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Worldly Ways and Byways (To the reader)

2006-07-09 17:12Eliot

  To the Reader

  THERE existed formerly, in diplomatic circles, a curious custom,  since fallen into disuse, entitled the Pele Mele, contrived doubtless by  some distracted Master of Ceremonies to quell the endless jealousies and  quarrels for precedence between courtiers and diplomatists of contending  pretensions. Under this rule no rank was recognized, each person being  allowed at banquet, fete, or other public ceremony only such place as he  had been ingenious or fortunate enough to obtain.

  Any one wishing to form an idea of the confusion that ensued, of the  intrigues and expedients resorted to, not only in procuring prominent  places, but also in ensuring the integrity of the Pele Mele, should glance  over the amusing memoirs of M. de Segur.

  The aspiring nobles and ambassadors, harassed by this constant  preoccupation, had little time or inclination left for any serious pursuit,  since, to take a moment's repose or an hour's breathing space was to risk  falling behind in the endless and aimless race. Strange as it may appear,  the knowledge that they owed place and preferment more to chance or  intrigue than to any personal merit or inherited right, instead of lessening  the value of the prizes for which all were striving, seemed only to enhance  them in the eyes of the competitors.

  Success was the unique standard by which they gauged their fellows.  Those who succeeded revelled in the adulation of their friends, but when  any one failed, the fickle crowd passed him by to bow at more fortunate  feet.

  No better picture could be found of the “world” of to-day, a perpetual  Pele Mele, where such advantages only are conceded as we have been  sufficiently enterprising to obtain, and are strong or clever enough to keep

  -a constant competition, a daily steeplechase, favorable to daring spirits  and personal initiative but with the defect of keeping frail humanity ever  on the qui vive.  Philosophers tell us, that we should seek happiness only in the calm of  our own minds, not allowing external conditions or the opinions of others  to influence our ways. This lofty detachment from environment is achieved by very few. Indeed, the philosophers themselves (who may be  said to have invented the art of “posing”) were generally as vain as  peacocks, profoundly pre-occupied with the verdict of their  contemporaries and their position as regards posterity.

  Man is born gregarious and remains all his life a herding animal. As  one keen observer has written, “So great is man's horror of being alone  that he will seek the society of those he neither likes nor respects sooner  than be left to his own.” The laws and conventions that govern men's  intercourse have, therefore, formed a tempting subject for the writers of all  ages. Some have labored hoping to reform their generation, others have  written to offer solutions for life's many problems.

  Beaumarchais, whose penetrating wit left few subjects untouched,  makes his Figaro put the subject aside with “Je me presse de rire de tout,  de peur d'etre oblige d'en pleurer.”

  The author of this little volume pretends to settle no disputes, aims at  inaugurating no reforms. He has lightly touched on passing topics and  jotted down, “to point a moral or adorn a tale,” some of the more obvious  foibles and inconsistencies of our American ways. If a stray bit of  philosophy has here and there slipped in between the lines, it is mostly of  the laughing “school,” and used more in banter than in blame.

  This much abused “world” is a fairly agreeable place if you do not take  it seriously. Meet it with a friendly face and it will smile gayly back at you,  but do not ask of it what it cannot give, or attribute to its verdicts more  importance than they deserve.


  Newport, November first, 1897

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