Monday, 4 July 2016

"Sights and Monsters" - An Understanding


This essay, Sights and Monsters, is taken from a collection – The Citizen of the World. In 1760, Goldsmith began to publish a series of letter in the “Public Ledger” under the title The Citizen of the World. Supposedly written by a Chinese traveller in England by the name of Lien Chi, they used this fictional outsider’s perspective to comment ironically and at times moralistically on British society and manners.

Goldsmith, in the voice of a Chinese traveller, tells the readers about the several sources that cause people to react are indeed ironical and this inspires their civility. Here, the English prefer the traveller to be a source of “wonder” and not a mere “entertainment”. He puts forth to the readers quite a few instances that explain the curiosity and the interest that the English have developed for the strange and unusual. The first narration is a story of a person who exhibits himself as a “wax-work”. This person made his living by simply standing like a statue – motionless and lifeless. The business was a real hit, only if it was not for his involuntary fit of sneezing which “brought him to life” and ruined his business.

He then chose to paint his face replicating an Indian King, also imitating the King’s “howl” – with this he frightened several ladies and children, and made his living anew. But he was in a huge debt because of his earlier business as a wax statue. Consequently, his next choice was to paste “mummies”, and had sold seven petrified lobsters to a noted collector; thus, made his living a fairly sufficient one. His last wonder was nothing more than a “halter” (a hangman’s noose). The rope was made using silk threads and was also intermixed with gold. The writer sarcastically points out at people’s behaviour, saying that they had come to see the designed rope and not the capital punishment. Such was the attitude of people, where they paid in order to amuse themselves unusually.

The English wanted to see and admire things which were indifferent in its portrayal, and they rejected those that appeared to be in its original, unaltered form. Goldsmith gives an example of a woman who worked considerably well with the needle, but was not employed anywhere. After having met with an accident and lost her hands, cut off from the elbows, the woman became famous enough and also made a living as people paid to see a “Mantuna-maker who wrought (worked) without hands”. Goldsmith further narrates a story of how a painter had made a painting which was inferior in rank of art but had received good credits – for the painter drew the whole picture with his foot, he held the pencil between his toes. The traveller ended up buying this painting for a heavy price, and not for the art-sake but for the way it was made.

Goldsmith then mentions how a young author, a man of good-nature and learning, was unable to make a proper career. While, someone else, with even less or rather no knowledge at all, who had learned to “whistle double”, was rewarded, applauded and caressed. People from the east could certainly make their living, for their practices and culture is something that could be ‘wondered at’. One such would be the looking-glass (mirror) of Lao, which reflects the mind as well as the body. It is said that the Chinese ruler, Emperor Chusi, used to make his ladies dress their heads and their hearts in one of these glasses every morning; while the lady was at her toilet, he would frequently look over her shoulder; and it is recorded that not one was found whose mind was not even more beautiful than her person. The traveller relates this with the English ladies, but should one ever peep over a lady while dressing, one might not find gaming or ill-nature; neither pride, seduction from duty, nor a love of pleasure. Ironically, these ladies would find greater pleasure in this very utensil than in anything else.

Thus, Goldsmith, in the words of a Chinese traveller, has tried to critique the oddness of the ways of the English, that anything normal would be seen as dull and uninteresting, while the strange and the grotesque (ridiculous) would kindle their curiosities. Since, this observations are made in the name of an outsider’s perspective, the essay carries striking wit and humour, for the ways of the English seem to be sarcastically commented upon.



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