Saturday, December 17, 2005

In defence of shyness

Harold Nicolson DAILY TIMES Wednesday December 7, 2005
It is surely discreditable, under the age of thirty, not to be shy. Self-assurance in the young betokens a lack of sensibility: the boy or girl who is not shy at twenty-two will at forty-two become a bore. ‘I may be wrong,’ of course’ — thus will he or she gabble at forty-two, ‘but what I always say is...’
No, let us educate the younger generation to be shy in and out of season: to edge behind the furniture: to say spasmodic and ill-digested things: to twist their feet round the protective feet of sofas and armchairs; to feel that their hands belong to someone else — that they are objects, which they long to put down on some table away from themselves.
For shyness is the protective fluid within which our personalities are able to develop into natural shapes. Without this fluid the character becomes merely standardized or imitative: it is within the tender velvet sheath of shyness that the full flower of idiosyncrasy is nurtured: it is from this sheath alone that it can eventually unfold itself, coloured and undamaged. Let the shy understand, therefore, that their disability is not merely an inconvenience, but also a privilege. Let them regard their shyness as a gift rather than as an affliction. Let them consider how intolerable are those of their contemporaries who are not also shy...
.... I used to tell myself... at those moments outside the doorways of the great when shyness becomes a laughing monster with its fangs already at one’s heart — I used to tell myself that I was as good, as powerful, as rich, as beautiful, and as magnificent as any of those I was about to meet. This was not a good system. It made me pert. I would bounce into the room gaily... be somewhat impudent to my hostess, cut my host dead, show undue familiarity towards the distinguished author who had once lectured to us at Balliol, and fling myself noisily, completely at my ease, into an armchair. The chair would recede at this impact and upset a little table on which were displayed a bottle of smelling-salts, a little silver cart from Rome, a Persian pen-box... These objects would rattle loudly to the floor, and with them would tumble my assertiveness. Such deductive systems invariably fail. Fatal also is the reverse process of behaving like the worm one feels. ‘Remember,’ I have said to myself on giving my hat and coat to the footman, ‘remember that you are a worm upon this earth. These people have only asked you because they met your aunt at St Jean de Luz. They do not wish to see you, still less do they wish to hear you speak. You may say good evening to your hostess, and then you must retreat behind a sofa and remain unobserved. There is no need for you, when in your retreat, to behave self-consciously — to examine the French engravings on the wall, or the lacquer of the incised screen. You can put both your hands upon the back of the chair and then just look (without blinking) in front of you. If addressed, you will reply with modesty and politeness. If not addressed, you will not speak at all.’ Things do not work out that way. The place behind the sofa is, when you get there, fully occupied by an easel containing a picture by Carolus Duran; and then one falls over the dog...
The only justification for being shy is to be shy to all the people all the time. You must avoid being pert to governesses and polite to bishops. But if you are always shy, people will end by imagining that you have a modest nature; and that, since it will flatter their own self-esteem, will make you extremely popular. Only when you have become popular can you afford to be interesting, intelligent or impressive. It is a great mistake to endeavour to awake admiration before you have stilled envy; it is only when people have started by ignoring the young that they end up liking the young. It may be a comfort to you therefore to consider that it is an excellent thing, at first, to be regarded as being of no importance. You can hide behind the chair.

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