Polite Conversation
by Aldous Huxley

There are some people to whom the most difficult to obey of all the commandments is that which enjoins us to suffer fools gladly. The prevalence of folly, its monumental, unchanging permanence and its almost invariable triumph over intelligence are phenomena which they cannot contemplate without experiencing a passion of righteous indignation or, at the least, of ill-temper. Sages like Anatole France, who can probe and anatomize human stupidity and still remain serenely detached, are rare. These reflections were suggested by a book recently published in New York and entitled The American Credo. The authors of this work are those enfants terribles of American criticism, Messrs. H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. They have compiled a list of four hundred and eighty-eight articles of faith which form the fundamental Credo of the American people, prefacing them with a very entertaining essay on the national mind:

Truth shifts and changes like a cataract of diamonds; its aspect is never precisely the same at two successive moments. But error flows down the channel of history like some great stream of lava or infinitely lethargic glacier. It is the one relatively fixed thing in a world of chaos.

To look through the articles of the Credo is to realize that there is a good deal of truth in this statement. Such beliefs as the following - not by any means confined to America alone - are probably at least as old as the Great Pyramid:

That if a woman, about to become a mother, plays the piano every day, her baby will be born a Victor Herbert.

That the accumulation of great wealth always brings with it great unhappiness.

That it is bad luck to kill a spider.

That water rots the hair and thus causes baldness.

That if a bride wears an old garter with her new finery, she will have a happy married life.

That children were much better behaved twenty years ago than they are to-day.

And most of the others in the collection, albeit clothed in forms distinctively contemporary and American, are simply variations on notions as immemorial.

Inevitably, as one reads The American Credo, one is reminded of an abler, a more pitiless and ferocious onslaught on stupidity, I mean Swift's "Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, according to the most polite mode and method now used at Court and in the Best Companies of England. In three Dialogues. By Simon Wagstaff, Esq." I was inspired after reading Messrs. Mencken and Nathan's work to refresh my memories of this diabolic picture of the social amenities. And what a book it is! There is something almost appalling in the way it goes on and on, a continuous, never-ceasing stream of imbecility. Simon Wagstaff, it will be remembered, spent the best part of forty years in collecting and digesting these gems of polite conversation:

I can faithfully assure the reader that there is not one single witty phrase in the whole Collection which has not received the Stamp and Approbation of at least One Hundred Years, and how much longer it is hard to determine; he may therefore be secure to find them all genuine, sterling and authentic.

How genuine, sterling and authentic Mr. Wagstaff's treasures of polite conversation are is proved by the great number of them which have withstood all the ravages of time, and still do as good service to-day as they did in the early seventeen-hundreds or in the days of Henry VIII.: "Go, you Girl, and warm some fresh Cream." "Indeed, Madam, there's none left; for the Cat has eaten it all." "I doubt it was a Cat with Two Legs."

"And, pray, What News, Mr. Neverout?" "Why, Madam, Queen Elizabeth's dead." (It would be interesting to discover at exactly what date Queen Anne took the place of Queen Elizabeth in this grand old repartee, or who was the monarch referred to when the Virgin Queen was still alive. Aspirants to the degree of B. or D.Litt. might do worse than to take this problem as a subject for their thesis.)

Some of the choicest phrases have come down in the world since Mr. Wagstaff's day. Thus, Miss Notable's retort to Mr. Neverout, "Go, teach your Grannam to suck Eggs," could only be heard now in the dormitory of a preparatory school. Others have become slightly modified. Mr. Neverout says, "Well, all Things have an End, and a pudden has two." I think we may flatter ourselves that the modern emendation, "except a roly-poly pudding, which has two," is an improvement.

Mr. Wagstaff's second dialogue, wherein he treats of Polite Conversation at meals, contains more phrases that testify to the unbroken continuity of tradition than either of the others. The conversation that centres on the sirloin of beef is worthy to be recorded in its entirety:

LADY SMART: Come, Colonel, handle your Arms. Shall I help you to some Beef?

COLONEL: If your Ladyship please; and, pray, don't cut like a Mother-in-law, but send me a large Slice; for I love to lay a good Foundation. I vow, 'tis a noble Sir-loyn.

NEVEROUT: Ay; here's cut and come again.

MISS: But, pray; why is it call'd a Sir-loyn?

LORD SMART: Why, you must know that our King James the First, who lov'd good Eating, being invited to Dinner by one of his Nobles, and seeing a large Loyn of Beef at his Table, he drew out his Sword, and, in a Frolic, knighted it. Few people know the Secret of this.

How delightful it is to find that we have Mr. Wagstaff's warrant for such gems of wisdom as, "Cheese digests everything except itself," and "If you eat till you're cold, you'll live to grow old"! If they were a hundred years old in his day they are fully three hundred now. Long may they survive! I was sorry, however, to notice that one of the best of Mr. Wagstaff's phrases has been, in the revolution of time, completely lost. Indeed, before I had read Aubrey's "Lives," Lord Sparkish's remark, "Come, box it about; 'twill come to my Father at last," was quite incomprehensible to me. The phrase is taken from a story of Sir Walter Raleigh and his son.

Sir Walter Raleigh [says Aubrey] being invited to dinner to some great person where his son was to goe with him, he sayd to his son, "Thou art expected to-day at dinner to goe along with me, but thou art so quarrelsome and affronting that I am ashamed to have such a beare in my company." Mr. Walter humbled himselfe to his father and promised he would behave himselfe mighty mannerly. So away they went. He sate next to his father and was very demure at least halfe dinner time. Then sayd he, "I this morning, not having the feare of God before my eies, but by the instigation of the devill, went...."

At this point Mr. Clark, in his edition, suppresses four lines of Aubrey's text; but one can imagine the sort of thing Master Walter said.

Sir Walter, being strangely surprized and putt out of countenance at so great a table, gives his son a damned blow over the face. His son, as rude as he was, would not strike his father, but strikes over the face the gentleman that sate next to him and sayd, "Box about: 'twill come to my father anon." 'Tis now a common-used proverb.

And so it still deserves to be; how, when and why it became extinct, I have no idea. Here is another good subject for a thesis.

There are but few things in Mr. Wagstaff's dialogue which appear definitely out of date and strange to us, and these super-annuations can easily be accounted for. Thus the repeal of the Criminal Laws has made almost incomprehensible the constant references to hanging made by Mr. Wagstaff's personages. The oaths and the occasional mild grossnesses have gone out of fashion in mixed polite society. Otherwise their conversation is in all essentials exactly the same as the conversation of the present day. And this is not to be wondered at; for, as a wise man has said:

Speech at the present time retains strong evidence of the survival in it of the function of herd recognition.... The function of conversation is ordinarily regarded as being the exchange of ideas and information. Doubtless it has come to have such a function, but an objective examination of ordinary conversation shows that the actual conveyance of ideas takes a very small part in it. As a rule the exchange seems to consist of ideas which are necessarily common to the two speakers and are known to be so by each.... Conversation between persons unknown to one another is apt to be rich in the ritual of recognition. When one hears or takes part in these elaborate evolutions, gingerly proffering one after another of one's marks of identity, one's views on the weather, on fresh air and draughts, on the Government and on uric acid, watching intently for the first low hint of a growl, which will show one belongs to the wrong pack and must withdraw, it is impossible not to be reminded of the similar manoeuvres of the dog and to be thankful that Nature has provided us with a less direct, though perhaps a more tedious, code.

End of Polite Conversation by Aldous Huxley