THE ATTRACTION OF THE REPULSIVE

by Charles Dudley Warner

On one of the most charming of the many wonderfully picturesque little beaches on the Pacific coast, near Monterey, is the idlest if not the most disagreeable social group in the world. Just off the shore, farther than a stone's-throw, lies a mass of broken rocks. The surf comes leaping and laughing in, sending up, above the curving green breakers and crests of foam, jets and spirals of water which flash like silver fountains in the sunlight. These islets of rocks are the homes of the sea-lion. This loafer of the coast congregates here by the thousand. Sometimes the rocks are quite covered, the smooth rounded surface of the larger one presenting the appearance at a distance of a knoll dotted with dirty sheep. There is generally a select knot of a dozen floating about in the still water under the lee of the rock, bobbing up their tails and flippers very much as black driftwood might heave about in the tide. During certain parts of the day members of this community are off fishing in deep water; but what they like best to do is to crawl up on the rocks and grunt and bellow, or go to sleep in the sun. Some of them lie half in water, their tails floating and their ungainly heads wagging. These uneasy ones are always wriggling out or plunging in. Some crawl to the tops of the rocks and lie like gunny bags stuffed with meal, or they repose on the broken surfaces like masses of jelly. When they are all at home the rocks have not room for them, and they crawl on and over each other, and lie like piles of undressed pork. In the water they are black, but when they are dry in the sun the skin becomes a dirty light brown. Many of them are huge fellows, with a body as big as an ox. In the water they are repulsively graceful; on the rocks they are as ungainly as boneless cows, or hogs that have lost their shape in prosperity. Summer and winter (and it is almost always summer on this coast) these beasts, which are well fitted neither for land nor water, spend their time in absolute indolence, except when they are compelled to cruise around in the deep water for food. They are of no use to anybody, either for their skin or their flesh. Nothing could be more thoroughly disgusting and uncanny than they are, and yet nothing more fascinating. One can watch them?the irresponsible, formless lumps of intelligent flesh?for hours without tiring. I scarcely know what the fascination is. A small seal playing by himself near the shore, floating on and diving under the breakers, is not so very disagreeable, especially if he comes so near that you can see his pathetic eyes; but these brutes in this perpetual summer resort are disgustingly attractive. Nearly everything about them, including their voice, is repulsive. Perhaps it is the absolute idleness of the community that makes it so interesting. To fish, to swim, to snooze on the rocks, that is all, for ever and ever. No past, no future. A society that lives for the laziest sort of pleasure. If they were rich, what more could they have? Is not this the ideal of a watering-place life?

The spectacle of this happy community ought to teach us humility and charity in judgment. Perhaps the philosophy of its attractiveness lies deeper than its 'dolce far niente' existence. We may never have considered the attraction for us of the disagreeable, the positive fascination of the uncommonly ugly. The repulsive fascination of the loathly serpent or dragon for women can hardly be explained on theological grounds. Some cranks have maintained that the theory of gravitation alone does not explain the universe, that repulsion is as necessary as attraction in our economy. This may apply to society. We are all charmed with the luxuriance of a semi-tropical landscape, so violently charmed that we become in time tired of its overpowering bloom and color. But what is the charm of the wide, treeless desert, the leagues of sand and burnt-up chaparral, the distant savage, fantastic mountains, the dry desolation as of a world burnt out? It is not contrast altogether. For this illimitable waste has its own charm; and again and again, when we come to a world of vegetation, where the vision is shut in by beauty, we shall have an irrepressible longing for these wind-swept plains as wide as the sea, with the ashy and pink horizons. We shall long to be weary of it all again?its vast nakedness, its shimmering heat, its cold, star-studded nights. It seems paradoxical, but it is probably true, that a society composed altogether of agreeable people would become a terrible bore. We are a "kittle" lot, and hard to please for long. We know how it is in the matter of climate. Why is it that the masses of the human race live in the most disagreeable climates to be found on the globe, subject to extremes of heat and cold, sudden and unprovoked changes, frosts, fogs, malarias? In such regions they congregate, and seem to like the vicissitudes, to like the excitement of the struggle with the weather and the patent medicines to keep alive. They hate the agreeable monotony of one genial day following another the year through. They praise this monotony, all literature is full of it; people always say they are in search of the equable climate; but they continue to live, nevertheless, or try to live, in the least equable; and if they can find one spot more disagreeable than another there they build a big city. If man could make his ideal climate he would probably be dissatisfied with it in a month. The effect of climate upon disposition and upon manners needs to be considered some day; but we are now only trying to understand the attractiveness of the disagreeable. There must be some reason for it; and that would explain a social phenomenon, why there are so many unattractive people, and why the attractive readers of these essays could not get on without them.

The writer of this once traveled for days with an intelligent curmudgeon, who made himself at all points as prickly as the porcupine. There was no getting on with him. And yet when he dropped out of the party he was sorely missed. He was more attractively repulsive than the sea-lion. It was such a luxury to hate him. He was such a counter-irritant, such a stimulant; such a flavor he gave to life. We are always on the lookout for the odd, the eccentric, the whimsical. We pretend that we like the orderly, the beautiful, the pleasant. We can find them anywhere?the little bits of scenery that please the eye, the pleasant households, the group of delightful people. Why travel, then? We want the abnormal, the strong, the ugly, the unusual at least. We wish to be startled and stirred up and repelled. And we ought to be more thankful than we are that there are so many desolate and wearisome and fantastic places, and so many tiresome and unattractive people in this lovely world.