Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Personality and Impersonality*


 

In advocating the culture of personality as a fine ideal of human endeavor, one is often confronted with the objection that to emphasize personality is something undesirable and unbecoming. "But I do not wish to develop my personality. I dislike the personal. I prefer to stand for real worth, and to avoid personal issues and the personal appeal, as much as possible."

The objection is seemingly well taken, and would be valid, were it not based on an equivocal use of the words "personal" and "personality," or if we could ever divorce the influence of personality from conduct. But in truth the influence of personality enters as a most potent factor in all action and social intercourse, whether we like it or not; and it is only by cultivating an essential personality that we can rise superior to those "personalities" which we so rightly disparage. To be "personal" in argument, in conversation, in our approach and attitude toward others is indeed the mark of an uncouth personality; while nothing so readily distinguishes the man or the woman of breeding as a fine impersonal resort in all affairs, whether of conduct, criticism, or feeling. The appeal to the argumentum ad hominem, and the crushing personal reply, is very surely a sign of weakness, and always in the worst possible taste. For we are supposedly in quest of the truth; as rational creatures we are more concerned in coming at the right of a matter than in merely scoring a point in debate; our appeal is to logic, to the higher understanding; and when we forsake that calm region and allow ourselves to be carried away in a gust of heated temper we are manifestly degraded and stultified. So that truly there is nothing more vulgar than to be offensively personal and individual.

High breeding and fine culture lead to impersonal heights of spiritual and intellectual life, and to the delicacies and considerations of social amenity, where love and friendship bear their choicest fruits. Cultured friendship is too wise ever to take a liberty; and love, for all its eagerness, is known by its unselfish generosity. In the realm of pure rationality how clear the air is, and how tonic! How unfortunate that we should ever taint it with unreasonable caprice and personal prejudice, wherein truth is always obscured! Freedom, alas, must often fight for her integrity; but none the less the dust of conflict is death to understanding. How glad the human spirit would be to dwell always, if it could, in the kingdom of generous loving-kindness, never to enter at all the pestilential regions of hatred, meanness, malice and envy, where we drag it so often in bitter war and vainglorious controversy! To come off triumphant in dispute is seldom to win the finest victory.

No doubt we should be helped in our understanding and use of the word personality by keeping in mind its source and original significance. The persona of the earliest drama, as everyone knows, was the mask which the player wore, and through which the voice gave sound; personare being literally "to sound through." The "person," then, is primarily the outer guise, the face and figure of the individual in which the character is incased, and through which the living speech is sounded. Only secondarily does "person" come to stand for the whole character or self, with its emotions, thoughts, and impulses; while "personality," when used as an equivalent of "individual," combines both these meanings-the inward as well as the outward characteristics of our friend. The primitive rustic audience in those old tragic or comic dramas, replete with religious feeling and myth, was content with the conventional mask of painted wood or clay, with its frozen look of exaggerated woe or mirth, and more than content, perhaps, to forget the identity of the actor behind it. The words, the meaning, the gist of the part, and the trend of the story were to those na´ve beholders the chief and significant things. To have had what we are pleased to call the player's individuality obtruded upon their attention would doubtless have seemed to them detrimental if not impious in the extreme.

So it is with ourselves upon the stage of the world. We are the masks of destiny-the personŠ through which the life-spirit may voice and play out its titanic masterpiece, for which we all are cast and which none of us can understand. These myriad faces that pass in the pageant of the streets, what are they but masks of the eternal, donned for a little while before the footlights of the sun, as children wear false faces at Hallowe'en? We see them streaming by, each fashioned and named and distinguished from the rest, and each animated by a spirit it calls its own, as it proudly treads the vasty theatre of time. Yet in those very words "spirit" and "animate" there lurks an immemorial belief in forces greater than our ineffectual selves. For the anima or soul was literally but a wind, a gust of the unseen; and the "spirit" was first only a breath of the body; faint, invisible, yet potent impressions of the ultimate power of the universe, which we somehow feel to be a divine personality. In the symbolism of these words one realizes how long ago a sense of the fleetness of life came to the imagination of man-its mysterious origin, its viewless course, its undetermined goal.

How animated are some faces, and how dim are others! In some the kindling fire of the spirit burns keen and pure. You can almost see the soul behind the eyes and through the luminous skin, like the light under a porcelain shade. In others the eye never sparkles, the cheek never glows. The spiritual fire is hardly more than an ember. Even beautiful features often lack this last touch of loveliness-the inward animating and inspiring warmth of soul, which should be so eager and so delightful. Yet always, seen or unseen, faint or forceful, while there is life there is the burning flame within the serviceable clay. Always, clear and convincing, or faltering and indistinct, the voice of the Infinite sounds through these human masks of ours.

Shall we not make it our chief endeavor, then, that the flame be not obscured-that the voice may sound sweetly and unmistakably through the features for which we are responsible? Thus we come to accord between two ideals-between striving for the culture of personality as a surpassing good, and striving for the supremacy of impersonal aims and standards. We exist as personalities, as characters, as individuals, only to give scope and play and expression to the Impersonal. We ourselves are indeed faulty, partial, ineffectual, wrung by passion, blinded by prejudice, baffled by lack of skill; and yet for all that are we not, even the poorest among us, moved by some sort of ideal, some motive more noble than ourselves, guided by some kind of intelligence, carried forward on the way by some sense of gratification in deeds accomplished? Only by such impersonal aids and influences can personality grow to any enviable height or breadth of being.

In our crafts, our artistry, our skilled achievements, our enduring toil, are we not apprentices to the cosmic power, gaining our best development through helping to bring about

                      "That far off divine event
To which the whole creation moves,"-

though we have never seen the whole plan of the structure we are building, and can only dream of the sublime architect's design? In all our following after knowledge, our search to find out wisdom, are we not perhaps like diligent students in a great laboratory, seeing clearly this truth and that, proving a theory here, solving a problem there, setting down line after line and page after page in the vast book of revelation, which shall one day be completed, but whose Finis we need not write, whose tenor indeed we need not wholly comprehend? And most of all in our spiritual lives, our intuitive desire for happiness and justice, our ineradicable hope, our patient faith in some ultimate good, what are we but emanations of an eternal longing? We experience a kinship to omnipotence in every honest day's work done, in every creation of loveliness, small though it be, which we add to the beauty of the world. We touch the glory of omniscience in every particle of knowledge gained and tested; and in every joy we feel our identity with infinite excellence. Our pleasures of the senses, our health, our strength, our satisfaction in success, are legitimate surely because they are natural and universal; and they are blameless only when they are not limited by selfish aims. So too our pleasures of the heart and mind are great and valid, not because they can be appropriated, but because their beneficence is unbounded and can be infinitely shared.

The mind takes no satisfaction in a doubtful truth, nor can the spirit wholly rejoice in a partial good, however much these may be to our private advantage. Truth is the chosen air of the mind. Happiness is the fullest nourishment of the soul. Unless we are sustained by our share of these measureless bounties of intelligence and spirit, we cannot grow to our due stature of manhood and womanhood.

Once to realize our kinship with these transcendent powers, however, is to become aware how great an inheritance is truly our own, and how great a responsibility for its worthy use. This is the seed of all mental and moral growth of personality, which is to flower forth in grace of person, in graciousness of demeanor, in greatness of achievement. In the world of our senses we touch the infinite of space and time. We breathe and move and sleep and are sustained in a boundless universe. Enduring and goodly things are about us without measure. Only, here our knowledge of the infinite and the impersonal is so instinctive that it is often unrealized. But whether in the outward or the inward world in which personalties exist,

"We feel that we are greater than we know,"

and long to exercise powers within us beyond the current drudgery of existence.

The culture of personality does not imply development of egotism, but rather the reverse. It eliminates egotism by the substitution of things of greater value. The greatest personalities-seers, teachers, philosophers, scientists, sublime poets, mighty mothers of men, nameless toilers who labored and stinted not, obscure saints, and martyrs who perished for a cause-have ever been the most profoundly modest and unassuming of mankind. Their greatness is measured by their forgetfulness of self. They swayed the world to the worship of integrity and truth and beauty by the sincerity of their lives, their happy mystic faith in things greater than themselves, their devotion to impersonal aims. This is the paradox of the making of personality. The aim of culture is the perfection of selfhood; but the pathway of culture and its final test and sanction are not self-seeking, but service. He who would save his life must lose it. The best way to lose care of non-essentials is not to so destroy them that their wreckage hinders progress, but so to educate them that they may further progress, and enable us to say with Browning

                                                       "All good things
Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul."

Such making of personality is not accomplished in a day, it is a matter of time and care, a natural process of growth that may be helped by good education. Like most of nature's processes, it is seldom rapid. It may, however, shoot forth and unfold at times with wonderful rapidity under favoring conditions. A seed of new and inspiring thought planted in the mind may sink into the soul and fructify in the hospitable soil of the spirit, to flower forth in a whole new conception of life, and bear fruit in worthier action, more noble, more intelligent, more humane. But the seed must be good, the soil must be made generous, and the fruit must be delivered sound and whole. A false and worthless ideal will often germinate as rapidly as a true one, and choke the mind with weeds. And without wise care and painstaking the finest fruit of fairest deeds cannot be harvested unblemished for the use of men.

There are many avenues by which truth may come to us with its fructifying ideals. Poetry, science, experience, nature, the fine arts, the commoner industries-all these have teachings of the infinite for us, if we approach them with an ever receptive mind and a heart in which nurturing warmth has not died. By all these roads we are brought face to face with the momentous, the significant, the beautiful in life; and we ourselves become imbued with some of the wonder and glamour we have felt, some of the intelligence we have followed, some of the loveliness we have perceived; and all because we have been made to deal with facts and forces greater than ourselves. A tulip bulb does not require much ground, yet there is the whole bosom of the earth below it, and the whole firmament of heaven above. We do not require a large township for our daily walk of life; our sphere and task seem often small enough; yet the only meat and drink that can sustain us must be gathered from the fields of infinite goodness and drawn from the inexhaustible springs of truth. But we must put forth effort to lay hold of these things, as the tulip reaches forth into the earth and into the air for nourishment and light, and make them our own by assimilation and use, so that we, too, like our little sister of the garden, may attain the adequate and becoming perfection of growth that belongs to us.

We shall not attain perfection, however, unless, before all things, we forget our pitiful self-consciousness and give vent to the good genius within us, which is always only waiting to be exercised. And that good genius, with its starry aim, is after all only the habit of doing our very best, and being our very best, every minute we have to live. Which of us can do our best, if we are always thinking of ourselves and the effect we are going to make? Let us get ourselves out of the way and give the doing a chance. Do you feel awkward in company, constrained and embarrassed in speech? Possibly you think that to speak out with more freedom, to move with greater ease, would seem too much like asserting your personality? Ah, no; it is your defects that are personal and your silence that is conspicuous. Speech and motion are natural and impersonal things, expressing universal truths. By giving them easy vent you will not be calling attention to yourself, but to their meanings, while the personal "you" will be escaping attention. People are not waiting to hear you or me, they are waiting to hear truths.

To cultivate poise and grace and efficiency of person and manner is not to make oneself conspicuous, but to make oneself inconspicuous. To be well dressed is to be inconspicuous. It is ill-fitting and unbecoming garments that draw all eyes upon us; and our persons are but the garments of our personalities; they must be fitted to us.

Voice is one of the first things to cultivate. Bearing is another. Learn to breathe, to speak, to stand, to walk. Strangely enough, you will not be able to get these simple arts in any of our regular schools. They have been neglected in our educational system; I suppose because they are of so obvious necessity that it was thought, as one college president stated the case, "we would manage to get them somehow." We do, and the result is just as lamentable as might have been expected. However you do it, educate your voice until it is as musical as you can make it. Stand up on free feet, with a free diaphragm. Move and walk like a free human being. Surely you can move at least as well as a fox through the woods, or a queenly Indian woman in her rags. Has civilization made you something less beautiful than these free beings? Then open your mouth and let God speak through your mask. If you have nothing original to say, never mind that. If your will is generous, your expression sincere, and your voice beautiful, people will get the charm and be thankful for that, without asking more. The world doesn't need more originality half as much as it needs the expression and use of the honesty and loving-kindness already in it. To subserve these greater aims and obey the greater forces, impersonal as they truly are, is the legitimate object of the education of personality.


"Personality and Impersonality," The Forum, June 1912 [back]