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01 Sensitives

Carl von Reichenbach's picture
Submitted by Carl von Reichenbach on Sat, 02/22/2014 - 09:23

I. SENSITIVES

HAVE you never in your life, dear reader, come across people with the strange fancy of disliking everything yellow, and yellow itself as a colour? One would think that a beautiful lemon, a resplendent gold, a fiery orange, was something charming to look at. Where can the feeling of aversion come in? And ask this same class of people what colour they do like, and they will all answer as with one mouth: blue.

Certainly, the azure of the celestial deeps is a sight to do one good. But when evening frames the azure in gold, then surely the beautiful becomes something more than beautiful and merges into the magnificent. Had I to choose between spending the rest of my days in a maize-coloured or a sky-blue room, I should probably, of the two colours named, prefer the yellow; but all the anti-yellowites to whom I have ever said so have always laughed at me, and pitied my taste.

Well now, I invert the question; I ask you to tell me if you have ever met a man who said he could not endure blue. Never, to a certainty. Never has anyone been found who abominated blue. Whence comes it, now, that a certain class of mankind agree in their dislike of yellow, and all agree in their liking for blue?

Colour-physics teach us that yellow and blue stand in a certain mutual relationship: they are complementary colours, occupying as it were opposite poles. Is it possible that underneath this fact something else lies hidden than the mere effect of the colour upon our eyesight? Some more fundamental difference than the mere optical difference of colour familiar to all of us, some difference which escapes our senses? And could there be appropriated to the perception of such a difference a difference also of human faculty, a difference to the effect that some might be able to perceive what is unrecognizable by others? Could there be, so to speak, men with two sorts of senses? That would be a somewhat peculiar state of affairs. Let us try and get further into it.

A girl, we may take it, is well enough pleased to see herself in the looking-glass. And perhaps, also, there are men who take pleasure in the reflection of their own dear selves. And who could begrudge them the pleasure, when a successful copy of God's lair masterpiece smiles back upon them, and awakens anticipatory joy in the conquest which already flushes their cheek? Is there anything in life more glorious or beatific than the beautiful Myself?

How would it be though--and it might really be possible--if there were girls, women, men, who shy of mirrors ? Who turn away and cannot bear to see themselves in one?

In very truth there are such persons. There are men, and not a few in number, who are caused a peculiar feeling of distress by a looking-glass, as though some sickly, repellent emanation came to them from it, so that they cannot stay quiet there for a minute. It is not merely their own portrait that the mirror throws back to them; it returns them also some indescribable, painful sort of impression, which some feel more and others less, while to others it is only just so far perceptible as to leave them with a definite dislike of mirrors. What is this? And what does it come from? Why do some men only experience this feeling of repulsion? Why not all?

No doubt you have often traveled; and so it cannot but be that you have come across people in the mail coach, omnibus or railway-carriage, who with the most aggressive selfishness, wherever they may be, insist on throwing open the carriage windows. Be the weather as bad as may be, blowing a hurricane or as cold as ice, they will show no consideration for their fellow-travelers' rheumatism, but conduct themselves insufferably. You have regarded this as bad form; but I ask you to postpone your judgment a little--at any rate until a few more of my letters have come into your hands. They will succeed, perhaps, in convincing you that, within the confined limits of a “present company,” things whose nature is still unrecognized are wont to happen, things strong enough to be quite irresistible to many of the persons who form that company, while others have not the faintest sense of their existence.

Is it possible that among all your friends you have none whose crank it is never to sit between others in a row, be it at table, in the theatre, in society, or in church, but who always wants the corner-seat for himself, always elects to be fugleman of the file? Take note of him; he is our man; we shall soon come to closer acquaintance with him.

You will be sure to have known ladies who often feel faint in church, though otherwise their health is quite good. You may give them the comer-seat, but even there they will feel faint, and sometimes have to be carried out in a swoon. If you pay any attention to the matter, you will find that it is always the same, that is, only a certain class of persons who are taken this way. They are absolutely incapable of sitting any length of time in the nave of a church without growing faint, and yet they are otherwise healthy people.

Your doctor will tell you that, if you want a good, sound sleep, you must lie on your right side. Do you ever ask him why? If he is an honest man, he will say he does not know. He is ignorant of the cause; but he does know from his varied experience that there are many persons who never can get to sleep when lying on their left side. His patients have often told him that, but what is really at the bottom of the fact is unknown to him.

If you care to go more closely into the matter, you will find out that it is not all men who have to lie on their right in order to get to sleep, and that very many people sleep habitually on their left; you will find, in fact, that there are plenty of people who are quite indifferent as to how they go to sleep, right or left, and to whom a night's repose on the left ear brings just as much refreshment as one on the right. But you will also find that those who cannot sleep on their left, but only on their right, make a minority so subject to this peculiarity as a class that they can lie on their left hour after hour, even half the night long, without getting to sleep, while so soon as they turn round in bed on to their right aide they get off to sleep in a moment. It is certainly a very peculiar thing; but you can observe it in all the countries of Europe.

How many people are there who cannot suppress a feeling of disgust when they make use of a fork of German silver at table, or a fork made of argentan “new silver," Chinese silver, or whatever else such compositions may be called, while others cannot imagine why the compositions should make such a difference from genuine silver as not to be fitted for use on ordinary occasions? How many persons are to be met with who simply could not endure coffee, tea, or chocolate made in a brass kitchen utensil, while most other people would never notice the difference?

How many people, again, have an aversion from hot food, especially overcooked food, from rich dishes also and sweet dishes, and infinitely prefer cold and simple foods, and especially such as are slightly on the side of acidity? No small number among these persons evince so extraordinary a liking for salad that they may be heard to remark that they would give up the rest of the menu for the salad alone. Others are unable to imagine how so unqua1if1ed a preference could exist.

There are some people who simply will not endure having anyone else standing close behind them; they avoid popular gatherings of all sorts, crowds, and markets. Others find it disagreeable to take another by the hand, and absolutely unbearable for anyone else to retain for any length of time the hand they themselves proffer; if they cannot get it free otherwise, they will wrench it away. Then how many people are there not who cannot bear the heat from an iron stove, but feel quite comfortable when it proceeds from one of stonework?

Must I continue? Must I go on enumerating for your hearing hundreds of other such reasons to excite our wonder at the attitude of a certain well- defined class of individuals?

Well, what are we to think of it all? Is it simply a case of imagination and neglected education, or bad habits occasioned, perhaps, by local disturbances of an otherwise healthy equilibrium? It may seem so, of course, to those who only take a superficial view of the matter; and unfortunately such seeming has only too often led people into facts of injustice towards such sensitive persons as those I have described. Were these peculiar phenomena verified only in particular instances, scattered as chance occurrences among different individuals in varying situations, there might perhaps be some justification for regarding them as of small importance. But one remarkable circumstance, which up to the present day has not been considered worthy of attention, sets the matter on quite a different footing: all the peculiarities attributed to these persons are not found in them as individuals, but in every case as in a class.

When you trouble to investigate, you find most, and frequently all. of the peculiarities mentioned in one and the same individual ; but never, not one single time, do you find one only by itself. The foe to 'yellow shuns the looking-glass ; it is the man in the comer-seat who flings the window open; the right-side sleeper is the one who gets faint in church ; the people who are disgusted by brass and German silver like cold and simple eatables and are fastidious over fat and sweets; it is they who are fond of salad, and so on; in every case the whole unbroken series of likes and dislikes is to be found in the same person, from hatred of yellow down to disinclination for sugar, and from fondness for blue down to keen appetite for salad. There is a solidarity uniting all these wonderful peculiarities in their possessor; experience shows this on all sides; whoever has one of the list has, as a rule, all the others too.

The conclusion is clear: there is a connection between them all which cannot be refused recognition; and, if that is so, it can only be because they are all related in turn to a fundamental bond of union, to a hidden secret source, from which they all proceed in common. Now if this source be present in some men and absent in others, it is obvious that, taken from this point of view, there are in effect two classes of men: ordinary men, who have none of, all these faculties of sensibility, and those peculiarly subject to excitation, who are excited in the way already described on every trifling occasion.

The latter class may be called “Sensitives”; for they are, in fact, frequently more sensitive than a mimosa. They are so in the very depths of their nature, a nature they can neither lay aside nor treat with arbitrary violence; and whenever their peculiarities have been taken for cranks and contrariness their feelings have always been hurt by the fact. They have quite enough to suffer without that from our everyday world, which has never hitherto taken any account of them. Their sufferings are the consequence of their hitherto unrecognized peculiarity in the sensory faculty, and they are entitled to more consideration than has hitherto been accorded them. Their number is not small, and we shall soon see how deeply human life. is penetrated by these peculiar factors, of which I have now given you only the most elementary and superficial sketch.