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The Duel of Dr. Hirsch

Dr Hirsch, though born in France and covered with the most triumphant favours of French education, was temperamentally of another type – mild, dreamy, humane; and, despite his sceptical system, not devoid of transcendentalism. He was, in short, more like a German than a Frenchman; and much as they admired him, something in the subconsciousness of these Gauls was irritated at his pleading for peace in so peaceful a manner. To their party throughout Europe, however, Paul Hirsch was a saint of science. His large and daring cosmic theories advertised his austere life and innocent, if somewhat frigid, morality; he held something of the position of Darwin doubled with the position of Tolstoy. But he was neither an anarchist nor an antipatriot; his views on disarmament were moderate and evolutionary – the Republican Government put considerable confidence in him as to various chemical improvements. He had lately even discovered a noiseless explosive, the secret of which the Government was carefully guarding.

It is not without merit to wonder about the humanities and their value to a modern education; what is without merit is to wonder about doing away with them. Humanities, so poor a choice of words that it is trumped in this poverty only by nebulous gangs calling themselves "humanists," has very little to do with being human. Most properly it has to do with things that are not human – gods, arts, theories, impressions, and speculations. We earthfast apes are constructed of none of these; in fact, science, in its endless altruism, an altruism that resembles the endless black holes it worships, continues to inform us that we are hewn of flesh, bone, liquid, and some other, more delicate substances. At some point, perhaps through the end of the seventeenth or eighteenth century, there lived a type of man who could aggregate all fields of knowledge into some constellation of our thinking; who could blend and break all necessary components into what we may not inaccurately term a world-view. Alas, science has done away with the generalist and replaced him with a horde of specialists who know better than anyone about the breathing patterns of field mice and the varying palpability of seaweed. And while we may rightly mourn the loss of such paragons of excellence, we can instead celebrate the small – indeed the microscopic or atomic. Which brings us to this famous tale.   

Dr. Hirsch has already been described in the paragraph beginning this review, so only a little more about him should be mentioned. As a "scientist, publicist, and a moralist," he may be safely pigeonholed as a pedantic glory hound with an advanced degree in applied mathematics; but let us not get ahead of ourselves and, more importantly, of Dr. Hirsch. Like other would-be demagogues, Dr. Hirsch's most telltale qualities are best reflected in his acolytes, in this case, a certain Monsieur Brun and another, no less certain, Monsieur Armagnac:

They were both short, brisk and bold. They both had black beards that did not seem to belong to their faces, after the strange French fashion which makes real hair look like artificial. M. Brun had a dark wedge of beard apparently affixed under his lower lip. M. Armagnac, by way of a change, had two beards; one sticking out from each corner of his emphatic chin. They were both young. They were both atheists, with a depressing fixity of outlook but great mobility of exposition. 

Since this tale was composed precisely one century ago, right before Europe raged against itself in the most hideous internecine that continent had faced in the Christian era (only to be outdone by even greater strife, but we are, again, laps ahead of the competition), it is here that we call upon the modern reader to extrapolate this pithy portrait to the current day. Transpose their beards to the tops of their heads with equal vim: the age is still young; the belief is still nothingness upon nothingness; the outlook is still rigid, morbid, and vapid; and the exposition is most definitely mobile, because their lives will be as short, brisk, and bold as their gaits (and for that "horrible green absinthe, which they could drink apparently in any weather and at any time," you may substitute another green intoxicant, not drunk). That Monsieur Armagnac adheres to a militarized form of pacifism – in other words, shooting his superiors and whoever else gets in his way – and Monsieur Brun has suggested that, "the common expression 'Adieu' should be obliterated from all the French classics, and a slight fine imposed for its use in private life," should not surprise the careful reader because extreme zealotry tends to resort to violence and censorship. And there is no fouler example of a militant religious zealot than one who demands that everyone believe in nothing or, more specifically, that everyone believe in the particular nothing he happens to fancy.  

I fear we have forgotten all about Dr. Hirsch, but that's just as well. In the works of this author, it is easy to overlook the parade of pundits and focus on the simple expressions of a country priest who is neither simple, nor very partial to rustic mores. What happens to Dr. Hirsch – from our title, apparently a combatant – will have to wait as we examine some of the pearly asides: "The Duke, however stimulated, had the instincts of an aristocrat, and desired rather to stare at the house than to spy on it"; "I cannot speak like Clemenceau and Déroulède, for their words are like echoes of their pistols"; "The lane down which they followed him was one of those that seem to be at the back of things, and look like the wrong side of the stage scenery"; "He was a forked radish of a fellow, with just enough bulb of a head to make his body insignificant." Yet the most devastating of all observations has to do with our acolytes, whom Father Brown sizes up efficiently: 

They have no instincts. I mean those things that make a woman refuse to dance with a man or a man to touch an investment. They've been taught that it's all a matter of degree.

Instinct is one word, but we can think of several others. And as much as nuance can be important in explaining anything of value, such as gods, arts, theories, impressions, and speculations, we would be well-served to trust in something greater still, something that can and cannot be explained. Something that has absolutely nothing in common with a noiseless explosive.

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