– 23 Jan 2007

In a classic “Benjamin Graham – The Memoirs of the Dean of Wall Street”, Benjamin Graham, wrote a self-portrait. It is deeply insightful of the legend.

“It is a clue to his character that B. has a host of loyal friends, very few if any enemies, but not a single chum or crony. Let’s examine his inner life to see why. As a boy, he was bright, winsome, awkward, impractical, and morbidly sensitive. He was careful never to wound anyone, and he could not understand how others, including those who loved him dearly, would so often would him, with nonchalance or even with malice. Very early in life he set to work, like a beaver, to build a breastwork around his heart. He embraced stoicism as a gospel sent to him from Heaven.

B’s character was fully formed by his late teens. Superficially, it appeared wholly admirable. He has adopted all the self-advancing virtues with youthful ardor—industry, temperance, reliability, and a host of others. His natural kindliness was reinforced by what he fancied was a sense of noblesse oblige—for he always thought himself fortunate in his intellectual gifts—but it might just as well have been an overeager desire to make a good impression on the world about him. Confident of his mental powers, he took for granted that he must do everything honorable to attain success.

B’s inordinate sensitivity to criticism worked on his character to produce two traits so marked as to be almost idiosyncracies. The first was his urge to escape any sort of censure by showing exemplary and pleasant conduct. The other was a basic reluctance to criticize others, and this was quickly transformed into an unwillingness to sit in judgment upon them. He set before himself an ideal pattern of behavior towards those around him. He must be invariably courteous, agreeable, patient; he must avoid conflicts of all kinds, even those of abstract opinion if any emotion might be involved.

As he grew older, B. achieved a degree of independence in any area in which his judgment told him that his conduct ought not to be dictated by mere convention or prejudice. He became somewhat impatient with outer forms of etiquette when their result was merely to prevent him from following his inclinations. But the change here was merely a superficial one; it did not affect or reflect his essential relationship with the surrounding world.

The relations were not as brilliantly successful as, earlier, he would have desired and expected. A large area of comparative failure was his dealings with women. Throughout his life he has no difficulty in finding women who attracted him and for whom he had sufficient appeal. Nor was his sex life inadequate or unvaried, after he has overcome the copybook puritanism of his first manhood. In his view his troubles with women came about merely because they chose to take umbrage at his good qualities—particularly his even temper and his intellect. In return he developed some feeling of persecution and exploitation at their hands. Partly out of real experience, partly perhaps out of imagination, he felt that nearly all women were unreasonable, dominating, unappreciative of his kindness and patience, too insistent on penetrating into the forbidden sanctum of his private self.

Only very late in life did B. meet a woman who possessed the qualities of soul and mind, of character and temperament, which he had sought vainly in many others. To her, he felt, he could lower the barriers that had separated him from the rest of humanity. Under this new influence he inquired for the first time into the nature of these barriers. Why, since the end of his college years, has he admitted no one—man or woman—into a true intellectual and emotional intimacy? Why had he no pals, no chums?

B. examined his character afresh, and what he found was not too flattering. He was smugness, selfishness, snobbery, a certain contrived artificiality in his generous gestures, a touch of calculated egoism in his unruffled serenity. His third wife said of him that he was humane, but not human—the phrase struck home. He lacked genuine sympathy, a true sharing of the joys and sorrows of others. His enthusiasms were either entirely impersonal—for ideas, for artistic creations—or else for those things that contributed to his own development, his inner glory. He “turned from praise” with unfeigned modesty, but that modesty was itself a manifestation of a pride so perfect as to be indistinguishable from vanity. His was Horace’s mens sibi conscia recti—“a mind conscious of its own rectitude”—wrapped in the insulation of confident superiority. Like Landor, he strove with none, for none was worth his striving—at least in his own estimation. He recognized only one close companion, only one kindred spirit—himself.

His affability to others was unforced and unfailing, truly a second nature. But his first nature was remote and inaccessible to others. B. saw this all at last. He felt the need for less superiority and more humanity. A new personage from outre mer was entering his life and profoundly moving it. At age sixty and beyond he was to begin his emotional development all over again; he must accept Love not as an experience of life, but as the experience of life. He recalled a poem that he had written as a college sophomore, in the glow of his first romantic passion. Now the rather hackneyed sentiment took on a new dimension of meaning for him:


As a brook slumbers, hushed its tinkling song,

By March’s icy cloak held prisoner,

My soul has music, too, that cannot stir,

Frozen to silence by a witless tongue.

But lo! the bar melts in the breath of Spring,

The water wakes into a melody;

So by the warmth this new love sheds on me

The bonds of speech are burst, and I may sing!”


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