spelling-bees and the fifteen puzzle, do I recollect seeing mention made of my two favourite works. These two books stand completely apart in my esteem, and if I were asked to name the volume that comes third, I should have to make a speech of explanation. The first of them is not in prose or verse, it is not a work of theology or philosophy or science or art or history or fiction or general literature. It is at once the most comprehensive and impartial book I know. This paragraph is assuming the aspect of a riddle. Being in a mild and passionless way a lover of my species, I am a loather of riddles. So I will go no further on the downward way, but declare the name, title, and style of my book to be Nuttalls Standard Dictionary.

I am well aware there is a great deal to be said against Nuttalls Dictionary as a dictionary, but I am not speaking of it in that sense. I am treating it as a dear companion, a true friend, a vade mecum. Let those who have a liking for discovering spots in the sun glare at the orb until they have a taste for nothing else but spots in the sun. I find Nuttall so close to my affections that I can perceive no defects in him. I cannot bear to hold him at arms length, for critical examination. I hug him close to me, and feel that while I have him I am almost independent of all other books printed in the English language.

Cast your eyes along your own bookshelves of English authors; every word, liberally speaking, that is in each and every volume on your shelves is in my Nuttall! Here is the juice of the language, from Shakespeare to Huxley, in a concentrated solution. Here is a book that starts by telling you that A is a vowel, and does not desert you until it informs you that zythum is a beverage, a liquor made from malt and wheat; a fact, I will wager, you never dreamed of before! And between A and zythum, what a boundless store of learning is disclosed! This is the only single-volume book I know of which no man living is or ever can be the master. Charles Lamb would not allow that dictionaries are books at all. In his days they were white-livered charlatans compared with the full-blooded enthusiast, Nuttall.

If such an unkind thing were desirable as to diminish the conceit of a man of average reading and intelligence, there is no book could be used with such paralysing effect upon him as this one. It is almost impossible for any student to realise the infinite capacity for ignorance with which man is gifted until he is brought face to face with such a book as Nuttall. The list of words whose meanings are given occupies 771 very closely printed pages of small type in double column. The letter A takes up from 1 to 52. How many words unfamiliar to the ordinary man are to be found in this fifteenth part of the dictionary! On the top of every folio there occur four words, one at the head of each column. Barring the right of the candidates in ignorance to guess from the roots how many well-informed people know or would use any of the following words absciss, acidimeter, acroteleutic, adminicular, adminiculator, adustion, aerie, agrestic, allignment, allision, ambreine, ampulla, ampullaceous, android, antiphonary, antiphony, apanthropy, aponeurosis, appellor, aramaic, aretology, armilla, armillary, asiarch, assentation, asymptote, asymptotical, aurate, averruncator, aversant, axotomous, or axunge? And yet all these are at the heads of columns under A alone! Take, now, one column haphazard perpendicularly, and with the same reservation as before, who would use antimaniac, antimask, antimasonic, antimeter, antimonite, antinephritic, antinomian, antinomy, antipathous, antipedobaptist, antiperistaltic, antiperistasis, or antiphlogistic? The letter A taken along the top of the pages or down one column is not a good letter for the confusion of the conceited; because viewed across the top of the page it is pitifully the prey of prefixes which lead to large families of words, and viewed down the column (honestly selected at haphazard), it is the bondslave of one prefix. When, however, one starts a theory, it is not fair to pick and choose. I have, of course, eschewed derivatives in coming down the column; across the column I did not do so, as the chance of a prime word being at the bottom of one column and its derivate at the top of the next ought to count two in my favour. I am aware this claim may be disputed; I have disputed it with myself at much too great length to record here, and I have decided in my own favour.

Of course the mere reading of the dictionary in a mechanical way would produce no more effect than the repetition of numerals abstracted from things. There is no greater suggestiveness in saying a million than in saying one. But what an enlargement of the human capacity takes place when a person passes from the idea of one man to the idea of a million men. Take the first word quoted from the head of the column. I had wholly forgotten the meaning of absciss. I cannot even now remember that I ever knew the meaning of it, though of course I must, for I was supposed to have learned conic sections once. Why any one should be expected to learn conic sections I cannot guess. As far as I can now recall, they are the study of certain possible systems and schemes of lines in a wholly unnecessary figure. I believe the cone was invented by some one who had conic sections up his sleeve, and devised the miserable spinning of the triangle merely to gratify his lust of cruelty to the young. The only one use to which cones are put, as far as I am aware, is for a weather signal on the sea coast. The only section of a cone put to any pleasant use is a frustum when it appears in the bark of the cork tree; and even this conic section is not of much use to pleasure until it is removed from the bottle. Conic sections are reprehensible in another way. They are, in the matter of difficulty, nothing better than impostors. They are really childlike and bland, and will, when you have conquered your schoolboy terror of them, be found agreeable after-dinner reading.

But I must return to Nuttall. The systematic study of the book is to be deplored. It is, like the Essays of Elia, not to be read through at a sitting, but to be dipped into curiously when one is in the vein. The charm of Lamb is in the flavour; and one cannot reach the more remote and finer joys of taste if one eats quickly. There is no cohesion, and but little thought in Nuttall. It is as a spur, an incentive, to thought I worship the book, and as a storehouse for elemental lore. You have known a thing all your life, let us say, and have called it by a makeshift name. You feel in your heart and soul there must be a more close-fitting appellation than you employ for it, and you endure a sense of feebleness and dispersion of mind. One day you are idly glancing through your Nuttall, and suddenly the clouds, the nebulous mists of a generalized term, roll away, and out shines, clear and sharply defined, the particular definition of the thing. From childhood I have, for example, known a pile-driver, and called it a pile-driver for years and years. All along something told me pile-driver was no better than a loose and off-hand way of describing the machine. It partook of the barbarous nature of a hieroglyphic. You drew, as it were, the figure of a post, and of a weight descending upon it. The device was much too pictorial and crude. Moreover, it was, so described, a thing without a history. To call a pile-driver a pile-driver is no more than to describe a barn-door cock onomatopoetically as cock-a-doodle-doo a thing repellent to a pensive mind. But in looking over Nuttall I accidentally alighted on this: Fistuca, fis tu-ka, s. A machine which is raised to a given height by pulleys, and then allowed suddenly to fall on the head of a pile; a monkey (L. a rammer). Henceforth there is, in my mind, no need of a picture for the machine. So to speak, the abstract has become concrete. I would not, of course, dream of using the word fistuca, but it is a great source of internal consolation to me. Besides, I attain with it to other eminences of curiosity, which show me fields of inquiry I never dreamed of before.

I have not met the word monkey in this sense until now. I look out monkey in my book, and find one of the meanings a pile-driver, and that the word is derived from the Italian monna, contraction for madonna. Up to this moment I did not know from what monkey was derived, although I had heard that from monkey man was derived. All this sets one off into a delicious doze of thought and keeps one carefully apart from his work. For who would fardels bear to groan and sweat under a weary load of even pens, when he might lie back and close his eyes, and drift off to the Rome of Augustus or the Venice of to-day? Philology as mere philology is colourless, but if one uses the records of verbal changes as glasses to the past and present, what panchromatic hues sweep into the pale field of the dictionary! What myriads of dead men stand up out of their graves, and move once more through scenes of their former activities! What reimpositions of old times on old earth take place! What bravery of arms and beauty of women are renewed; what glowing argosies, long mouldered, sparkle once more in the sun! What brazen trumpets blare of conquest, and dust of battle roll along the plain! What plenitude of life, of movement, of man is revealed! A dictionary is to me the key-note in the orchestra where mankind sit tuning their reeds for the overture to the final cataclysm of the world.

My second book would be Whitakers Almanack. Owing to miserable ill-luck I have not been able to get a copy of the almanac for this year. I offered fair round coin of the realm for it before the Jubilee plague of ugliness fell upon the broad pieces of her most gracious Majesty. But, alas! no copy was to be had. I was too late in the race. All the issue had been sold. The last edition of which I have a copy is that for 1886. I have one for each year of the ten preceding, and I cannot tell how crippled and humiliated I feel in being without one for 1887.

This is another of the books that Charles Lamb classes among the no-books. As in the case of Nuttall, there was no Whitaker in his day, and certainly no almanac at all as good. At first glance this book may seem dry and sapless as the elm ready sawn for conversion into parish coffins. But how can anything be considered dry or dead when two hundred thousand of its own brothers are at this moment dwelling in useful amity among our fellowmen? It in one way contrasts unfavourably with almanacs which can claim a longer life, there are no vaticinations in it. But if the gift of prophecy were possessed by other almanacs, why did they not foretell that they would be in the end known as humbugs, and cut their conceited throats? I freely own I am a bigot in this matter; I have never given any other almanac a fair chance, and, what is worse, I have firmly made up my mind not to give any other one any chance at all. What is the good of being loyal to ones friends if ones loyalty is at the beck of every upstart acquaintance, no matter how great his merits or how long his purse? I place my faith in Whitaker, and am ready to go to the stake (provided it is understood that nothing unpleasant takes place there) chaunting my belief and glorying in my doom.

If you took away Whitakers Almanack from me I do not know how I should get on. It is a book for diurnal use and permanent reference. One edition of it ought to be printed on bank note paper for the pocket, and another on bronze for friezes for the temple of history. It is worth all the Livys and Tacituses that ever breathed and lied. It is more truthful than the sun, for that luminary is always eight minutes in advance of where it seems to be. It is as impartial and veracious as fossilising mud. It contains infinitely more figures than Madame Tussauds, and teaches of everything above and under the sun, from stellar influences to sewage.

How is the daily paper to be understood lacking the aid of Whitaker? Who is the honourable member for Berborough, of whom the Chanceller of the Exchequer spoke in such sarcastic terms last night? For what place sits Mr. Snivel, who made that most edifying speech yesterday? How old is the Earl of Champagne, who has been appointed Governor of Labuan? Where is Labuan? What is the value in English money of ?T97,000, and 2,784,000 roubles? What are the chances of a man of forty (yourself) living to be a hundred? and what is the chance of a woman of sixty-four (your mother-in-law) dying next year? How much may one deduct from ones income with a view to income tax before one needs begin to lie? What annuity ought a man of your age be able to get for the five thousand pounds you expect on the death of your mother-in-law? How much will you have to pay to the state if you article your son to a solicitor or give him a little capital and start him in an honest business as a pawnbroker? How old is the judge that charged dead against the prisoner whom the jury acquitted without leaving the box? What railway company spends the most money in coal? legal charges? palm oil? Is there anything now worth a gentlemans while to smuggle on his return from the Continent? What is the tonnage of the ironclad rammed yesterday morning by another ironclad of the Channel squadron? When may one begin to eat oysters? What was the most remarkable event last year? How much longer is it likely to pay to breed farmers in England?

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