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ON NOVELTY AND FAMILIARITY.
“ Horatio. Custom hath made it in him a property of ea
siness. Hamlet. 'Tis e'en so: the hand of little employment hath
the daintier sense."
Shakespear represents his Grave-digger as singing while he is occupied in his usual task of flinging the skulls out of the earth with his spade. On this he takes occasion to remark,
. through one of his speakers, the effect of habit in blunting our sensibility to what is painful or disgusting in itself. “ Custom hath made it a property of easiness in him.” To which the other is made to reply in substance, that those who have the least to do have the finest feelings generally. The minds and bodies of those who are enervated by luxury and ease, and who have not had to encounter the wear-and-tear of life, present a soft, unresisting surface to outward impressions, and are endued with a greater degree of susceptibility to pleasure and pain. Habit in most cases hardens and encrusts, by taking away the keener edge of our sensations : Second Series. VOL. II.
but does it not in others quicken and refine, by giving a mechanical facility, and by engrafting an acquired sense? Habit may be said in technical language to add to our irritability and lessen our sensibility, or to sharpen our active perceptions, and deaden our passive ones. Practice makes perfect-experience makes us wise, The one refers to what we have to do, the other to what we feel. I will endeavour to explain the distinction, and to give some examples in each kind.
Clowns, servants, and common labourers have, it is true, hard and coarse hands, because they are accustomed to hard and coarse employments; but mechanics, artizans, and artists of various descriptions, who are as constantly employed, though on works demanding greater skill and exactness, acquire à proportionable nicety and discrimination of tact with practice and unremitted application. A working jeweller can perceive slight distinctions of surface, and make the smallest incisions in the hardest substances from mere practice: a woollen-draper perceives the different degrees of the fineness in cloth, on the same principle ; a watch-maker will insert a great bony fist, and perform the nicest operations among the springs aad wheels of a complicated and curious machinery, where the soft delicate hand of a woman or a child would make nothing but blunders. Again, a blind man shews a prodigious sagacity in hearing and almost feeling objects at a distance from him. His other senses acquire an almost .
preternatural quickness from the necessity of recurring to them oftener, and relying on them more implicitly, in consequence of the privation of sight. The musician distinguishes tones and notes, the painter expressions and colours, from constant habit and unwearied attention, that are quite lost upon the common observer. The critic discovers beauties in a poem, the poet features in nature, that are generally overlooked by those who have not employed their imaginations or understandings on these particular studies. Whatever art or science we devote ourselves to, we grow more perfect in with time and practice. The range of our perceptions is at once enlarged and refined. But—there lies the question that must “ give us pause”—is the pleasure increased in proportion to our habitual and critical discernment, or does not our familiarity with nature, with science, and with art, breed an indifference for those objects we are most conversant with and most masters of? I am afraid the answer, if an honest one, must be on the
, unfavourable side; and that from the moment that we can be said to understand any subject thoroughly, or can execute any art skilfully, our pleasure in it will be found to be on the decline. No doubt, that with the opening of every new inlet of ideas, there is unfolded a new source of pleasure; but this does not last much longer than the first discovery we make of this terra incagnital; and with the closing up of
every avenue of novelty, of curiosity, and of mystery, there is an end also of our transport, our wonder, and our delight; or it is converted into a very sober, rational, and household sort of satisfaction.
There is a craving after information, as there is after food; and it is in supplying the void, in satisfying the appetite, that the pleasure in both cases chiefly consists. When the uneasy want is removed, both the pleasure and the pain cease. So in the acquisition of knowledge or of skill, it is the transition from perplexity and helplessness, that relieves and delights us; it is the surprise occasioned by the unfolding of some new aspect of nature, that fills our eyes with tears and our hearts with joy; it is the fear of not succeeding, that makes success so welcome, and a giddy uncertainty about the extent of our acquisitions, that makes us drunk with unexpected possession. We are happy not in the total amount of our knowledge, but in the last addition we have made to it, in the removal of some obstacle, in the drawing aside of some