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A Hotel Sitting-Room
by [?]

I am calling this paper after a hotel sitting-room because some of one’s most recurrent and definite trains of thought are most hopelessly obstinate about getting an intelligible name, so that I take advantage of this one having been brought to a head in a real room of the kind. The room was on a top floor in Florence; the Cupola and Campanile and other towers in front of it above the plum-coloured roofs; and beyond, the bluish mountains of Fiesole. Trams were puffing about in the square below, and the church bells ringing, and the crowd streaming to the promenade; but only the unchanging and significant life of the town seemed to matter up here. I was struck with the charm of such a hotel room–the very few ornaments, greatly cherished since they were carried about; the books for reading, not for furniture; the bought flowers in common glasses; and the consequent sense of selection, deliberateness, and personality. Good heavens, I reflected, are we mortals so cross-grained that we can thoroughly enjoy things only by contrast, and that a sort of mild starvation is needed to whet our aesthetic appetite?

By no means. Contrast for contrast’s sake is a very coarse stimulant, and required only by very joyless natures. The real explanation of the charm of the hotel room and its sparse properties and flowers must be sought, I believe, in the fact that the charm of things depends upon our power of extracting it; and that our power in this matter, as in every other, nay, our leisure to exert it, is necessarily limited. Things, as I before remarked, do not give themselves without some wooing; and courtship is the secret of true possession. The world outside us, as philosophers tell us, is not what our eyes, ears, and touch and taste make it appear; nay, for aught we know, ’tis a mere chaos; and if, out of the endless impressions with which outer objects keep pelting us, we manage to pick up and appropriate a few, setting them in a pattern of meaning and beauty, it is thanks to the activity of our own special little self. That is the gist of Kant’s philosophy; and, apart from Kant, it is the vague practical knowledge which experience teaches us. Hence the disappointment of all such persons as think that the beautiful and significant things of the world ought to give them delight without any trouble on their part: they think that it is the fault of a Swiss mountain, or a Titian Madonna, or a poem by Browning if it does not at once ravish their inert souls into a seventh heaven. Yet these are people who occasionally ride, or play at golf or whist, and who never expect the cards and the golf clubs to play the game by themselves, nor the very best horse to carry them to some destination without riding. Now, beautiful and interesting things also require a deal of riding, of playing with; let us put it more courteously–of wooing.

The hotel room I have spoken of reveals the fact that we usually have far too many pleasant things about us, to be able to extract much pleasure from any of them; while, of course, somebody else, at the other end of the world let us say, or merely in the mews to the back, has so very much too little as to have none at all, which is another way of diminishing possible enjoyment. There seems, moreover, to be a certain queer virtue in mere emptiness, in mere negation. We require a margin of nothing round everything that is to charm us; round our impressions as well as round the material objects which can supply them; for without it we lose all outline, and begin to feel vaguely choked.

Compare the pleasure of a picture tucked away in a chapel or sacristy with the plethoric weariness of a whole Louvre or National Gallery. Nay, remember the vivid delight of some fine bit of tracery round a single door or window, as in the cathedral of Dol or the house of Tristan l’Hermite at Tours; or of one of those Ionic capitals which you sometimes find built into quite an uninteresting house in Rome (there is one almost opposite St. Angelo, and another near Tor dei Specchi, Tower of the Mirrors, delightful name!).