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The Protest of the Individual

By Harvey Wickham.
 
When one begins to be taught by science, he begins to realize his personal insignificance. In so many millions of atoms one atom more or less seems of no particular consequence. A man sees things through a twenty-six inch telescope which sift the last grain of conceit out of his soul. The humility of the physicist is profound; his attitude abnegation itself, a state of mind by no means altogether unwholesome. Our littleness is a healthy fact to have stored away somewhere in the remote depths of the inner consciousness. It is good ballast when the winds of fortune, or of misfortune, for that matter, blow high. But to keep this fact continually in the foreground is a menace to effort. A man is apt to forget, if he thinks too much upon it, that his own littleness is, in itself, a little thing; a trifle which need not trouble, nor paralyze ambition, nor be held so near the eye that it blots out the horizon. It is possible to say, "I am an atom, yet find many things worthy of an atom's interest and attention."
 
But this philosophic standpoint is most difficult to reach. Science is prone to generalize, and is never so happy as when it can force individuality itself into a class and rob it of individuality. The protest of the individual in such a case is inevitable, and I purpose to show that it is rational. Throughout all ages this protest has found expression in art. Let us consider it from two points of view—the transcendental and the practical.
 
The Transcendental Standpoint.
A sage discovered (the world was very much farther from its majority than at present) that no matter how common or mean a substance was, it differentiated itself from the mass if given a peculiar shape. So long as it preserved its form it had a certain personality, so to speak, which could not be lost. A stone, considered as a mineral, was but one unit in an incalculable sum. Considered as to its facets, angles, curves, it was a thing unique under the sun. The sage then took the stone and shaped it (I speak literally) after his own mind, and straightway it became not only a thing unique, but a thing of price. Its personality was no longer that of a rock, but that of a man. Before, it had been shaped by chance as no other stone could have chanced to be shaped. Now it was shaped as no other man could or would have shaped it. It became a metaphor and stood for him. No need to tell this primal artist that stones were everywhere. He could point to his statue and boast, "There is no such thing anywhere."
 
Form is the essential feature of art. A picture in monotint is still a picture, while colors without logical arrangement constitute but a daub of colors. There was never an axiom so false as that which defines the whole as but the sum of the parts. Browning, who was at least as much of a philosopher as a poet, expressed this fact in the language of mysticism when he wrote,
 
"I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man,
That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a
             star."
 
Music, seemingly the most impalpable, is, in reality, the most proportionate thing in the world. Form therein reaches its consummate development; not the crude symmetry of identical halves, but the subtle symmetry of vastly complicated equations. The problem as it stands in the notation may, indeed, be divisible by integers, but, as it stands in the performance of the artist, it defies the mathematician and drives him into a forest of fractions if he tries to reduce it to formulae.
 
Idiosyncrasy bends every line of the copy a little this way or that, but if it is not to go too far it must approximate universal generalizations. If a man has nothing novel in his constitution he becomes a cipher, an impossibility. If he has too much he becomes a monstrosity. It is wearisome to see ourselves reflected feature for feature, yet we can have no sympathy with that which is altogether foreign. Man, to use the language of pharmacy, is a mechanical mixture, not a chemical compound. The proportions of the mixture vary, every one becoming a microcosm because he contains every element of humanity; but no duplicate, because he has every element present or active in a unique degree.
 
The player who follows the printed page note for note, beat for beat, is a machine worshiping the letter which killeth. Composers do not write with the purpose of being thus interpreted. The idea is always a circle, which, as it can not be squared, seeks approximation in a polygon. The essence of every thought is inexpressible. The author writes many volumes and says all things—save a certain thing he wished to say. The wise reader guesses at this certain thing between the lines of the stammering speech, and makes no fetich of literalness.
 
But let the tempo rubato (to consider a single element of performance, for illustration) be forced beyond a definite line, and all is chaos. The rhythm may almost, but never altogether, obliterate the meter. The ear seeks, it may be at long intervals, the phenomenon of balance. If it finds it not, it finds no music.
 
But let us hasten to
(sic)
 
 
The Practical Standpoint.
If you are to study a science, you must acquire all the knowledge which has been gleaned by your predecessors, before attempting original investigation. One of the chief causes of the marvelous development of invention in the last quarter-century is the rapid interchange of thought made possible by modern conditions of life. Formerly, discoveries were made and lost. To-day the laborers in the field of knowledge work hand in hand. One worker can not know too much of what others are doing, and it is but wasted time for him to re-find what someone else has found already. But in art there is such a thing as acquiring too much information along this line. All that an artist needs is sufficient familiarity with tradition to prevent his personal bias becoming deformity. If he bows too long before the altars of the past his shoulders acquire a permanent stoop, so to speak, and he loses his native stature. When teachers have "fingered blunt the individual mark," to quote Browning again, "and have vulgarized things comfortably smooth," they have o'erstepped their province. The world has no need of pedants.
 
Just the right amount of learning varies with the pupil. A great nature with transcendent originality can bear a great deal. One cast in a slighter mold should be given much less. Not but what mediocrity requires longer to master technic than genius, but technic is but the art or practice of expressing outwardly the inward meaning. Learning, on the other hand, is familiarity with the meaning of other minds. Life should not all be spent in pondering over what others have thought, nor yet in learning to express what we have not learned to mean. Some time should be set apart for thinking and acquiring meanings of our own. More erudition than can be digested makes a deplorable and too common spectacle. I, for one, prefer to catch the "personal" note among phrases rude and harshly delivered, rather than listen to limpid streams of rhetoric from the lips of fact-crammed, devitalized echoers of sentiments not their own.
 
 
 
 
 
 
—There is much sense in these comments of the "Chicago Times-Herald":
 
"Until a community can learn to estimate music on its own account, and not with reference to certain favored names, will any genuine musical atmosphere be created. At present there is scarcely any limit to the hollow pretense and affectation in the musical field. Hundreds, whose only desire is to follow a fashionable fad, copy the airs and manners of musical connoisseurs, and assume an interest in the classic music forms which they are far from feeling. Severe music of the classic and scientific school they neither understand nor enjoy, and yet, with an affectation which is most absurd, they refuse to indorse any other. Greater honesty and a more catholic spirit could not fail, therefore, to broaden any musical field in a most desirable manner. There is plenty of good music by the best composers which will serve to inspire and educate those who have not advanced to the point of appreciating abstract forms and the more elaborate symphonies and music dramas, and such music deserves encouragement."
 
 
 

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