Monday, September 30, 2013


The Hygienic Chemistry of Books

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), The Caxtons: A Family Picture, Part IX, Chapter V (My Father's Crotchet on the Hygienic Chemistry of Books):
"If," said my father,—and here his hand was deep in his waistcoat,—"if we accept the authority of Diodorus as to the inscription on the great Egyptian library—and I don't see why Diodorus should not be as near the mark as any one else?" added my father interrogatively, turning round.

My mother thought herself the person addressed, and nodded her gracious assent to the authority of Diodorus. His opinion thus fortified, my father continued,—"If, I say, we accept the authority of Diodorus, the inscription on the Egyptian library was: 'The Medicine of the Mind.' Now, that phrase has become notoriously trite and hackneyed, and people repeat vaguely that books are the medicine of the mind. Yes; but to apply the medicine is the thing!"

"So you have told us at least twice before, brother," quoth the Captain, bluffly. "And what Diodorus has to do with it, I know no more than the man of the moon."

"I shall never get on at this rate," said my father, in a tone between reproach and entreaty.

"Be good children, Roland and Blanche both," said my mother, stopping from her work and holding up her needle threateningly,—and indeed inflicting a slight puncture upon the Captain's shoulder.

"'Rem acu tetigisti,' my dear," said my father, borrowing Cicero's pun on the occasion.1 "And now we shall go upon velvet. I say, then, that books, taken indiscriminately, are no cure to the diseases and afflictions of the mind. There is a world of science necessary in the taking them. I have known some people in great sorrow fly to a novel, or the last light book in fashion. One might as well take a rose-draught for the plague! Light reading does not do when the heart is really heavy. I am told that Goethe, when he lost his son, took to study a science that was new to him. Ah! Goethe was a physician who knew what he was about. In a great grief like that you cannot tickle and divert the mind, you must wrench it away, abstract, absorb,—bury it in an abyss, hurry it into a labyrinth. Therefore, for the irremediable sorrows of middle life and old age I recommend a strict chronic course of science and hard reasoning,—Counter-irritation. Bring the brain to act upon the heart! If science is too much against the grain (for we have not all got mathematical heads), something in the reach of the humblest understanding, but sufficiently searching to the highest,—a new language, Greek, Arabic, Scandinavian, Chinese, or Welsh! For the loss of fortune, the dose should be applied less directly to the understanding,—I would administer something elegant and cordial. For as the heart is crushed and lacerated by a loss in the affections, so it is rather the head that aches and suffers by the loss of money. Here we find the higher class of poets a very valuable remedy. For observe that poets of the grander and more comprehensive kind of genius have in them two separate men, quite distinct from each other,—the imaginative man, and the practical, circumstantial man; and it is the happy mixture of these that suits diseases of the mind, half imaginative and half practical. There is Homer, now lost with the gods, now at home with the homeliest, the very 'poet of circumstance,' as Gray has finely called him; and yet with imagination enough to seduce and coax the dullest into forgetting, for a while, that little spot on his desk which his banker's book can cover. There is Virgil, far below him, indeed,—
                                     'Virgil the wise,
Whose verse walks highest, but not flies,'
as Cowley expresses it. But Virgil still has genius enough to be two men,—to lead you into the fields, not only to listen to the pastoral reed and to hear the bees hum, but to note how you can make the most of the glebe and the vineyard. There is Horace, charming man of the world, who will condole with you feelingly on the loss of your fortune, and by no means undervalue the good things of this life, but who will yet show you that a man may be happy with a vile modicum or parva rura. There is Shakspeare, who, above all poets, is the mysterious dual of hard sense and empyreal fancy,—and a great many more, whom I need not name, but who, if you take to them gently and quietly, will not, like your mere philosopher, your unreasonable Stoic, tell you that you have lost nothing, but who will insensibly steal you out of this world, with its losses and crosses, and slip you into another world before you know where you are!—a world where you are just as welcome, though you carry no more earth of your lost acres with you than covers the sole of your shoe. Then, for hypochondria and satiety, what is better than a brisk alterative course of travels,—especially early, out-of-the-way, marvellous, legendary travels! How they freshen up the spirits! How they take you out of the humdrum yawning state you are in. See, with Herodotus, young Greece spring up into life, or note with him how already the wondrous old Orient world is crumbling into giant decay; or go with Carpini and Rubruquis to Tartary, meet 'the carts of Zagathai laden with houses, and think that a great city is travelling towards you.'2 Gaze on that vast wild empire of the Tartar, where the descendants of Jenghis 'multiply and disperse over the immense waste desert, which is as boundless as the ocean.' Sail with the early Northern discoverers, and penetrate to the heart of winter, among sea-serpents and bears and tusked morses with the faces of men. Then, what think you of Columbus, and the stern soul of Cortes, and the kingdom of Mexico, and the strange gold city of the Peruvians, with that audacious brute Pizarro; and the Polynesians, just for all the world like the Ancient Britons; and the American Indians and the South-sea Islanders? How petulant and young and adventurous and frisky your hypochondriac must get upon a regimen like that! Then, for that vice of the mind which I call sectarianism,—not in the religious sense of the word, but little, narrow prejudices, that make you hate your next-door neighbor because he has his eggs roasted when you have yours boiled; and gossipping and prying into people's affairs, and backbiting, and thinking heaven and earth are coming together if some broom touch a cobweb that you have let grow over the window-sill of your brains what like a large and generous, mildly aperient (I beg your pardon, my dear) course of history! How it clears away all the fumes of the head,—better than the hellebore with which the old leeches of the Middle Ages purged the cerebellum! There, amidst all that great whirl and sturmbad (storm-bath), as the Germans say, of kingdoms and empires, and races and ages, how your mind enlarges beyond that little feverish animosity to John Styles, or that unfortunate prepossession of yours that all the world is interested in your grievances against Tom Stokes and his wife!

"I can only touch, you see, on a few ingredients in this magnificent pharmacy; its resources are boundless, but require the nicest discretion. I remember to have cured a disconsolate widower, who obstinately refused every other medicament, by a strict course of geology. I dipped him deep into gneiss and mica schist. Amidst the first strata I suffered the watery action to expend itself upon cooling, crystallized masses; and by the time I had got him into the tertiary period, amongst the transition chalks of Maestricht and the conchiferous marls of Gosau, he was ready for a new wife. Kitty, my dear, it is no laughing matter! I made no less notable a cure of a young scholar at Cambridge who was meant for the church, when he suddenly caught a cold fit of freethinking, with great shiverings, from wading out of his depth in Spinoza. None of the divines, whom I first tried, did him the least good in that state; so I turned over a new leaf, and doctored him gently upon the chapters of faith in Abraham Tucker's book (you should read it, Sisty); then I threw in strong doses of Fichte; after that I put him on the Scotch metaphysicians, with plunge-baths into certain German transcendentalists; and having convinced him that faith is not an unphilosophical state of mind, and that he might believe without compromising his understanding,—for he was mightily conceited on that score,—I threw in my divines, which he was now fit to digest; and his theological constitution, since then, has become so robust that he has eaten up two livings and a deanery! In fact, I have a plan for a library that, instead of heading its compartments, 'Philology, Natural Science, Poetry,' etc., one shall head them according to the diseases for which they are severally good, bodily and mental,—up from a dire calamity or the pangs of the gout, down to a fit of the spleen or a slight catarrh; for which last your light reading comes in with a whey-posset and barley-water. But," continued my father, more gravely, "when some one sorrow, that is yet reparable, gets hold of your mind like a monomania; when you think because Heaven has denied you this or that on which you had set your heart that all your life must be a blank,—oh! then diet yourself well on biography, the biography of good and great men. See how little a space one sorrow really makes in life. See scarce a page, perhaps, given to some grief similar to your own; and how triumphantly the life sails on beyond it! You thought the wing was broken! Tut, tut, it was but a bruised feather! See what life leaves behind it when all is done!—a summary of positive facts far out of the region of sorrow and suffering, linking themselves with the being of the world. Yes, biography is the medicine here! Roland, you said you would try my prescription,—here it is;" and my father took up a book and reached it to the Captain.

My uncle looked over it,—Life of the Reverend Robert Hall. "Brother, he was a Dissenter; and, thank Heaven! I am a Church-and-State man to the backbone!"

"Robert Hall was a brave man and a true soldier under the Great Commander," said my father, artfully.

The Captain mechanically carried his forefinger to his forehead in military fashion, and saluted the book respectfully.

"I have another copy for you, Pisistratus,—that is mine which I have lent Roland. This, which I bought for you to-day, you will keep."

"Thank you, sir," said I listlessly, not seeing what great good the Life of Robert Hall could do me, or why the same medicine should suit the old weather-beaten uncle and the nephew yet in his teens.

"I have said nothing," resumed my father, slightly bowing his broad temples, "of the Book of books, for that is the lignum vitae, the cardinal medicine for all. These are but the subsidiaries; for as you may remember, my dear Kitty, that I have said before,—we can never keep the system quite right unless we place just in the centre of the great ganglionic system, whence the nerves carry its influence gently and smoothly through the whole frame—THE SAFFRON BAG!"

1 Cicero's joke on a senator who was the son of a tailor: "Thou hast touched the thing sharply" (or with a needle, acu).

2 Rubruquis, sect. xii.
On the saffron bag, see Part VI, Chapter II.

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