Thursday, May 24, 2007

Colby Preface

As promised earlier, here’s the preface to Frank Moore Colby’s Imaginary Obligations (1904).

[For the impatient (for all others as well): the book is a collection of essays about “the … anxieties that make up our chief imaginary obligation to seem something different from what we are.”

The extremely impatient should skip the first sentence (and then know that “hortatory” is an adjectival version of the verb “to exhort”).]


I presume it will not be denied that the Anglo-Saxon conscience is apt to encroach on the zone of moral indifference. We are a hortatory people, forever laying down the law in a region where diversity is most desirable. Apparently we would rather teach than live; we count votes even in our dreams; and we suppress nine-tenths of our thoughts for fear of seeming incorrect. We are sometimes frank in private, but coram populo our souls are not our own. In proof whereof see any magazine or newspaper or almost any current book or play, and mark especially the amazing difference between public speeches and private thoughts. There are the romantics of politics, and the self-concealment of debate, and the duty to the crowd, and the duty to the coterie, and the duty to the time of day, and the constraint of success, and the fear of being misunderstood, and the care of the universe, and the hundred other anxieties that make up our chief imaginary obligation to seem something different from what we are – something wiser or more sententious or more brilliant or more reasonable and educational, something far less human and infinitely less absurd. We cannot even see a man with a book without worrying over the effect it may have on him, and we would turn every critic into a sort of literary legislator. We try to compel good taste ad the harmless word “culture” has already acquired a grim and horrid sound. On the lightest of matters we lay the heaviest of hands. At every point our indefatigable instructors would substitute a formula for a vital process. Our fancied obligations to these little formulas are for the most part the subject of this book, which is made up of certain newspaper and magazine articles, edited and rearranged. The topics discussed are transitory, but they are bound to recur, and the writings quoted are evanescent but they are of a kind that often return. I have written about them because I enjoyed their absurdity, but incidentally they may show why so many of us grow old rigidly or develop an alarming spiritual pomposity in our middle age.

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