“On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places,” Advice from R. L. Stevenson
This essay by Stevenson is one of the great refuges that literature offers to humanity.
Robert Louis Stevenson achieved such fame with some of his novels, above all Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that they eclipsed his work as an essayist. He was one of the greatest essayists in the English language however and in this genre is the most original part of his work and which provides a real refuge for the reader.
In general, pessimists are people born in comfortable circumstances and who enjoy excellent health (let’s think of Schopenhauer, for example); but optimism often emerges like a lotus in a swamp. Stevenson is a magnificent example of the latter. Having glimpsed the depths of melancholy and sadness, his buoyant optimism was based on an experience of chronic physical pain that accompanied him all his life. He was an optimist of the rarest species: grinning and mysterious. Perhaps the fact of contemplating his courage and good humor is so extraordinary because they reveal the unconscious of one of the most beautiful spirits in literature.
His essay “On the enjoyment of unpleasant places” admirably illuminates that joy, paradoxical and fresh, that it is impossible to not infect the reader to find beauty where climatic or aesthetic adversity is the order of the day. As the writer and critic William Lyon Phelps wrote in his introduction to Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson, “One feels ashamed of cowardice and petty irritation after witnessing the steady courage of this man.”
Stevenson inspires us to question how dependent we are on what we see and, at the same time, how much of what we see is dependent on us.
It is a difficult matter to make the most of any given place, and we have much in our own power. Things looked at patiently from one side after another generally end by showing a side that is beautiful.
At the time of writing the essay, Stevenson had read in the newspapers about the theory of “austere regimen in scenery” as a healthy practice that reinforced good taste. Based on that, he developed a thesis on the crucial training that the spirit would have to undergo when it must “provoke beauty” where it is not evident.
This discipline in scenery, it must be understood, is something more than a mere walk before breakfast to whet the appetite. For when we are put down in some unsightly neighborhood, and especially if we have come to be more or less dependent on what we see, we must set ourselves to hunt out beautiful things with all the ardour and patience of a botanist after a rare plant. Day by day we perfect ourselves in the art of seeing nature more favourably. We learn to live with her, as people learn to live with fretful or violent spouses: to dwell lovingly on what is good, and shut our eyes against all that is bleak or inharmonious. We learn, also, to come to each place in the right spirit.
Stevenson reminds us that all travelers weave something of what they see and they suffer during the journey, and that we are an unpredictable equation in the ultimate character of our surroundings. If we tell, then, the appropriate story, we convert the landscape into what we want it to be. “We see places through our humours,” he says.
Nor does the scenery any more affect the thoughts than the thoughts affect the scenery. We see places through our humours as though differently colored glasses. We are ourselves a term in the equation, a note of the chord, and make discord or harmony almost at will. There is no fear for the result, if we can but surrender ourselves sufficiently to the country that surrounds and follows us, so that we are ever thinking suitable thoughts or telling ourselves some suitable sort of story as we go. We become thus, in some sense, a centre of beauty; we are provocative of beauty, much as a gentle and sincere character is provocative of sincerity and gentleness in others.
And even where there is no harmony to be elicited by the quickest and most obedient of spirits, we may still embellish a place with some attraction of romance. We may learn to go far afield for associations, and handle them lightly when we have found them.
Perhaps the latter is what the majority of us forget most: we have the resources to beautify any circumstances and place, as inhospitable as it may be. We can convert ourselves into the will and the center of beauty, but the key is precisely in finding that willingness to “spy” on the world and discover its jewels.
None of us are able to permanently live in gardens or urban utopias, but we have developed such a dependence on what we see that “On the enjoyment of unpleasant places” becomes “an art of living,” a guide on how to re-enchant a disenchanted world. We are “provocateurs of beauty,” Stevenson says. All we have to do is train ourselves as detectives, be botanists of that rare species that is ensconced among the common species.
A man’s fancies grow lighter as he comes out of the wood into a clearing.
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