Essays on Paul Bourget by Mark Twain

when that is expurgated there is nothing left of the book.

I wish I could think what he is going to teach us. Can it be Deportment?

But he experimented in that at Newport and failed to give satisfaction,

except to a few. Those few are pleased. They are enjoying their joy as

well as they can. They confess their happiness to the interviewer. They

feel pretty striped, but they remember with reverent recognition that

they had sugar between the cuts. True, sugar with sand in it, but sugar.

And true, they had some trouble to tell which was sugar and which was

sand, because the sugar itself looked just like the sand, and also had a

gravelly taste; still, they knew that the sugar was there, and would have

been very good sugar indeed if it had been screened. Yes, they are

pleased; not noisily so, but pleased; invaded, or streaked, as one may

say, with little recurrent shivers of joy–subdued joy, so to speak, not

the overdone kind. And they commune together, these, and massage each

other with comforting sayings, in a sweet spirit of resignation and

thankfulness, mixing these elements in the same proportions as the sugar

and the sand, as a memorial, and saying, the one to the other, and to the

interviewer: “It was severe–yes, it was bitterly severe; but oh, how

true it was; and it will do us so much good!”

If it isn’t Deportment, what is left? It was at this point that I seemed

to get on the right track at last. M. Bourget would teach us to know

ourselves; that was it: he would reveal us to ourselves. That would be

an education. He would explain us to ourselves. Then we should

understand ourselves; and after that be able to go on more intelligently.

It seemed a doubtful scheme. He could explain us to himself–that would

be easy. That would be the same as the naturalist explaining the bug to

himself. But to explain the bug to the bug–that is quite a different

matter. The bug may not know himself perfectly, but he knows himself

better than the naturalist can know him, at any rate.

A foreigner can photograph the exteriors of a nation, but I think that

that is as far as he can get. I think that no foreigner can report its

interior–its soul, its life, its speech, its thought. I think that a

knowledge of these things is acquirable in only one way; not two or four

or six–absorption; years and years of unconscious absorption; years and

years of intercourse with the life concerned; of living it, indeed;

sharing personally in its shames and prides, its joys and griefs, its

loves and hates, its prosperities and reverses, its shows and

shabbinesses, its deep patriotisms, its whirlwinds of political passion,

its adorations–of flag, and heroic dead, and the glory of the national

name. Observation? Of what real value is it? One learns peoples

through the heart, not the eyes or the intellect.

There is only one expert who is qualified to examine the souls and the

life of a people and make a valuable report–the native novelist. This

expert is so rare that the most populous country can never have fifteen

conspicuously and confessedly competent ones in stock at one time. This

native specialist is not qualified to begin work until he has been

absorbing during twenty-five years. How much of his competency is

derived from conscious “observation”? The amount is so slight that it

counts for next to nothing in the equipment. Almost the whole capital of

the novelist is the slow accumulation of unconscious observation–

absorption. The native expert’s intentional observation of manners,

speech, character, and ways of life can have value, for the native knows

what they mean without having to cipher out the meaning. But I should be

astonished to see a foreigner get at the right meanings, catch the

elusive shades of these subtle things. Even the native novelist becomes

a foreigner, with a foreigner’s limitations, when he steps from the State

whose life is familiar to him into a State whose life he has not lived.

Bret Harte got his California and his Californians by unconscious

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Categories: Twain, Mark