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Whistler’s Writing
by [?]

No book-lover, I. Give me an uninterrupted view of my fellow- creatures. The most tedious of them pleases me better than the best book. You see, I admit that some of them are tedious. I do not deem alien from myself nothing that is human: I discriminate my fellow- creatures according to their contents. And in that respect I am not more different in my way from the true humanitarian than from the true bibliophile in his. To him the content of a book matters not at all. He loves books because they are books, and discriminates them only by the irrelevant standard of their rarity. A rare book is not less dear to him because it is unreadable, even as to the snob a dull duke is as good as a bright one. Indeed, why should he bother about readableness? He doesn’t want to read. `Uncut edges’ for him, when he can get them; and, even when he can’t, the notion of reading a rare edition would seem to him quite uncouth and preposterous The aforesaid snob would as soon question His Grace about the state of His Grace’s soul. I, on the other hand, whenever human company is denied me, have often a desire to read. Reading, I prefer cut edges, because a paper-knife is one of the things that have the gift of invisibility whenever they are wanted; and because one’s thumb, in prising open the pages, so often affects the text. Many volumes have I thus mutilated, and I hope that in the sale-rooms of a sentimental posterity they may fetch higher prices than their duly uncut duplicates. So long as my thumb tatters merely the margin, I am quite equanimous. If I were reading a First Folio Shakespeare by my fireside, and if the matchbox were ever so little beyond my reach, I vow I would light my cigarette with a spill made from the margin of whatever page I were reading. I am neat, scrupulously neat, in regard to the things I care about; but a book, as a book, is not one of these things.

Of course, a book may happen to be in itself a beautiful object. Such a book I treat tenderly, as one would a flower. And such a book is, in its brown-papered boards, whereon gleam little gilt italics and a little gilt butterfly, Whistler’s Gentle Art of Making Enemies. It happens to be also a book which I have read again and again–a book that has often travelled with me. Yet its cover is as fresh as when first, some twelve years since, it came into my possession. A flower freshly plucked, one would say–a brown-and-yellow flower, with a little gilt butterfly fluttering over it. And its inner petals, its delicately proportioned pages, are as white and undishevelled as though they never had been opened. The book lies open before me, as I write. I must be careful of my pen’s transit from inkpot to MS.

Yet, I know, many worthy folk would like the book blotted out of existence. These are they who understand and love the art of painting, but neither love nor understand writing as an art. For them The Gentle Art of Making Enemies is but something unworthy of a great man. Certainly, it is a thing incongruous with a great hero. And for most people it is painful not to regard a great man as also a great hero; hence all the efforts to explain away the moral characteristics deducible from The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, and to prove that Whistler, beneath a prickly surface, was saturated through and through with the quintessence of the Sermon on the Mount.

Well! hero-worship is a very good thing. It is a wholesome exercise which we ought all to take, now and again. Only, let us not strain ourselves by overdoing it. Let us not indulge in it too constantly. Let hero-worship be reserved for heroes. And there was nothing heroic about Whistler, except his unfaltering devotion to his own ideals in art. No saint was he, and none would have been more annoyed than he by canonisation; would he were here to play, as he would have played incomparably, the devil’s advocate! So far as he possessed the Christian virtues, his faith was in himself, his hope was for the immortality of his own works, and his charity was for the defects in those works. He is known to have been an affectionate son, an affectionate husband; but, for the rest, all the tenderness in him seems to have been absorbed into his love for such things in nature as were expressible through terms of his own art. As a man in relation to his fellow-men, he cannot, from any purely Christian standpoint, be applauded. He was inordinately vain and cantankerous. Enemies, as he has wittily implied, were a necessity to his nature; and he seems to have valued friendship (a thing never really valuable, in itself, to a really vain man) as just the needful foundation for future enmity. Quarrelling and picking quarrels, he went his way through life blithely. Most of these quarrels were quite trivial and tedious. In the ordinary way, they would have been forgotten long ago, as the trivial and tedious details in the lives of other great men are forgotten. But Whistler was great not merely in painting, not merely as a wit and dandy in social life. He had, also, an extraordinary talent for writing. He was a born writer. He wrote, in his way, perfectly; and his way was his own, and the secret of it has died with him. Thus, conducting them through the Post Office, he has conducted his squabbles to immortality.