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On the Trail of Charm

ISSUE:  Summer 1925

Charm is one of those large ultimate things, like beauty, love, truth and life, that have a way of reducing to shredded string any verbal net of definition spread for their capture. The makers of dictionaries, struggling with charm, have always come off second best. Even such a magician as Henry James, declared: “it is as indefinable and irresistible as the power of the North for the mariner’s needle.”

Barrie’s more popular definition is no more definite. What Every Woman Knows is that “if you have it, you don’t need to have anything else; and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t much matter what else you have.”

For some years it has been my habit to start a discussion on the nature of charm whenever I find a group of intelligent people. One of the liveliest arose at a Berkshire Music Festival, where a composer called it “the champagne of personality.” A harpist described it as “a physical, mental and spiritual emanation that shoots out of a person and hits you between the eyes.”

A celebrated pianist said nothing, but next day he stalked up to me with an air of mystic triumph, exclaiming: “I have it!”

Profound sensation in the musical world!

“Come quick! B. has solved the mystery of charm!”

Breathless convergence on the oracle.

Approaching his lips to my ear B. murmured: “It’s the je ne sais quoi.”

When this question is raised among average folk, one may be sure of a certain stereotyped response. After every one else has decided he does not know what charm is, the chief male bromidiot present remarks with a fatuous air: “You need only consult the lady on my right.”

The other day an eminent psychologist, after looking in vain through his book shelves, ventured the opinion that people who possessed this quality were of the so-called manic-depressive type. They had the faculty of throwing themselves easily into an ecstatic state which then became infectious. This will not do for me. I cannot find anything pathological about one of the healthiest, sweetest, freshest, most exuberant phenomena in this ailing world.

Others, more naive and more commercial, feel that they have solved the problem. It is they who lend the tang to one of Gibson’s best cartoons. Scene: a drawing room. An old hag with dewlaps holds the spotlight. She is surrounded by men who hang fascinated on her every word. From the background other men are hastening with chairs. Across the room four lovely girls languish. They are quite unmanned and are darting jealous glances at the hag. Underneath one reads: “Satisfactory Result of a Correspondence Course in Personality and Charm Development.”

Though it seemed too good to be true, I thought I would inquire whether there were any such courses in existence. There actually were several. With gratification I learned from the more eloquent of the prospectuses that the acquisition of charm is as easy as slipping into place a newly bought engagement ring,—and it seems that these acts usually take place in the order indicated. You merely have to develop beauty of face, figure and raiment; “conceal any physical defects to good advantage;” solve the mysteries of etiquette; “cultivate power by gentle flattery and an irresistible manner;” go in for self-control; “feel yourself the equal of anybody from the standpoint of birth and society;” excel in outdoor sports; be human; and acquire culture. In a word, you have only to practice “a few simple rules given in the pages of this remarkable course.” The paramount feature of this method, however; the crux of the matter, is :

Mail the Order Blank Today—NOW!

An even better way to find out all about the blue bird of charm is to lure it within your grasp for first-hand observation. Of course an indispensable preliminary is the deposition of salt on its tail,—the salt that never was on sea or land. The difficulties of the chase offer no good reason for abandoning it. Short of the actual laying on of hands, much may be accomplished at the longer ranges with telescope and camera.

Indeed, this timid wild creature’s very impatience of definition stimulates pursuit. Like the other ultimate things, the more you fail to define it, the more worthy it seems of description.

Elusiveness is one of its chief traits. A true Parthian, it functions best in retreat. Flying from you at full speed, it most deftly transfixes your soul with its honeyed darts. Will the most agile and resourceful of psychologists ever outwit those marvelous wings and mount them for the greater glory of madame’s Easter hat?

Is charm a physical thing that requires a spiritual medium to radiate it? Or is it a spiritual thing that needs a physical medium to radiate it?

Obviously it is bound by close ties to the physical. The harpist who felt that it went out of people and hit you between the eyes seemed to be talking sense. I know men and women who can compress appalling quantities of it into a smile or a laugh, and deliver it with somewhat the same effect as a T. N. T. bomb. These are dangerous malefactors of great—if mysterious—wealth. They are the true witches and sorcerers, and will not be allowed at large by the enlightened civilization of the fortieth century.

As is shown by its popular identification with personal “magnetism,” charm has long been thought of in terms of electricity. And of late we have been supposing it an obscure sort of ethereal wave akin to those given out by radium. It may be a human form of radio, each of its possessors being a sending station with an individual wavelength.

Some contend that it is only physical exuberance. But who has not known fragile little old women to show it in an extraordinary degree even on their death beds? And yet, some of the most potent charmers have their power neutralized by every slight physical disturbance. A cold in the head seems to drop a veil over their fascination, like the film a bird lets fall over his eyes when he wishes repose but does not consider it worth his while to go to sleep.

The fact is, charm must not only include, but also transcend magnetism. We have all known intensely magnetic people who fell crudely short of the great gift.

Correspondence courses to the contrary, it has nothing to do with beauty of feature. It has no more in common with lustrous eyes and a quince-bloom complexion than curly hair has in common with technic on the tin whistle.

Hypnotic power and keenness of intuition are usually found in charmers both of snakes and of men. Charles Wesley had so much that whenever he entered a crowd of folk, some would at once fall to the ground, converted. From St. Paul to Billy Sunday, all successful evangelists have possessed this gift in some degree. No one knows exactly where their intuitive and hypnotic power merges into psychic power and identifies itself with “light” and aura. But most men will agree that charm has a distinct psychic quality.

It depends on some sort of inner equipoise, and is always accompanied—whether as cause or effect is not clear—by a quiet self-confidence. Tact also follows in its train. Lewis Hind remarks of John Davidson the poet: “He lacked charm; he lacked persuasiveness; he wanted to storm the heights of fame by a frontal attack; he did not realize that there is always a quieter and subtler way round.”

One element of this intangible thing is sympathy, or the awakening of pleasurable gratitude in another through the feeling that everything done, said, thought or felt is appropriate to him. This factor, in however small proportion, may be found in charm as often as in love, friendship and other aspects of heaven-on-earth. Personal magnetism minus sympathy is to charm what wit is to humor. Can charm be magnetism plus sympathy?

The most charming woman I have ever known is also the most sympathetic. Although once for seven years the first lady of the land, she is entirely unassuming. Literally she never seems to consider herself. And her comprehension and appreciation of others is so complete, so creative, so divinely human, that you always feel thrice your normal self in her presence,—very much as though you had quaffed a large beaker full of “the champagne of personality,” yet with no adverse effects. You feel that this great wine, so fragrant of goodness and beauty, is, in Emerson’s words, “a solvent powerful to reconcile all heterogeneous elements into one society: like air or water, an element of such a great range of affinities that it combines readily with a thousand substances.”

When I am in the presence of this friend, despite her extraordinary beauty and magnetism, I am convinced that nine parts of charm consist of selfless sympathy. Unfortunately this simple faith is usually shattered by the next charmer I happen upon,—likely as not a self-centred and unprincipled scapegrace. For, sad to say, the rascals seem to have almost as much of this quality as the saints.

Association with the former has so embittered a canny Scot I know, that he defines charm as the knack of making the other fellow believe he is the one person who really matters. As such, it is the most exquisite and insidious form of flattery.

Now personally i hold that even consummate flattery stands to charm as the verses of Mrs. Ella Wheeler Wilcox stand to the poetry of Keats. But my Scot’s opinion may at least help to counterbalance the naivete of the Pollyanna school, which holds all charm to be a form of goodness.

The truth is that this protean thing may not be generalized in terms of any virtue or vice. Mrs. May struck a judicial balance:

“Charm is a power,
Charm is a spell,
Charm is enchantment
And sometimes—

For a person’s charm is bound to be dominated by, or at least partake of, his own ruling quality of benignity or malignity, sincerity or falsity, generosity or selfishness. It may be suffused by the pure radiance of Heaven, or lurid with the luminous paint of the Pit. In either case it is one of the most elemental forces we know.

To judge charm subjectively is natural to us all. The humanist will tend to look on it as the most beautiful and admirable and wonderful thing in the world. On the other hand, there is a sort of thin-lipped person whose milk of human kindness has curdled,—the sort that reads a magazine through the lower segments of his bifocal glasses, as though he were laying the entire burden of proof on the magazine. He will belittle or deny charm wherever found, or else attribute it direct to Beelzebub. Of course, one only has to remember Goethe’s magnificent Mephistopheles to recognize that he is occasionally right.

One danger of charm is its power as an intoxicant. You can befuddle your victim with it as efficiently as the old-style advertising solicitor (now happily defunct) who made his customer drunk in order to make him sign. Such transactions are eventually unsatisfactory to both parties.

I know a writer who is seldom out of hot water. He can often walk into a magazine office and hypnotize the editor into ordering vast numbers of articles at a high price, and then and there signing a contract and giving him an advance cheque on account. Then, when that potent aura recedes, the editor, like the prodigal son after the sale of his vesture, comes to himself, curses the power of personality, and rescinds at least half the contract. Here, in striking contrast to the quality of mercy, the quality of charm curseth him that gives and him that takes. The same conditions hold in the spheres of religion, crime, matrimony and social endeavor. All the world is apt to engage itself to the charmer in haste and repent at leisure.

It is a tactical error for him to betray or even develop any self-consciousness of his gift. Though selfishness is not a necessary ingredient of charm, it often develops when a man wakes to the exultant realization that he possesses the mightiest power in the world. Then he often begins to wield it consciously, systematically, blatantly, professionally. This results in selfishness, insincerity, and a consequent hardening of the world’s heart against him. It disgusts people to see a man deliberately turn on the spigot whence this mysterious intoxicant flows. And often, instead of draining the cup, they dash it into the would-be charmer’s face.

With all its faults, however, charm remains well nigh the most fascinating, delicious and powerful thing in the world. It seems an essential for preeminence in any career where a personality has to work directly upon people. Naturally, ,*or engineers, research workers and hermits it is not a necessity. The astronomer and the actuary may struggle along without it. But the thing is indispensable to successful statesmen, evangelists, walking delegates, diplomats, salesmen, advocates, politicians, confidence men, founders of religions, promoters, orators, doctors and kings.

To return to the original question: is charm a hysterical thing animated by a spark of spirit, or a spiritual thing driving through the physical? I believe it is sometimes the one, sometimes the other, and often both in equal measure. And here is an attempt at a definition. Charm is the result of being physically and spiritually so much a part of the life of things that you irresistibly radiate the concentrated essence of all life, and personally exemplify the same laws that whiten the cherry orchards of April, and kindle the volcano, and swing the stars on their courses.


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