My young friend, Gregory Doolan, has a very excellent collection of Belloc books. He does not have, however, very many of Belloc's books of essays, none of the "On" books, for example, though he does have a couple of different collections of Belloc's shorter pieces. Normally, I hesitate to borrow a book I genuinely covet, but finally the other evening, without necessarily revealing this darker side of my own otherwise happy nature -- I figure ex-students should be smart enough to have already figured it out -- I did borrow Hilaire Belloc, Stories, Essays, and Poems (London: Dent, 1938). The book Mr. Doolan had was a 1957 hardback, an enlarged reprint copy, the Everyman's Library Edition, with an Introduction by J. B. Morton. On the title page, the book bears the name of "Francis Sample, Cathedral College." I have no idea where Cathedral College might be. Mr. Doolan must have found this collection in a used book store some place. If there is anything I like to see in ex-students of mine, besides their being aware of the darker sides of human nature, including my own, it is a diligence in haunting used book stores.
Two days after I borrowed this book, I took it with me to read on the Washington Metro returning to the Rosslyn Station across the Potomac from Georgetown. The first short piece I read was called "Mrs. Markham on the Police." It was really a funny account of a certain Mrs. Markham talking to her children. One of my Denver cousins in fact is a "Mrs. Markham", but bears no other similarity to this English lady explaining to her children why we have police, even though, in England, they only can use truncheons -- "No, my dear, we (English) do not give them (police) arms because we think it would be cruel and unjust. But we let them have a thick stick called a truncheon, with which they can hit people upon the head as hard as ever they like, to make them obey." You will understand the high metaphysical quality of Belloc's work by the next question Mrs. Markham's son Tommy asks her, "What do they do, Mamma, when, after the policemen have hit and hit and hit with their truncheons, and yet people will not obey?" -- a query worthy of an Augustine.
The second item I read was an essay entitled "The Art of Boring." I must confess almost breaking into tears on the Metro as I read it, so funny it was. I am very conscious of the outlandish effect on other absorbed Metro riders of an elderly gentleman bursting sporadically into laughter while reading an otherwise innocuous book. I still get what are called giggles when I think about it.
What made the essay doubly funny to me, as I read it, was its similarity of thesis to what is known as the Reverse Peter Principle. The Peter Principle, as you recall, states, more or less, that we rise to the level of our incompetence so that, in effect, every job is filled by an incompetent, a principle that, more than others I have seen, helps to explain our current political scene. However, let us suppose that, by manipulating this principle, you are shrewd enough to prevent yourself from rising to the level of your own incompetence. You simply want to stay at a level you are comfortable with. The way you do it is, on the occasion of your being considered to be Department Head or Associate Vice President or District Manager, you manage to do something so outlandish, like, say, suddenly cut off all your hair, or you begin to light your pipe with a sun glass On observing your behaviour, the already incompetents in charge quietly pass you over.
Belloc's "Art of Boring" is not unmindful of and probably was inspired by the famous essay of the Roman Poet Horace on "The Bore" and on how difficult it is to get rid of him. This is where Belloc suggests that what he is talking about, in Latin, is "Ars Taedica" -- taedium means weariness or loathing, hence boring. What is at issue for Belloc is not whether you yourself are boring to others, but whether you can deliberately be boring to others, either to pay them back or to accomplish some other worthy purpose -- hence the similarity to the Reverse Peter Principle.
"The Art of Boring" is a handbook on how to go about boring other people. Belloc tells us that many books and essays are written complaining of bores, but he recalls none to tell us how to acquire this useful art. Many bores, of course, are unconscious of the quality of their ability to bore other people to death. But positively to choose to bore, you must practice and have some skill. There are rules for boring others.
First you have to recognize the signs that the phenomenon is present. "The first sign is an attention in the eye of the bored person to something trivial other than yourself." You will notice the genius of Belloc's writing when you try to ask whether the pronoun "yourself" here was deliberately intended to refer also to "something trivial." To make his point, Belloc remarks that "if while you are talking to him his eye is directed to a person aiming a gun at him, that is not a sign of boredom." On the other hand, if his eye is caught by a "little bird" or "a passing cloud", this is a sign that he is bored with you. Two other signs of boredom are 1) when the other keeps interspersing interjections that have nothing to do with what you are talking about, and 2) when the bored person suddenly begins to talk to someone else in the midst of your discourse with him.
Just as any topic can be made boring, so can any topic be made interesting. The trick is to know how to make something vitally interesting dull. One way is the monotonous tone of your voice. A second way is to bring in a lot of useless detail and to branch off into all directions. Belloc gives the following example of hesitating over a date as a brilliant way for someone who wants to bore another to proceed: "'It was in July 1921 -- no, now I come to think of it, it must have been 1920, because --' (then tell them why it must have been 1920). 'No, now I think of it, it must have been 1921' (then tell them why it was 1921) -- 'or was it 1922? Anyway, it was July, and the year doesn't matter; the whole point is the month.'" Belloc calls this simply "a capital beginning, especially the last words, which indicate to the bored one that you have deliberately wasted his time to no purpose."
We make the same boring approach with a name, or by introducing many superfluous words and adjectives. Moral and artistic digressions are also helpful in boring someone to death. Belloc's reasonings here are enormously amusing: "Stop in the middle of the thing and add to the agony by explaining that you don't mind a man's getting drunk, or that you do mind it, or that you have no objections to such building as you are describing, or what not: for your private opinions in art and morals are the most exquisitely boring things in he world and you can't bring them up too much." A particularly fine way to bore someone else, Belloc adds, is to forget the end of a story you are telling. You could also led your listener up to a major question and ask eloquently, "What do you think to be the answer?" Then you forget the answer.
Belloc addresses the case of people who are adept at recognizing our boringness so that they try to defend themselves against it. It takes considerable skill on the part of the borer to defeat this sort of counter-attack by the boree. Suppose the borer is speaking dryly and at length of Rio to the bored listener. The latter fights back by announcing that he too knows Rio. He then starts giving back what he knows to the borer. How does the one intending to bore deflect such a one approach? Two ways are open. One is to complain that you are being interrupted. The other is to wait till the other's knowledge of Rio is exhausted, then continue right on as before.
A skilled defender against a boring person can also try this: he can wait patiently till the borer (who, remember, is deliberately trying to bore) finishes his point. The bored man can wait a moment and then ask the bore to go on, as if he had not known the boring story was finished. The proper way to defend against this defence, Belloc thinks, is for the one inflicting the boring story simply to repeat it.
If the boree tries to walk away from the borer, it will often work, but this is a sign of defeat. The borer's proper response, and it takes a brave man to do this, is to follow the bored man walking away, corner him, and continue with the boring story as if nothing has happened.
Belloc gives two fine points about how to be boring. The first is to put long pauses into one's conversations and dare the other to break it. Just as the boree is about to interrupt, recommence the boring story. "The other way is talking half incomprehensibly, mumbling, and the rest of it -- then, when the boree impatiently asks you to repeat, do it still less clearly." This method, Belloc adds, "never fails."
In the end, Belloc thinks that this fine art of boring others (ars taedica) probably cannot be learned with rules and precepts. Then he adds, with exquisite irony in the light of all that he has said about names and dates, "perhaps I have written in vain." That is to say, in setting out deliberately to bore us with an essay on "the art of boring," he has in fact delighted us by reminding us how utterly boring we can be.
From Generally Speaking, November, 1997.
Schall on Belloc James V. Schall, S. J.