Page images

not well be imagined, that, in doing so, he conceives himself to be projected from his own hand, and rolling along the ground like the object about which his thoughts are so strongly engrossed. Such, however, is his anxious solicitude about the event, that he cannot restrain his body from following, in its movements, the direction of his wishes ; nor can he help fancying, while the event is yet in suspense, that it is in his power to forward it by a verbal expression of his wish, or even by a mental expression of his will. Hence it is, that when the bowl takes a wrong bias, he is apt to address it, as if it could listen to, or obey his voice ;-his body, in the mean time, not, as before, accompanying the motion of the bowl, but eagerly bending to the opposite side of the mark.* The sympathetic movements of the spectator, in the case of the rope-dancer, seem to me to be strikingly analogous to this; due allowance being made for the more lively interest we take in the critical fate of a fellow-creature, than in the fortunate issue of a trifling game of skill; although, I frankly acknowledge, at the same time, that in neither the one instance nor the other, am I able to account for the phenomena completely to my own satisfaction. Something, I think, must unquestionably be referred to the principle of sympathetic imitation ;—at least, in the case of the ropedancer, so long as the movements of the spectator corresponds with what he sees;—and, even when he strives, as frequently happens, to correct, by a contrary effort, a false movement of the performer, the effect may, perhaps, be still resolved into the same principle, the event conceived and wished for then impressing the mind more forcibly than what is actually presented to the senses; and, of consequence, the imitation being directed, not to a real, but to an ideal object.

* We seem, in this case, to have a momentary belief that the bowl is animated ; similar to what we experience when a paroxysm of rage leads us to wreck our vengeance on a stick or a stone, or any thing else confessedly insentient. In both instances, the animal or instinctive principles of our nature acquiring a momentary ascendancy over the rational, we relapse for a time into the habitual conceptions of our infant years. A dog, in like manner, while he sees the bowl rolling along the ground, seldom fails to pursue it with eagerness, as if it were his natural prey, barking or howling till he overtakes it, and then attempting to seize it with his mouth and with his feet.

Before concluding these general remarks on our propensity to imitation, it may be worth while to add, that it is not confined exclusively to the rational nature. The imitative powers of several sorts of birds are sufficiently evinced by the astonishing command they display over those muscles of the throat on which the voice depends; and the variety of forms in which the same powers appear in the tribe of monkeys, is surpassed only by the exhibitions of the human mimic.

I have mentioned this last fact, because much stress has been laid on it by those writers who are anxious to refer all the intellectual superiority acquired by man over the brutes, to the peculiarities of his bodily organization. To such writers, the combination which exists, in the monkey, of a resemblance to the human structure, and of that propensity to imitation which is so intimately connected with our intellectual improvement, could not fail to appear a very plausible presumption in favor of their theory. But on a closer attention to the fact, this very tribe of animals, which has been so often quoted, in order to mortify the pride of our species, furnishes the strongest of all arguments in proof of an essential distinction between our nature and theirs; inasmuch as they show, that neither an approach to the human figure, nor yet the use of the hand, nor yet the faculty of imitation, (which are all of such inestimable value when under the direction of a superior intellect,) can confer on them one solid advantage, or even raise them to a level with the more sagacious of the quadrupeds.


Of the Power of Imitation.

The observations hitherto made on the principle of Sympathetic Imitation relate chiefly to our propensity or proneness to imitate; a circumstance in human nature which has been remarked and illustrated by different writers, both ancient and modern. The power by which

the imitation is, in certain cases, accomplished, although a subject not less interesting than the corresponding propensity, has not yet, as far as I know, attracted the notice of any philosopher whatever.

It was before observed, that the powers of imitation displayed, in so extraordinary a degree by the mimic, seem to be only a continuation of capacities possessed by all men in the first years of their existence; but which, in most individuals, are, in a great measure, lost from disuse, soon after the period of infancy. The consideration, therefore, of some circumstances connected with this peculiar talent, may perhaps throw light on the general or common principles of the human frame.

When a mimic attempts to copy the countenance of a person whom he never saw before, what are the means which he employs in order to effectuate his purpose ? Shall we suppose that his efforts are merely tentative and experimental; or, in other words, that he tries successively every possible modification of his features, till he finds, at last, by the information of a mirror, that he has succeeded in the imitation of the original ? Nobody can, for a moment, believe this to be the case, who has attended in the slightest degree to the subject. On the contrary, it is a fact universally known, that the imitation is often perfectly successful in the very first trial; and that it is not from a mirror, but from his own internal consciousnes, that the mimic judges of its correctness. I acknowledge, at the same time, that the fact is sometimes otherwise, and that instances occur, in which the best mimics are found to make many successive efforts before they accomplish their end ; or in which, after all their efforts, the attempt proves ultimately abortive. But it will not be disputed that the former statement holds in general, where the propensity to mimickry is strong; and even where exceptions take place, there is commonly, from the first, such an approximation to the resemblance aimed at, as sufficiently demonstrates, that, how much soever experience may be useful in finishing the portrait, the most important part of the process must be referred to causes of a different description.

The fact seems to be perfectly similar with respect to the imitation of sounds. A good mimic is able, the first time he hears another person speak, to exhibit, on the spot, an exact copy or fac simile of what he has heard, with all the peculiarities of tone and accent which accompany it; and even when he fails in the attempt, he commonly approaches very nearly to the original which he copies. A child of a good ear, and a flexible voice, catches almost instantaneously any simple air which he hears; or, at least succeeds after a very few trials. The approximation, in such cases, it is of great importance to remark, is a thing not less wonderful than if the copy were perfect, and proves not less forcibly, that in those imitative efforts, we are not guided by experience alone.

I am disposed to lay peculiar stress on this last consideration, because superficial inquirers, in their zeal to explain away the phenomena commonly ascribed to inSTINCT, have, of late, been strangely led to conclude, that wherever experience can be shown to have any share in directing our actions, it is idle to have recourse to the operation of any other cause. In this way, it is

very easy matter to establish their doctrine, because, in general, Nature has done nothing more, either for man, or for the lower animals, than was absolutely necessary for enabling them to turn their experience to account, seldom giving a perfectly precise determination to their efforts, but invariably performing for both, the essential office which Lord Bacon would have called the Abscisio Infiniti ; * and confining their experiments within such narrow limits as are suited to their respective capacities. Thus the lamb, although the moment after it is dropped, it is guided by nature, (probably through the medium of the sense of smelling) to the neighbourhood of that organ where its nourishment is to be found, rarely, if ever, fixes, till after repeated trials, on one of the teats. An ear for music, in our own species, is unquestionably, in a very great measure, the


An expression which Bacon applies to some of the expedients in the art of Technical Memory.

gift of nature ; yet, where such a capacity exists, how wonderfully may it be improved by culture! Something analogous to this seems to take place in the act of bodily imitation, nature directing our efforts near the mark, and leaving the task of hitting it with precision to our own industry. In such cases, the most interesting problem for the examination of the philosopher, is not, whether experience does not contribute something to render the operations of instinct effectual, (a point about which, in general, there can be little doubt,) but whether experience is of itself sufficient to explain the whole difficulty,—a question upon which I am inclined to think, that they who have considered the subject the most deeply, will be the slowest to pronounce a decided opinion in the affirmative. The prosecution of this hint would lead me to the consideration of a most important distinction among our instincts, according as they are pure or mixed; but this argument more properly belongs to another part of my general design.

Nor is there any thing in the instinctive process, which I suppose to take place in this instance, more astonishing than what we experience in every voluntary motion of the body. I will to move my arm, and the requisite machinery is instantly arranged and put in action for the purpose. All that I think of is a particular end. The means by which it is accomplished are neither combined by my reason, nor are they subjected to my scrutiny. The mimic, in like manner, when he attempts to imitate the countenance of another, conceives strongly in his mind the portrait he wishes to exhibit. He thinks only of the end; and a few efforts to accomplish it conduct him by a process which philosophy cannot explain, to the effect which he aims at. In the latter of these instances, the effect, from being more complicated, and from the comparative rarity of the talent on which it depends, may, at first, strike us with greater surprise ; but that it is, in reality, an effect of the same kind with those which every voluntary movement of our limbs presents to our notice, will appear on a very slight comparison of the two phe


« PreviousContinue »