Louise Imogen Guiney

On the delights of an incognito

Perfect happiness, which we pretend is so difficult to get at, lies at either end of our sentient pole: in being intimately recognized, or else in evading recognition altogether. An actor finds it inspiring to step forth from the wings, steeled cap-à-pie in self-consciousness, before a great houseful of enthusiastic faces and hands; but if he ever knows a moment yet more ecstatic, it is when he is alone in the hill-country, swimming in a clear pool, and undemonstratable as human save by his habiliments hanging on a bush, and his dog, sitting on the margin under, doubtfully eyeing now these, now the unfamiliar large white fish which has shed them. Thackeray once said that the purest satisfaction he ever took, was in hearing one woman name him to another as the author of Vanity Fair, while he was going through a ragged and unbookish London lane. It is at least as likely that Aristides felt pleasure in accosting his own ostracizer, and helping him to ruin the man whom he was tired of hearing called The Just. And the young Charles the Second, between his defeat at Worcester, and his extraordinary escape over sea, was able to report, with exquisite relish, the conduct of that honest Hambletonian, who “dranke a goode glass of beare to me, and called me Brother Roundhead.” To be indeed the King, and to masquerade as Will Jones, alias Jackson, “in a green cloth jump coat and breeches worn to shreds,” in Pepys’ sympathetic detail, with “little rolls of paper between his toes,” and “a long thorn stick crooked three or four several ways ” in his artificially-browned hand, has its dangers ; but it is the top, nevertheless, of mundane romance and felicity. In fact, there is no enjoyment comparable to walking about “unwept, unhonored, and unsung,” once you have become, through your misfortune rather than your fault, ever so little of a public personage.

Lucky was the good Haroun Al Raschid, inasmuch as, being duly himself by day, he could stroll abroad, and be immeasurably and magnificently himself by night. Nothing but duty dragged him back from his post of spectator and speculator at the street-corner, to the narrow concrete humdrum of a throne. But there are, and have always been, in every age, men of genius who cling to the big cloak and the dark lantern, and who travel pseudonymously from the cradle to the grave; who keep apart, meddle not at all, have only distant and general dealings with their kind, and, in an innocent and endearing system of thieving, come to understand and explain every thing social, without being once understood or explained themselves, or once breaking an inviolable privacy.

Not even the tenderest heart and next our own,
Knows half the reason why we smile or sigh.

The arrangement is excellent: it induces and maintains dignity. Most of us who suffer keenly from the intolerable burden of self, are grateful to have our fits of sanity by the hour or the week, when we may eat lotos and fern-seed, and die out of the ken of The Evening Bugaboo. To be clean of mortal contact, to resolve into grass and brooks, to be a royal nobody, with the dim imbecile spectrum taken to be you, by your acquaintanceship, temporarily hooted out of existence, is the privilege which the damned on a Saratoga piazza are not even blest enough to groan for. “Oh,” cried Hazlitt, heartily inhaling liberty at the door of a country inn, after a march, “Oh, it is great to shake off the trammels of the world and public opinion, to lose our importunate, tormenting, everlasting personal identity in the elements of Nature, and to become the creature of the moment clear of all ties; to hold to the universe only by a dish of sweetbreads, and to owe nothing but the score of the evening; and, no longer seeking for applause or meeting with contempt, to be known by no other title than The Gentleman in the Parlour.” Surely, surely, to be Anonymous is better than to be Alexander, and to have no care is a more sumptuous wealth than to have sacked ten cities. Cowley said it engagingly, in his little essay on Obscurity:

Eene qui latuit, bene vixit:

[he lives well, that has lain well hidden;]

in which, if it be a truth, I’ll swear the world has been sufficiently deceived. For my part, I think it is; and that the pleasantest condition of life is in incognito…It is, in my mind, a very delightful pastime for two good and agreeable friends to travel up and down together, in places where they are by nobody known, nor know anybody. It was the case of æneas and his Achates, when they walked in visibly about the fields and streets of Carthage.

Venus herself A veil of thickened air around them cast,
That none might know or see them as they passed.

The atmosphere was so liberally allowed, in the Middle Ages, to be thick with spirits, that the subject arose in the debates of the schools whether more than a thousand and fifty-seven of them could execute a saraband on the point of a needle. We are not informed by what prior necessity they desired to dance; but something, after all, must be left to the imagination. Dancing, in their case, must be, as with lambs and children, the spontaneous witness of light hearts; and what is half so likely to make a shade whimsically frolicsome, as the sense of his own absolute intangibility in our world of wiseacres and mind-readers and myopic Masters of Arts? To watch, to listen, to know the heretofore and the hereafter, and to be at the same time dumb as a nail, and skilful at dodging a collision with flesh and blood, must be, when you come to think of it, a delightful vocation for ghosts. It is, then, in some sort, anticipatory of part of our business in the twenty-sixth century of the Christian era, to becloud now our name and nativity, and,

Beholding, unbeheld of all,

to move musingly among strange scenes, with the charity and cheerfulness of those delivered from death. I am told that L. R. had once an odd spiritual adventure, agreeable and memorable, which demonstrated how much pleasure there is to be had out of these moods of detachment and non-individuality. He had spent the day at a library desk, and had grown hazy with no food and much reading. As he walked homeward in the evening, he felt, for sheer buoyancy of mind, like that thin Greek who had to fill his pockets with lead, for fear of being blown away by the wind. It happened that he was obliged to pass, on the way to his solitary lodging of the night, the house where he was eternally the expected guest: the house of one with whom and with whose family he was on a most open and affectionate footing. Their window-shades were drawn, not so low but that he could see the shining dinner-table dressed in its pomp, and the cozy ring of merry faces closing it in. There was S., the bonniest of wives, smiling, in her pansy-colored gown, with a pearl comb in her hair; and opposite her was little S., in white, busy with the partridge; and there was A. H., the jolly artist cousin; and, facing the window at the head of his own conclave,

quos inter Augustus recumbens purpureobibit ore nectar!,

sat dear O., with his fine serious genial head bobbing over the poised carving-knife, as he demolished, perhaps, some quoted sophism of Schopenhauer. There were welcome and warmth inside there for R.; how well he knew it! But the silent day just over had laid a spell upon his will; he looked upon them all, in their bright lamplight, like any vagrant stranger from the street, and hurried on, never quite so paradoxically happy in his life as when he quitted that familiar pane without rapping, and went back to the dark and the frost, unapprehended, impersonal, aberrant, a spirit among men.

(1893)

MLA Citation

Guiney, Louise Imogen. “On the delights of an incognito.” 1893. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 10 Mar 2007. 12 Dec 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/guiney/delights_of_an_incognito/>.

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