Elisabeth Morris

The cult of the second-best

All that I know
Of a certain star Is, it can throw
(Like the angled spar) Now a dart of red,
Now a dart of blue; Till my friends have said
They would fain see, too,
My star that dartles the red and the blue!
Then it stops like a bird; like a flower, hangs furled.
They must solace themselves with the Saturn above it.
What matter to me that their star is a world?
Mine opens its soul to me; therefore I love it.

Were I asked to choose the short poem which most suggestively expressed the attitude of our age, I believe I should pause long before rejecting this one of Browning’s. If there is one trait more characteristic than another of our spiritual attitude, it is our proneness to challenge the Accepted. “Down with the Obvious” is our intellectual war-cry. It is more than a principle with us; it is a habit. We are growing temperamentally incapable of taking things for granted; we are the sworn enemies of conventional standards, both in taste and in morals; we are the champions of individual judgment. In the realm of morals this is bringing about consequences so vast that I must back away from even the mention of them. In the realm of taste it is producing conditions, to one aspect of which I should like to call attention.

Which brings us back to our poem. May I be pardoned for laying unhallowed hands on a thing so exquisite! It is like dissecting a butterfly. But perhaps we need not hurt him, and we can set him free again in a moment.

In plain English, then, the poem means, that I love a certain star because of qualities in it appreciated, I find, in a peculiar way, by me. I do not share this appreciation with others. When they press in upon me, to par take of my vision, “it stops like a bird, like a flower hangs furled.” But when I, its discoverer and owner, look at it, it “opens its soul to me,” and note well the phrase “therefore I love it.” As for the others the crowd let them have Saturn and welcome Saturn, whose wonders any one can see with half an eye. I admit that Saturn is in a sense greater, but I am happy with my own lesser thing, because it is mine.

There we have it! A turning away from accepted greatness, greatness in the appreciation of which all can take part, to the minor beauty whose enjoyment can be ours alone. It is not purely a love of beauty, then, that dominates us, but a glory in discovery, a pride of ownership, and, perhaps, an instinct of withdrawal from the crowd.

And now we may let our butterfly go again praying that we have not brushed the least mote of bloom from his wings.

It is this attitude, I think, which is peculiarly characteristic of the age we live in. It is not, of course, the exclusive possession of our own time. Touchstone betrayed it, when, in his best court tones, he introduced Audrey as “A poor virgin, sir, an ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own.”And we can go back even further if we care to inquire curiously. Probably the man who black-balled Aristides be cause he was tired of hearing him called “The Just” had the same feeling which is only another illustration of the modernness of the Greeks. He was expressing a dislike of the Obvious, a rebellion against the Accepted, which we can all understand. He was tired of Saturn. Probably he had some small star of his own that, for the reasons we have just been considering, he liked better.

It is, in fact, a trait of human nature, which just now is getting the upper hand a little more than usual. For the worship of the gods has always been encroached upon by the cults of the demigods. There is something cloying about the continual contemplation of unquestioned greatness, especially if the experience has to be shared with the crowd. This is, of course, the real reason why the orthodox conceptions of Heaven are so unattractive. And, equally of course, this was what was the matter with Lucifer—ah, here at last we are at the very beginning of the whole trouble! He began it! Not Browning, nor Touchstone, nor the Greek mugwump, but Lucifer. He was the first to set up an individual judgment, to rebel against the domination of the Obvious.

There is nobody to blame, then, but a person who is so in the habit of taking blame that he can take a little more without turning a hair. Upon his broad shoulders we may load the restlessness of all the uneasy spirits since the time of the First One.

There is something to be said for them. The Great of the world do get a good deal of handling. They show it a little. The grass is trodden down all around them, their toes are worn blunt by being kissed, and they are bestarred and be-photographed out of all whooping. One can hardly think of them apart from an atmosphere of perfunctory admiration of the tourist sort, to which there clings an aroma of lunch-boxes and note books and cameras and picture post-cards. We cannot approach them without feeling ourselves one of a rabble. “Ugh!” we growl, “let’s get out of this! Come along over to my Little-Great-One, that nobody else is paying any attention to. Here we are, no crowd, no noise, the place is ours!”

Ah, yes, there is indeed something in it. There is a good deal in it. And so the cult of the Little Great supplants the worship of the Great Great.

There is no special harm in this so long as we remember that there is a difference between the Great Great and the Little Great. So long as we do not forget that, with one day of such treatment as the Great Great are imperturbably submitting to through the ages, the Little Great would be reduced to pulp. And so long as we do not blink the fact that in pursuing our cult we are yielding to our love for exclusiveness.

And though there is something to be said for these uneasy spirits, there is also some thing to be said against them, certainly when we are concerned with the things of the spirit. For there is a difference between the material and the immaterial Great Great. Take the Matterhorn it is a Great Great in its own line, no doubt, but perhaps just perhaps we might be excused for prefer ring a lower peak with solitudes around it, to the Matterhorn with a foreground of hard- boiled-egg shells and oiled-paper sandwich- wrappers. I am not accusing the Matterhorn of such a foreground. The Touristland Improvement Society probably keeps it cleared up. I am only suggesting a hypothetical case, in which a material Great Great might lose some of its shall we call it bloom?

But with the immaterial Great Great the case is somewhat altered. Its audience-rooms may be always thronged, yet we do not have to dodge the elbows of the crowd, or peer under their hats in order to get a view. We can, in a sense, forget them. Only in a sense, to be sure. For the throng, though invisible, has left its traces. The Bible, for instance, has suffered from too much handling. No one who has been “properly” brought up, can, I fancy, ever read any of its great writings and get a perfectly pure and fresh vision of their greatness. There are no egg-shells and sandwich-papers, indeed, but the fore-ground and the back-ground and the middle-ground are littered with altar-cloths and stained glass, with snatches of hymns and illuminated texts and the debris of sermons. Not with the most intense detachment of spirit can we escape them entirely. If on this account we leave the Bible and betake ourselves say, to the Apocrypha, we shall be free from all this. We can be quite by ourselves, and we shall find many wonderful and beautiful things, but in the end we shall be making a mistake if we do not go back to our Bible again, hymns and texts and sermons and all.

The next greatest sufferer among the Great Great is Shakespeare. It is hard to read Shakespeare with an undivided mind, be cause one keeps running up against so many “familiar quotations.” Moreover, some of us have “prepared” Shakespeare for the class room, for college-entrance examinations, for B.A. and M.A. and Ph.D. examinations, and the air of the study hangs heavy about him. I knew a young woman once who felt this so keenly that in selecting four plays to be studied by her class she proposed four of the poorest one of them not surely authentic because, as she said, the great plays were so “hackneyed.” It seemed to me that though her plight was hard, she had not chosen the best way out. It still seems so. And if we do not find the better way of escape it is partly our own fault.

Can we not walk free with Shakespeare and enjoy his companionship because of this network of trappings glossaries and notes and quotations and essays in which we are involved? Do our steps drag? Are our feet clogged? Do we slip harness and escape to some companion whose charm, perhaps, is less, but with whom we can race along un- trammeled? The loss is ours. If we were just a little cleverer, we could do something still better: we could give Shakespeare the wink he would be ready and both together we would duck, plunge, twist, and there we are! Free! and off together up the wind, with none to follow. And then what a day we should have!

From the brightness and the wonder of such a day does it, perhaps, detract some thing, the consciousness that we are not the first? Perhaps it does, because we are, as we have admitted, human. There is a joy in discovery quite apart from the quality of the thing discovered. The first man to conquer a peak gets something that those who follow never find. But this the bead on the cup is not for us, we come too late. Unless, indeed, we may find it in the discovery of some new Great Great among our contemporaries. Some of us may have had intoxicating moments when we have at least thought we had done this.

But for the most part, the peaks have been climbed. Shakespeare and Sophocles and the rest have been read and read. When we say “Wonderful, wonderful, and most wonder-fill!” we must be content to know that mil lions have said it before us, and millions will say it after us. And if we are not content, if our pride is humiliated and our love of exclusiveness is outraged by this knowledge, what then? Shall we allow ourselves to be driven by our own weakness eternally to the society of the Little Great? Perhaps, better than rebellion against the Obvious, would be an endeavor to reconquer the Obvious. Perhaps the thing that would pay best of all would be to strive for freshness of mind, freshness of attack, in the appreciation of these same old Great Great.

For the greatness of the Great, though obvious in one way, in another way is not obvious at all, and when we turn aside from them, we are perhaps moved not merely by intellectual priggishness, but also by intellectual indolence. The dainty musical trifle rests us when the great symphony tires us. It is easier to appreciate the little things, the pretty sketches, the rare bits, exquisite but slight, whose beauty we can in a sense see all around. Easy, and also perfectly defensible if we do it only as a part of our aesthetic experience. But if it becomes the whole of it, we are in danger of falling into a sterile round of easy enjoyment which leaves us where it found us. We shall never grow spiritually keen and muscular in this way. It is as if a man were to spend his leisure all his life in playing jack-straws when he might be playing chess. If we spend all our time on the second-best we shall lose something out of our intellectual and aesthetic equipment, something of virility, something of largeness and breadth, something of the power and the willingness to expend energy in the under standing and appreciation of the greatest things. And this ought not to be lightly given up.

A fresh vision of the Great Great is worth achieving. It is worth waiting for. I had read “King Lear” many times, but once I read it, and suddenly it took hold of me in a new way, and carried me along breathless, overwhelmed, to the end, I had read the “Antigone” over and over, but once when I came to it, it swept me up into its own clear air: I saw it steadily and saw it whole. Experiences like these, incommunicable as they are, are to be above all desired, above all prized. When one has had them it is hard to see how one could for long be content with less.

(1917)

MLA Citation

Morris, Elisabeth. “The cult of the second-best.” 1917. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 8 Oct 2008. 11 Dec 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/morris/cult_of_the_second-best/>.

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