The Complacency Of Mediocrity by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Full as small intellects are of queer kinks, unexplained turnings and groundless likes and dislikes, the bland contentment that buoys up the incompetent is the most difficult of all vagaries to account for. Rarely do twenty-four hours pass without examples of this exasperating weakness appearing on the surface of those shallows that commonplace people so naively call “their minds.”

What one would expect is extreme modesty, in the half-educated or the ignorant, and self-approbation higher up in the scale, where it might more reasonably dwell. Experience, however, teaches that exactly the opposite is the case among those who have achieved success.

The accidents of a life turned by chance out of the beaten tracks, have thrown me at times into acquaintanceship with some of the greater lights of the last thirty years. And not only have they been, as a rule, most unassuming men and women; but in the majority of cases positively self- depreciatory; doubting of themselves and their talents, constantly aiming at greater perfection in their art or a higher development of their powers, never contented with what they have achieved, beyond the idea that it has been another step toward their goal. Knowing this, it is always a shock on meeting the mediocre people who form such a discouraging majority in any society, to discover that they are all so pleased with themselves, their achievements, their place in the world, and their own ability and discernment!

Who has not sat chafing in silence while Mediocrity, in a white waistcoat and jangling fobs, occupied the after-dinner hour in imparting second- hand information as his personal views on literature and art? Can you not hear him saying once again: “I don’t pretend to know anything about art and all that sort of thing, you know, but when I go to an exhibition I can always pick out the best pictures at a glance. Sort of a way I have, and I never make mistakes, you know.”

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Then go and watch, as I have, Henri Rochefort as he laboriously forms the opinions that are to appear later in one of his “Salons,” realizing the while that he is facile princeps among the art critics of his day, that with a line he can make or mar a reputation and by a word draw the admiring crowd around an unknown canvas. While Rochefort toils and ponders and hesitates, do you suppose a doubt as to his own astuteness ever dims the self-complacency of White Waistcoat? Never!

There lies the strength of the feeble-minded. By a special dispensation of Providence, they can never see but one side of a subject, so are always convinced that they are right, and from the height of their contentment, look down on those who chance to differ with them.

A lady who has gathered into her dainty salons the fruit of many years’ careful study and tireless “weeding” will ask anxiously if you are quite sure you like the effect of her latest acquisition–some eighteenth-century statuette or screen (flotsam, probably, from the great shipwreck of Versailles), and listen earnestly to your verdict. The good soul who has just furnished her house by contract, with the latest “Louis Fourteenth Street” productions, conducts you complacently through her chambers of horrors, wreathed in tranquil smiles, born of ignorance and that smug assurance granted only to the–small.

When a small intellect goes in for cultivating itself and improving its mind, you realize what the poet meant in asserting that a little learning was a dangerous thing. For Mediocrity is apt, when it dines out, to get up a subject beforehand, and announce to an astonished circle, as quite new and personal discoveries, that the Renaissance was introduced into France from Italy, or that Columbus in his day made important “finds.”

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When the incompetent advance another step and write or paint–which, alas! is only too frequent–the world of art and literature is flooded with their productions. When White Waistcoat, for example, takes to painting, late in life, and comes to you, canvas in hand, for criticism (read praise), he is apt to remark modestly:

“Corot never painted until he was fifty, and I am only forty-eight. So I feel I should not let myself be discouraged.”

The problem of life is said to be the finding of a happiness that is not enjoyed at the expense of others, and surely this class have solved that Sphinx’s riddle, for they float through their days in a dream of complacency disturbed neither by corroding doubt nor harassed by jealousies.

Whole families of feeble-minded people, on the strength of an ancestor who achieved distinction a hundred years ago, live in constant thanksgiving that they “are not as other men.” None of the great man’s descendants have done anything to be particularly proud of since their remote progenitor signed the Declaration of Independence or governed a colony. They have vegetated in small provincial cities and inter-married into other equally fortunate families, but the sense of superiority is ever present to sustain them, under straitened circumstances and diminishing prestige. The world may move on around them, but they never advance. Why should they? They have reached perfection. The brains and enterprise that have revolutionized our age knock in vain at their doors. They belong to that vast “majority that is always in the wrong,” being so pleased with themselves, their ways, and their feeble little lines of thought, that any change or advancement gives their system a shock.

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A painter I know was once importuned for a sketch by a lady of this class. After many delays and renewed demands he presented her one day, when she and some friends were visiting his studio, with a delightful open-air study simply framed. She seemed confused at the offering, to his astonishment, as she had not lacked aplomb in asking for the sketch. After much blushing and fumbling she succeeded in getting the painting loose, and handing back the frame, remarked:

“I will take the painting, but you must keep the frame. My husband would never allow me to accept anything of value from you!”–and smiled on the speechless painter, doubtless charmed with her own tact.

Complacent people are the same drag on a society that a brake would be to a coach going up hill. They are the “eternal negative” and would extinguish, if they could, any light stronger than that to which their weak eyes have been accustomed. They look with astonishment and distrust at any one trying to break away from their tiresome old ways and habits, and wonder why all the world is not as pleased with their personalities as they are themselves, suggesting, if you are willing to waste your time listening to their twaddle, that there is something radically wrong in any innovation, that both “Church and State” will be imperilled if things are altered. No blight, no mildew is more fatal to a plant than the “complacent” are to the world. They resent any progress and are offended if you mention before them any new standards or points of view. “What has been good enough for us and our parents should certainly be satisfactory to the younger generations.” It seems to the contented like pure presumption on the part of their acquaintances to wander after strange gods, in the shape of new ideals, higher standards of culture, or a perfected refinement of surroundings.

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We are perhaps wrong to pity complacent people. It is for another class our sympathy should be kept; for those who cannot refrain from doubting of themselves and the value of their work–those unfortunate gifted and artistic spirits who descend too often the via dolorosa of discontent and despair, who have a higher ideal than their neighbors, and, in struggling after an unattainable perfection, fall by the wayside.

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