This is an essay where allowances must be made, for Robert Louis Stevenson writes in the full Anglo pipe-n-slippers style -- the kind of thing where "Alas!" is used unironically. Consider this opening sentence:
AMONG sayings that have a currency in spite of being wholly false upon the face of them for the sake of a half-truth upon another subject which is accidentally combined with error, one of the grossest and broadest conveys the monstrous proposition that it is easy to tell the truth and hard to tell a lie.It ends well, but it takes forever to get there. (I should talk, with my syntax.)
The whole essay is like this -- interesting thoughts dressed up in old-fashioned clothes so they seem uninteresting. It's like eating Lobster Newburg or something -- quality ingredients, but prepared in this heavy noncontemporary style. Look, here's a picture:
And here's the prose:
An orator makes a false step; he employs some trivial, some absurd, some vulgar phrase; in the turn of a sentence, he insults by a side wind, those whom he is labouring to charm; in speaking to one sentiment he unconsciously ruffles another in parenthesis; and you are not surprised, for you know his task to be delicate and filled with perils. “O frivolous mind of man, light ignorance!” As if yourself, when you seek to explain some misunderstanding or excuse some apparent fault, speaking swiftly and addressing a mind still recently incensed, were not harnessing for a more perilous adventure; as if yourself required less tact and eloquence; as if an angry friend or a suspicious lover were not more easy to offend than a meeting of indifferent politicians!Two sentences, is all that is! (Not counting the one with the "O" -- which is in storage with the "alas"es.) But the idea that, when you're having a fight with, say, your wife, you need to have more skill than a professional talker -- that's an interesting observation.
In fact, one begins to suspect RLS of writing this one from life:
The world was made before the English language, and seemingly upon a different design. ... I hate questioners and questions; there are so few that can be spoken to without a lie. “Do you forgive me?” Madam and sweetheart, so far as I have gone in life I have never yet been able to discover what forgiveness means. “Is it still the same between us?” Why, how can it be? It is eternally different; and yet you are still the friend of my heart. “Do you understand me?” God knows; I should think it highly improbable.Yeah, I'm sure that worked. Nothing defuses the tension in an argument with your loved ones than trying to redefine the terms philosophically. More seriously, I find myself agreeing with Stevenson's point -- we can only come close to understanding each other, never fully arrive there -- and the kind of sherry-scented way he makes helps his case. It's as if a local humor columnist, tired of writing about how funny it is that people never use their turn signals, instead focused their whimsy on the impossibility of human communication.
It's interesting, too, that Stevenson closes his essay in a rush. In the penultimate paragraph, he (again) is in the midst of an argument -- a "Mr. and Mrs.," as a French friend of mine described them.
Sometimes we catch an eye—this is our opportunity in the ages—and we wag our tail with a poor smile. “Is that all?” All? If you only knew! But how can they know? They do not love us; the more fools we to squander life on the indifferent.That's some head-in-the-oven awesomeness, right? But, like a performance of Hamlet where everyone jumps up to sing a closing number, he tacks on a happy ending:
But the morality of the thing, you will be glad to hear, is excellent; for it is only by trying to understand others that we can get our own hearts understood; and in matters of human feeling the clement judge is the most successful pleader.He doesn't hold out much hope, it seems. But he does it so kindly-like!