The Discontent Of Talent by Eliot Gregory
Story type: Essay
The complacency that buoys up self-sufficient souls, soothing them with the illusion that they themselves, their towns, country, language, and habits are above improvement, causing them to shudder, as at a sacrilege, if any changes are suggested, is fortunately limited to a class of stay- at-home nonentities. In proportion as it is common among them, is it rare or delightfully absent in any society of gifted or imaginative people.
Among our globe-trotting compatriots this defect is much less general than in the older nations of the world, for the excellent reason, that the moment a man travels or takes the trouble to know people of different nationalities, his armor of complacency receives so severe a blow, that it is shattered forever, the wanderer returning home wiser and much more modest. There seems to be something fatal to conceit in the air of great centres; professionally or in general society a man so soon finds his level.
The “great world” may foster other faults; human nature is sure to develop some in every walk of life. Smug contentment, however, disappears in its rarefied atmosphere, giving place to a craving for improvement, a nervous alertness that keeps the mind from stagnating and urges it on to do its best.
It is never the beautiful woman who sits down in smiling serenity before her mirror. She is tireless in her efforts to enhance her beauty and set it off to the best advantage. Her figure is never slender enough, nor her carriage sufficiently erect to satisfy. But the “frump” will let herself and all her surroundings go to seed, not from humbleness of mind or an overwhelming sense of her own unworthiness, but in pure complacent conceit.
A criticism to which the highly gifted lay themselves open from those who do not understand them, is their love of praise, the critics failing to grasp the fact that this passion for measuring one’s self with others, like the gad-fly pursuing poor Io, never allows a moment’s repose in the green pastures of success, but goads them constantly up the rocky sides of endeavor. It is not that they love flattery, but that they need approbation as a counterpoise to the dark moments of self-abasement and as a sustaining aid for higher flights.
Many years ago I was present at a final sitting which my master, Carolus Duran, gave to one of my fair compatriots. He knew that the lady was leaving Paris on the morrow, and that in an hour, her husband and his friends were coming to see and criticise the portrait–always a terrible ordeal for an artist.
To any one familiar with this painter’s moods, it was evident that the result of the sitting was not entirely satisfactory. The quick breathing, the impatient tapping movement of the foot, the swift backward springs to obtain a better view, so characteristic of him in moments of doubt, and which had twenty years before earned him the name of le danseur from his fellow-copyists at the Louvre, betrayed to even a casual observer that his discouragement and discontent were at boiling point.
The sound of a bell and a murmur of voices announced the entrance of the visitors into the vast studio. After the formalities of introduction had been accomplished the new-comers glanced at the portrait, but uttered never a word. From it they passed in a perfectly casual manner to an inspection of the beautiful contents of the room, investigating the tapestries, admiring the armor, and finally, after another glance at the portrait, the husband remarked: “You have given my wife a jolly long neck, haven’t you?” and, turning to his friends, began laughing and chatting in English.
If vitriol had been thrown on my poor master’s quivering frame, the effect could not have been more instantaneous, his ignorance of the language spoken doubtless exaggerating his impression of being ridiculed. Suddenly he turned very white, and before any of us had divined his intention he had seized a Japanese sword lying by and cut a dozen gashes across the canvas. Then, dropping his weapon, he flung out of the room, leaving his sitter and her friends in speechless consternation, to wonder then and ever after in what way they had offended him. In their opinions, if a man had talent and understood his business, he should produce portraits with the same ease that he would answer dinner invitations, and if they paid for, they were in no way bound also to praise, his work. They were entirely pleased with the result, but did not consider it necessary to tell him so, no idea having crossed their minds that he might be in one of those moods so frequent with artistic natures, when words of approbation and praise are as necessary to them, as the air we breathe is to us, mortals of a commoner clay.
Even in the theatrical and operatic professions, those hotbeds of conceit, you will generally find among the “stars” abysmal depths of discouragement and despair. One great tenor, who has delighted New York audiences during several winters past, invariably announces to his intimates on arising that his “voice has gone,” and that, in consequence he will “never sing again,” and has to be caressed and cajoled back into some semblance of confidence before attempting a performance. This same artist, with an almost limitless repertoire and a reputation no new successes could enhance, recently risked all to sing what he considered a higher class of music, infinitely more fatiguing to his voice, because he was impelled onward by the ideal that forces genius to constant improvement and development of its powers.
What the people who meet these artists occasionally at a private concert or behind the scenes during the intense strain of a representation, take too readily for monumental egoism and conceit, is, the greater part of the time, merely the desire for a sustaining word, a longing for the stimulant of praise.
All actors and singers are but big children, and must be humored and petted like children when you wish them to do their best. It is necessary for them to feel in touch with their audiences; to be assured that they are not falling below the high ideals formed for their work.
Some winters ago a performance at the opera nearly came to a standstill because an all-conquering soprano was found crying in her dressing-room. After many weary moments of consolation and questioning, it came out that she felt quite sure she no longer had any talent. One of the other singers had laughed at her voice, and in consequence there was nothing left to live for. A half-hour later, owing to judicious “treatment,” she was singing gloriously and bowing her thanks to thunders of applause.
Rather than blame this divine discontent that has made man what he is to- day, let us glorify and envy it, pitying the while the frail mortal vessels it consumes with its flame. No adulation can turn such natures from their goal, and in the hour of triumph the slave is always at their side to whisper the word of warning. This discontent is the leaven that has raised the whole loaf of dull humanity to better things and higher efforts, those privileged to feel it are the suns that illuminate our system. If on these luminaries observers have discovered spots, it is well to remember that these blemishes are but the defects of their qualities, and better far than the total eclipse that shrouds so large a part of humanity in colorless complacency.
It will never be known how many master-pieces have been lost to the world because at the critical moment a friend has not been at hand with the stimulant of sympathy and encouragement needed by an overworked, straining artist who was beginning to lose confidence in himself; to soothe his irritated nerves with the balm of praise, and take his poor aching head on a friendly shoulder and let him sob out there all his doubt and discouragement.
So let us not be niggardly or ungenerous in meting out to struggling fellow-beings their share, and perchance a little more than their share of approbation and applause, poor enough return, after all, for the pleasure their labors have procured us. What adequate compensation can we mete out to an author for the hours of delight and self-forgetfulness his talent has brought to us in moments of loneliness, illness, or grief? What can pay our debt to a painter who has fixed on canvas the face we love?
The little return that it is in our power to make for all the joy these gifted fellow-beings bring into our lives is (closing our eyes to minor imperfections) to warmly applaud them as they move upward, along their stony path.