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Tea-table Talk Jerome K. Jerome

Chapter II

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"You would look charming anyhow," I murmured with conviction, "even- -"

"I know what you are going to say," interrupted the Woman of the World; "please don't. It's very shocking, and, besides, I don't agree with you. I should have had a thick, coarse skin, with hair all over me and nothing by way of a change."

"I am contending," said the Minor Poet, "that what we choose to call civilisation has done little beyond pandering to our animal desires. Your argument confirms my theory. Your evidence in support of civilisation comes to this--that it can succeed in tickling the appetites of a monkey. You need not have gone back so far. The noble savage of today flings aside his clear spring water to snatch at the missionary's gin. He will even discard his feathers, which at least were picturesque, for a chimney-pot hat innocent of nap. Plaid trousers and cheap champagne follow in due course. Where is the advancement? Civilisation provides us with more luxuries for our bodies. That I grant you. Has it brought us any real improvement that could not have been arrived at sooner by other roads?"

"It has given us Art," said the Girton Girl.

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"When you say 'us,'" replied the Minor Poet, "I presume you are referring to the one person in half a million to whom Art is anything more than a name. Dismissing the countless hordes who have absolutely never heard the word, and confining attention to the few thousands scattered about Europe and America who prate of it, how many of even these do you think it really influences, entering into their lives, refining, broadening them? Watch the faces of the thin but conscientious crowd streaming wearily through our miles of picture galleries and art museums; gaping, with guide-book in hand, at ruined temple or cathedral tower; striving, with the spirit of the martyr, to feel enthusiasm for Old Masters at which, left to themselves, they would enjoy a good laugh--for chipped statues which, uninstructed, they would have mistaken for the damaged stock of a suburban tea-garden. Not more than one in twelve enjoys what he is looking at, and he by no means is bound to be the best of the dozen. Nero was a genuine lover of Art; and in modern times August the Strong, of Saxony, 'the man of sin,' as Carlyle calls him, has left undeniable proof behind him that he was a connoisseur of the first water. One recalls names even still more recent. Are we so sure that Art does elevate?"

"You are talking for the sake of talking," told him the Girton Girl.

"One can talk for the sake of thinking also," reminded her the Minor Poet. "The argument is one that has to be faced. But admitting that Art has been of service to mankind on the whole, that it possesses one-tenth of the soul-forming properties claimed for it in the advertisement--which I take to be a generous estimate--its effect upon the world at large still remains infinitesimal."

"It works down," maintained the Girton Girl. "From the few it spreads to the many."

"The process appears to be somewhat slow," answered the Minor Poet. "The result, for whatever it may be worth, we might have obtained sooner by doing away with the middleman."

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Tea-table Talk
Jerome K. Jerome

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