6 AUGUST 1921, Page 10


THE friends of our friends—" friends-in-law," as they are called—are often known to us only by hearsay. Yet we feel that we know a great deal about them, because we constantly hear of their sayings and doings, and now and then hear their characters discussed or intimately estimated. Accordingly we make a mental picture of them to tally as far as may be with the account we have received. If by any chance we come across them in the flesh, we are occasionally delighted with the likeness we have produced from hearsay, but much more often we are amused and even a little chagrined to find it wholly without resemblance. It is rather irritating when we have made up our minds heartily to dislike a man, have determined to find him a prig or a Philistine, on the one hand, or, on the other, a man of striking ability or charm, to realize that we are wholly mistaken. The prig of our imagination turns out to be a man of sense and humour. The able man seems insignificant, and the charm is altogether to seek. How could our real friend have so described such a man ? we say to ourselves, forgetting that a person's description of his friends "-often tells more about himself than about them. For instance, a silent man who is a good listener will often be quoted as saying many dogmatic and trenchant things to which in actual truth he has only listened and given more or less acquiescence. Very many people who hesitate to give to their own views any very bitter or partisan expression find relief in so expressing them under cover of quotation. Again, they hesitate to give vent to any commonplace moralization, but they are glad some- times to repeat one when it relieves their own minds. Have we not all feared sometimes to venture upon some little epigram which we -suspected to be more silly than witty, and finally got it off our chests or our tongues by lathering it upon some one else ? In all this there is no intentional deception. The man into whose mouth we put the epigram, if he did not think of it himself, caused us to think of it, and did, we say to ourselves, very nearly say it, only not in so terse a form. If our little sally is well received, our friend gets the credit from us, and if badly, well, we do not get the blame. The whole matter is not, after all, of the slightest consequence, but it accounts for the number of hearsay portraits whiehhave to be destroyed as worthless.

Again, many men and more women are led away by their own power of words to represent those whom they like or who interest them with more intention of fixing the attention of their interlocutor than of being accurate. This is specially true when any general interest attaches to the people under discussion. It seems so stupid to be well acquainted with a person with whom the world in general would give so much to be a little acquainted and have nothing new or original to say about him. The :temptation to draw upon the imagination is very great. A conscientious person will not of course alter a fact, but there are not many who will scruple to alter a feature, or who will even be aware at the moment of speaking that they are doing so. The result of all this is that simple outsiders form clear but wholly erroneous notions of great men with whom they have but one small link, and go to their graves exhibiting a hearsay portrait of him to those who have no link at all.

Anyone who buys newspapers and who has the slightest memory for faces can nowadays recognize any prominent figure in the political arena whom he may happen to see. Snap-shots and caricatures abound. The strange thing is that when we do come to recognize the men with whose countenances we are so familiar, in spite of the fact that we may say to ourselves that we should " have known them anywhere," the impression made by the actual person often destroys our mental picture altogether. We have heard that the Prime Minister's personality is not conveyed by photograph at all, and we can think of a score of people of whom this is true. There is an atmosphere diffused by some men and women which no list of features, even such a metaphorical list as is with scientific accuracy presented to us by the camera, can ever convey. When we paint our own mental portraits of such men, we do, of course, make use of such a list, and do learn from it something about the types to which they belong. Nevertheless, when we have seen the originals, we often destroy the picture as ruthlessly as though we had never seen any representa- tion whatever. Every mental portrait may in some sense be described as a spirit photograph generally, a " faked " one, but always an attempt to estimate the soul as well as the body.

However much we may pride ourselves upon our absence of snobbishness, we all expect a distinguished man to look distinguished, just as when we were children we expected kings and queens to wear crowns and flowing robes, just as we imagined angels with wings or devils with tails. A sense of surprise comes to all of us when we see a great aristocrat who might be a grocer. We hardly knew, perhaps, that we had thought about the man at all till we see that fact has driven a hole through fancy's canvas and left our mental picture gallery the poorer.

It is not easy to say why we mind when our estimates founded on hearsay prove untrue, and why the unanswer- able disproof of them always comes with a slight shock. To speak the truth it is with as true a sense of disappointment that we find a man much more impressive than our representation than much less so. Perhaps the fact that we all want a definite picture throws some light upon the matter. When we see the real man, the result is not, as a rule, a new picture, but confusion; it is hard. to draw from the life, easy to copy from some one else's work. We all live, to a certain extent, in a mental society of our own making ; we are like children who have imaginary friends. To be roughly told by events, as chil- dren are sometimes roughly told by their elders, that it is " all nonsense " gives us a certain pang. The pleasure we feel when we have been right and our mental portrait still satisfies us when we have seen " Nature " is perhaps to be accounted for on the same theory. At the bottom of our hearts we are all very like children, and always more or less at play. Behind all our work and definite amuse- ments we are pleasing ourselves with our fancies and " pretending." When we are able to say, " He was exactly what I had pictured him," just as hateful or just as delightful., just as ridiculous or just as impressive, we feel that our puppet has " come alive;" and almost for a moment as though the representation were the original and the original the proof. " We are artists indeed I " we say to ourselves, and we laugh inwardly out of sheer self-congratulation.