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Portrait of a Sage

This piece originally ran on May 1, 1929

In the bright warm room, so alive inside the bleak November dark, before the fire burning briskly and stoutly, Professor Grosbeake's three beautiful daughters gave me tea in their parents' absence. Among the elegant and slender spindles of the legs and rungs of the English furniture, which seemed blacker and stronger-sinewed, as if they had been brought to a sharper focus, than American mahogany, which—as in the case of the Queen Anne secretary, with its narrow shape, its dark dense grain, its close-laid shelves above, hooded with a double-loaf top and its close-packed drawers below, diminishing in thickness toward the bottom, its air of having always contained sealed letters and legal papers, all safely and neatly locked away—seemed designed for a tighter, compacter, and more downright civilization; among the late pale autumnal flowers, the roses and the bowl of white cosmos; the white ruffle-bordered curtains against the black of the winter panes and the patches of confused pink and green made by the modest modernist paintings—Magda, Frieda, and Rosamond, themselves in fresh light frocks like the flowers, enchanted me with their loveliness and candor.

They were all very smooth and blond: they had never bobbed their hair, and Frieda and Magda wore theirs brushed abundantly down their backs, like Alice in the Alice books. Rosamond, who was older than the twins, had hers up: it was parted in the middle and tightly wound behind in a blond and young-womanly knot, so that, if one thought only of her hair, she seemed like a young German fräulein (Mrs. Grosbeake was German), whereas, if one thought of her blue eyes, her straight nose, her long oval face and her long and graceful neck, she seemed like an English girl. She served the tea with nice shy manners. Rosamond was dressed in pale blue; and of the twins, Magda wore white, and Frieda, a kind of lilac, with stockings a kind of lavender, lighter than the frock. They seemed rather German than English: they had plump round cheeks and round noses, and were maturely developed for fourteen. Frieda had golden-red hair, which gave a singular effect of richness as it came down over her purple dress; Magda was more heavily built and slower-moving and slower-thinking than her sister: she was the blondest of all—her hair was the palest, purest flaxen I had ever seen.

I liked the English voices of the young Grosbeakes: they had a soft flurried way of speaking, and a maidenly innocence of timbre, quite unlike young American girls (though the twins were beginning already to acquire American slang). "I don't like this kind of crackers," said Magda. "We couldn't get the regular biscuits," Rosamond explained. "The grocer's all out of them,—I'm sorry," she went on seriously to me. "I'm afraid they're not very good!" "You always say 'biscuits,'" said Frieda, "and Magda always says 'crackers.' I think we all ought to say the same thing!" "What do you say?" queried Magda. "Sometimes I say one," said Frieda, "and sometimes I say the other. But I like 'biscuits' best!" "I think these are really crackers," said Rosamond, who did not want my feelings hurt by a discrimination in favor of "biscuits," "because they crackle so when you break them." "That's why I think 'biscuits' is better," insisted Frieda, "—because 'crackers' sounds as if they all crackled—but some biscuits just bend, you know !" "They're not biscuits," said Rosamond. "They're cakes.—Won't you have some more tea?" she urged me. "No," said Frieda, "You know those little soft ones that we had in the country last summer, that you can almost bend in two!" "They were little cakes," said Rosamond.—We heard someone come in at the front door. "There's father," Magda announced.

I could see Grosbeake taking off his black coat and his low-crowned black hat and setting his stick in the stand, before he appeared in the doorway. He had the rounded back of the scholar, a back, indeed, almost humped—of which I always used to feel that the exceptional extent to which it was bowed was an index to the degree of the difficulty of his researches. But Grosbeake, beyond this, had nothing of the physical deficiency—the weak eyes or the feeble figure—ordinarily attributed to the scholar. On the contrary, he seemed to have sprung from some tough ruddy-cheeked English stock which not even a lifetime of universities could enervate or fade. Despite the fineness of his features, he had something of Mr. Pickwick and even something of Mr. Punch. And upon an American who had been living in New York, he produced a curious and gratifying impression: it was as if one were surprised, and rejoiced, after seeing a horde of depersonalized masks, at finding someone who possessed a face. With his cheeks flushed rosy by the cold, his salient nose and chin, his slanting Henry VIII eyes and his look of having been carved by hand out of some very sound kind of wood by a wood-carver of the days before machinery, he gave the impression of being a product, by way of the generations which had preceded him, of a constant hand-to-hand encounter with the turbulence of the elements and with the occasions of human life. He wore black English clothes and his stiff white cuffs were very white: his collar and his cravat, and his white locks which came down over his collar, seemed to me very old-fashioned. He always carried a thickish dark stick, with a brass top of interlocked apes, which a brother had brought him from India.

He greeted me with his charming courtesy and peered up at me with wise and subtle bird-lidded eyes. "I'm sorry," he explained, "not to have been able to be here for tea. But there was a meeting of the examination committee at precisely a quarter to five—something which would be unthinkable in England, you know." He lifted sparse old eyebrows in a smile. "Rather than make the dons miss their tea, they'd allow the examination to be prepared without adequate consultation!—I had proposed holding the meeting in a tea-room, but they didn't seem to care for the suggestion—or to take the hint!" He spoke slowly and very deliberately, and his voice had fine up-and-down inflections of sweetness and irony: his nostrils had inflections, too, and vibrated while he spoke.

"I'll send it back and have it heated," said Rosamond. "No: don't trouble: never mind!" said Grosbeake. He stood before the fire, his hands clasped just above his stomach. "I think we shall have snow," he announced, "I think we shall have snow I—The Dean was very sure we shouldn't—but I believe that we shall!" I remarked that we had had no frost and that the afternoon had been warm. "That was what the Dean pointed out," he replied. "He even insisted on making a bet with me. He bet me a bottle of Scotch whiskey against a bottle of my sherry, I think he'll get the better of the bargain: the sherry is very good: it was given me by a friend in the Embassy, who had the privilege of bringing it in!"

He took the cup of tepid tea from Rosamond and sat down in an arm-chair before the fire. He asked me about myself and what I had been writing. I was ashamed to be obliged to tell him that, even while I had been abroad, I had really not written anything—I said that my literary morale had been low, or something equally silly.

"I was just thinking," he replied, "in the Dean’s room, in looking at the portraits of the college presidents there—that it may be from certain points of view as much of a misfortune to have too much character, too well kept up a morale, as to have too little. When I looked at the early presidents, especially the seventeenth-century ones, I said to myself, 'There are men whose character has been overdeveloped!' It's a very special combination of qualities, you know, that's required for a mind capable of original work. A man mustn't have his character too vigorously developed, because he must be able to experiment with ideas. It's like going to buy a hat, you know—first you try one on and wear it for a bit to see how it goes, and then you try on another. But a man with a strongly developed character is unable to do that. —But, on the other hand, of course, he must still have character enough not simply to drift about without preferring one idea to another,"

Grosbeake had a curious irony, which was always at the same time benign. It was the irony—one sees it seldom—of a mind which is at once innocent and subtle, and which has, in consequence, something divine about it: an irony without malice. He had a touch perhaps of the vanity, or rather, of the dandyism, of the modern mathematical philosopher, who finds himself provided with paradoxes at once so surprising, so attractive and so sound.

But no one could have been farther than Grosbeake from the essential triviality of mind which academic arrogance or complacency so often tries to disguise. He was a sort of modem type of sage, who taught wisdom in casual conversation and virtue only through example. I had felt his influence even in college at a time when I as yet knew nothing of his philosophical ideas. For Grosbeake had the most comprehensive mind, at home in the most varied fields, with which I had ever come into contact. For him philosophy was an attempt to take account of all the aspects of the universe, and to find in them a coherence and a meaning; so that his comment on any subject had a special significance and value, and, despite the fact that he never made an effort to expostulate or convert, was likely to present itself long afterwards as something to be seriously considered in making up one's own mind on the subject. And though he detested every sort of preaching, and though even the study of Ethics was inconceivable to him, he had the effect, more than anyone else I had known, of making moral distinction attractive, I remember his saying once of some student, a student of whose abilities he thought well, but who, as punishment for some escapade, had had his chapel cuts taken away from him so that he couldn't go out of town over Sundays, that it would "do him good," because he would now have to work during the week-ends. "So you do believe in doing people good!" someone present had caught him up. "I thought you didn't believe in that!” “That’s an object," Grospeake had replied, a little taken aback, “which I believe is best promoted directly.”

Mrs. Grosbeake came in before dinner: she was a broad, handsome, placid German woman, thoroughly educated and very practical. One always felt that she was a kind of base upon which Grosbeake's metaphysics rested; for he was more sensitive and nervous than he appeared, and, although intellectually imperturbable, was in other ways easily the disorganized.

We had dinner in the white-walled dining-room—it was a solid and attractive Colonial house. The Grosbeakes had brought over their own silver, as well as their own furniture, and the pieces seemed to me to possess plainly discernible personalities, even physiognomies: there was a squarish silver tea-pot which squatted flat upon the table that jutted straight out from the base and was balanced at the other end by a long straight high-cocked handle. And the cream pitcher, the sauce-boat, and even the little salt-cellars straddled sturdily on three tiny legs, like some sort of blunt-beaked beetles, or rather, it occurred to me tonight, like the and pot-bellied demons of Bruegel and Callot. Even the color and the substance of the food seemed to have a special richness and density, as if they had been painted in a still life: the bread and the boiled potatoes looked particularly firm and white, the mound of currant jelly particularly lucent and red, and the beefsteak particularly vivid in its contrasts of red and brown. The Ambassador's sherry was delicious. In spite, however, of the satisfaction which Grosbeake had seemed to feel in it, his epicurean tastes were really indulged almost exclusively in the things of the intellect, so that I have heard him relish a page of Hume as if it had been a wine, whereas food and drink themselves, as well as other material comforts, he usually disregarded. Now he dominated the table, talking tranquilly and blandly; and in the presence of their father and mother, the three lovely Grosbeakes—unlike young American girls, who usually dominate their parents—were entirely in abeyance, with only an occasional low, rapid exchange between the twins who were sitting together.

"I've been reading Sinclair Lewis's 'Babbitt,'"Grosbeake remarked. I asked him what he thought of it. "Oh, very good," he replied. "Though a little unfair to Babbitt, I think. Of course, I know very little about the American cities of the Middle West—I can't pretend to speak. But from students from the West whom I've had in my courses I get rather a different impression. They're very alert, you know—very eager to learn. And they do well: they grasp things very quickly. So I don't think that the families they come from can be quite so uniformly benighted as Lewis wants us to Believe.

It seems to me rather a mistake, you know, to old the business men up to ridicule for their Rotary Clubs and their fraternal organizations. Under conditions of that kind, where the city is quite new and the people have no institutions, they have to make their own institutions to hold them together and to create a real community. Rotary Clubs and societies of that sort perform a most important role. They might be improved upon, no doubt, but they are very necessary things.

"It seems to me that, from some points of view, the most unfortunate feature of American business is its failure to provide real leaders. Professor Pittinger, who has been making a study of the subject, tells me that it has become impossible, for example, for the president or one of the directors of a large corporation to leave a controlling interest to his son. He can only leave him an investment, and the son can spend the money as he pleases; but he inherits no responsibility and no power, and the surviving officers of the company don't recognize his right to any. That seems to me unfortunate, because where the father has to make his own way, largely without advantages, to a position of importance, the son, who has had the advantages, finds himself with no power. You often find in England that the squire who has lived in the country, and has had to deal at first-hand with his tenants, and with his animals and land, has a far stronger sense of realities than the more enlightened Londoner."

"But he sometimes mistreats his tenants and mismanages his estate abominably," Mrs. Grosbeake interjected.

"If he does," continued Grosbeake, "he knows better what he's doing, nevertheless, than the average Liberal member of Parliament, say, who has the best intentions in the world, but who lives between his club, and certain houses to which he goes, and the House of Commons—always seeing the same people, who are all people of precisely his way of thinking, who are living in precisely the same way—so that he never at any point really comes into contact with realities—and so never really knows what he is talking about. Even Morley was a little like that.

"I wonder whether it mightn't be an advantage, both to the sons of business men and to the businesses themselves, if the second generation could take over some responsibility in connection with their fathers' work. They seem to me very intelligent—so far as I've been able to judge from those I meet in my classes—and the effect on trade and industry of even one generation of such men might, I should think, be enormous. In that event, the Rotary Clubs might become very important institutions—they might provide the moral leadership for business. "

I had so long been taking it for granted that no good could come out of business that this idea of Grosbeake's seemed to me a very queer and foreign one; but I reflected on what he had said.

I always listened with interest and respect to Grosbeake's opinions on American matters. He had studied American affairs with the attention, at once sympathetic and detached, which he applied to everything, and he often succeeded in illumining them with that uncanny divination which he displayed in all sorts of fields quite outside his special province. At that time, it had become the custom for Englishmen who visited America—we encouraged it, of course, ourselves—to edify us with generalizations about American life and institutions—generalizations often based on a round of cocktail parties in New York, or, at most, on a lecture tour. So many of the prizes in America always went to the third and second-rate, that we had become, especially since the War, a paradise for British mediocrities—poets, novelists, and universal critics, who had often great success as lecturers. They went about patronizing the Americans with a gusto and a giddy elation which suggested that they might themselves have been patronized at home; and they would sometimes tour the country from coast to coast and return again and again. It was, therefore, peculiarly gratifying for an American to discover in Grosbeake those qualities of toughness, richness, eccentricity, and independence which one had admired in English literature and history, but of which one had so often been disappointed in the English celebrities who visited us.

After dinner, we sat before the fire. Mrs. Grosbeake seemed to contribute a ground-tone of infinite repose: she made one feel that the body of humanity was invulnerably solid and sound, and that it was deep and contained many treasures which had never been brought to birth. She sat with her feet side by side, resting squarely on the floor, and she wore some sort of leather sandals, with very wide blunt toes. These sandals, like the modernist paintings (which Grosbeake had bought from a former student, in financial difficulties), were one of the odd notes of unconventionality in the tranquil conventional household; and they surprised me in the same unwarranted way as when one found Grosbeake, in certain of his writings, carrying his philosophical principles through morals into the field of political criticism and bringing in an indictment against nationalism or capitalism.

I had never, as an undergraduate, read anything which Grosbeake had written, and I had never taken any of his courses. I had, however, in my senior year, sometimes gone to his house. After meeting him once or twice at teas, I had run into him one day in the hallway of one of the recitation buildings: he had recognized me and had talked to me about an article which I had just written for the college magazine and which had aroused a certain amount of controversy. I had attacked wholesale, as a sinister conspiracy against freedom of action and thought, the policy of the English Department, the administration of the Dean's office, football mass meetings, compulsory chapel, and the custom of compelling freshmen to wear little black caps; and I was surprised and rather embarrassed by Grosbeake expression of friendly interest. I replied almost apologetically—I had been dismayed by the rumpus I had roused—that I seemed to have laid myself open to a good deal of adverse criticism. "Ah, well," Grosbeake had reassured me, "one can't take up any position, can one? without doing that." My complaints had been made in resentment and they had been answered with resentment by the faculty, the alumni, the editors of the college daily, the officers of the athletic association, and some of the more ardent and articulate freshmen, who insisted that they asked nothing better than to pay homage to the college tradition by continuing to wear their little black caps: it had never occurred to me at the time that I was engaged in doing anything so dignified as taking up a position, and I had felt that I must be careful, in the future, to conduct the controversy with more scrupulousness and sobriety that I must remember my intellectual responsibilities. And half my bitterness and indignation against the college authorities was gone at finding an elderly and important professor willing to consider without heat what I had said.

He had invited me then to his house, and I used to go there on Sunday evenings, when the Grosbeakes received faculty and students. I rarely heard him talk about his subject, and did not understand him when he did: I had only the vaguest notion what it was. I figured him as eternally occupied with solving the same sort of problems with which I had struggled in Trigonometry and Permutations and Combinations. I did not know that those strings of puzzles were not the whole of mathematics, but merely multiplied illustrations of general mathematical laws in which no one had attempted to interest us. And still less did I realize that Grosbeake had passed beyond Mathematics proper to Symbolic Logic (it was principally the fact that we had in our faculty another of the small but infatuated band of the students of Symbolic Logic—a man with whom he wished to collaborate—which had brought him to the United States and kept him there so long). I did not know that Symbolic Logic was an attempt to provide a universal language for all the branches of science, and that this attempt to formulate relations common to many departments of thought was itself a deeper expression of the same genius which had given rise to Grosbeake's interest in such varied fields of human activity, and of his extraordinary instinct for tracing their interrelations. Aside from his personal distinction and charm, it was this gift which had fascinated me: he had usually talked to me about literature, but, aside from his appreciation of poetry, plays, and novels as such—which was in itself remarkable—he had also a brilliant faculty for reading into them social and moral history and revealing their philosophic implications.

I had, however, never guessed at Grosbeake's real importance—and indeed his importance outside his special field had never really appeared until a year or two before the War, when he had turned from mathematics to philosophy. When I came to read his books, I was astonished. First of all, Grosbeake’s tone and style in his philosophical writings were not at all what I should have expected. His manner in conversation was rather urbane, dispassionate, and dry: he seemed, as I have said, to approach ideas with a certain epicureanism of the intellect. But his writing had a close tough grain; it was crystalline, in the sense that it gave an effect of the hardness and clarity of crystals rather than of the limpidity of crystal; it had a peculiar earnest-ness and intensity, and a kind of incandescence. But what had surprised me most—I had already had some idea of the universal scope of his mind—were the power of his imagination and the boldness and stoutness of his spirit.

Grosbeake was one of the first modern philosophers really competent to understand the new physics of relativity and quantum theory, who had made an attempt, on the full scale, to trace the consequences of these discoveries for the concepts of general philosophy, and to construct a system which should admit them. This had brought him to a drastic rejection of the philosophical assumptions of old-fashioned mechanistic science.

I had lately been haunted and oppressed by the sense that humanity, after all, was merely another race of animals, whose behavior was fixed by their environment, and by the cells which they had from their parents, and that the earth and all its creatures was only a complicated interaction of hard little particles like bullets. I now learned that it had lately become possible, in the light of scientific research—that it had even become inevitable (though I was far from being able to follow all Grosbeake's arguments) to regard the universe, not as a machine, which had once been wound up and was still running, but as an organism in course of development. The unit was no longer a bullet, but something called an event; and the world was a flux of events. The relativity of time and space and the anomalous behavior of electrons. In undermining the "iron laws" of nature, had opened floodgates of speculation which the ordinary reasonable mind, the kind of mind which respected science without examining its assumptions or attempting to force them to their consequences, had long tended to regard as closed. And despite the surprise and disapproval of other mathematicians who, capable of turning out only one kind of article, prided themselves on sticking to their lasts. Professor Grosbeake had late in his career emerged as a metaphysician.

I wanted to make him talk on this subject, and I inquired vaguely about the congress of a scientific association which he had attended the summer before. He told me briefly of some of its proceedings, then added, after a pause, with his bland and serious irony: "If you want to see the sort of men that the medieval Church must have been made up of, you should study an assemblage of modern scientists. I thought about them last summer that they must be very like the medieval doctors. They're all more or less internationally minded, you know, and they're men of strong character and conviction—and they're all authoritarians: they subscribe to a body of dogma and they won't countenance any heresy. If a scientist has evolved an hypothesis which runs counter to the established hypothesis, they won't give it a serious hearing—if he's performed an experiment, you know, which conflicts with accepted experiments, they refuse to look at it!"—

At this point in the conversation, Magda and Frieda, who had to go to bed, came in to say goodnight. They kissed their mother, who spoke to them in a low voice, but they hesitated about kissing their father—in the midst of solemn discourse and with a visitor present. Magda hung back by her mother's couch, but Frieda cut the knot by dashing forward, diving for his bald brow—I saw her own beautiful hair over her shoulders, like some spilling of gold by the gods—and running abruptly out of the room. "Oh, goodnight, my dear!" said Grosbeake.—"They have never executed anyone," he continued—Magda kissed him on the cheek, more diffidently: "Goodnight, my dear!—But there are other methods of suppression even more expedient and effective; for burning calls attention to the victim."

He talked to me about the book he was writing. All that I had ever learned at college of philosophy had been a conception of the external world as a colorless and soundless wilderness whose true nature one could never know, which one could not even imagine—but which I did, none the less, imagine as a vast landscape of polar spaces in whose eternal twilight one wandered, preoccupied and deluded by a flicker of magic-lantern pictures which danced inside one's mind and forever remained private to oneself. I had now learned, however, from Grosbeake that since, for example, the colors of billiard balls affect the behavior of the players, they must belong as much to reality, to that Nature which was no longer outside one, as the light-waves, which were assumed to have produced them. And it now appeared that Grosbeake admitted as belonging also, to reality those esthetic values which might make us prefer a well painted billiard ball to a badly painted one. And so, finally, he told me, moral values, which he identified with esthetic values, must be equally a part of that reality which he found it impossible to split into two divisions of mind and matter, body and soul.

What astonished me most, however, was that Grosbeake now crowned his system with a new conception of God: he brought God back into the universe of science under what appeared to me at first an unfamiliar form. For Grosbeake's God was as different as possible from the tolerant and moderate Great Spirit, the enlightened parliamentary monarch, of the modern liberal theologian. God, for Grosbeake, was the ultimate harmony implied by the esthetic and moral values of which men were aware in the universe; and our moments of divine revelation were simply those when we realized most vividly the necessity of this harmony and order when we became most acutely conscious of this creative purpose of God. And it was, then, this creative purpose which, in the interest of the ultimate harmony, determined which possibilities, among the infinite possibilities of the constant flux of events, the development of the universal organism, should make themselves actual.

I listened to Grosbeake with excitement. And I was moved by what seemed to me the greatness of his mind and the boldness of his spirit amidst the modesty and mildness of his home.—I mustn't keep him up, then, and tire him: Mrs. Grosbeake had already gone to bed.

I said that I must go, and he got up and brought a bowl of nuts, which we cracked in front of the fire. He told me some Victorian anecdote about Gladstone and Disraeli, whom he always called "Dizzy."

As I finally came out of the warm house into the white-framed glass-sided porch which enclosed the front door, I felt a tinge of crispness in the air, as when the first ice-splinters web a pond, and I caught the chilly fragrance of the roses and the white and daisylike cosmos, which had been set out in vases for the night—and as I took leave of Grosbeake—-gazing out through the glass at the pavement lightly dappled with leaves and the dark grass glittering with wet—my mind bemused with a vision of God as a vast crystal fixing its symmetry from a liquefied universe—I felt a delicious delicacy of iciness, glossy fall-leaf slivers and black rain-glinting glass.

"It's beginning to snow," said Grosbeake. It was true: it was not raining, but snowing. A great flake alighted on my sleeve. "So I win my bet with the Dean," he said. "I shall have his Scotch whiskey and not he my sherry!—You know, the weather's the only subject on which I really regard myself as nearly infallible. It comes from being bred on the Kentish coast—learning about one's weather from the narrow seas! What does Dean Mosely know about the weather?—coming from an inland city, like Indianapolis!"

He came to the outside door and regarded the large flakes with satisfaction, then went on: "Dean Mosely kept insisting that there were none of the signs of snow—and when he came to enumerate them, I saw that it was true: there were none of the signs. But I knew it was going to snow!"

Edmund Wilson

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