Men and women have ears, and so have jugs and pitchers. In the latter case they are useful: jugs and pitchers are lifted by them. And what is useful is fit, and fitness is the first condition of beauty. But human ears are put to no use, except sometimes when naughty little boys are lifted by them in the way of discipline; and I can see no beauty in them. It is only because they are so common that we do not notice how ridiculous they are. In the days of Charles I. men sometimes had their ears cut off for holding wrong opinions, which would have made them famous and popular in these enlightened days, but at that time it made all right-thinking people despise them, so the fashion of going without ears did not spread among us. If it had, then how differently we should all think of the matter now! If we were all accustomed to neat, round heads at drawing-rooms, levees and balls, how repulsive it Would be to see a well-dressed man with two ridiculous, wrinkled appendages sticking out from the sides of his face!
In saying this I am not drawing on my fancy, but on my memory. I can recollect the time when no gentleman, still less any lady, would have owned a terrier with its ears on. And why go back so far? The same sentiment is prevalent in good society with respect to men's beards in this year of grace and smooth faces. Yet, if one chance to be looking at a Rembrandt instead of at society, what an infinitely handsomer adjunct to a noble face is a fine beard than a pair of ears!
When woman first looked at her face in a polished saucepan, she was at once struck with the comicality of those things, and bethought herself what to do with them. She decided to use them for pegs to hang ornaments on. The improvement excited the admiration of her husband and the envy of her rivals to such a degree that all other women of taste in her tribe did the same, and from that day to this, in almost every country in the world, it has been accounted a shame for any respectable woman to show her face in public in the hideousness of naked ears. This discovery of its capabilities gave a new value to the ear, and a large, roomy one became an asset in the marriage market. I have seen a pretty little damsel of Sind with fourteen jingling silver things hanging at regular intervals from the outside edge of each ear. If Nature had been niggardly, the lobe at least could be enlarged by boring it and thrusting in a small wooden peg, then a larger one, and so on until it could hold an ivory wheel as large as a quoit, and hung down to the shoulders.
But Nature surely did not intend the ear for this purpose. Then what did she intend? A popular error is that the ears are given to hear with, but the ears cannot hear. The hearing is done by a box of assorted instruments (malleus, incus, stapes, etc.) hidden in a burrow which has its entrance inside of the ear. If you argue that the ears are intended to catch sounds and direct them down to the hearing instrument, then explain their absurd shape. They are useless. A man who wants to hear distinctly puts his hand to his ear. And why do they not turn to meet the sounds that come from different quarters? They are absolutely immovable, and therefore also expressionless. A savage expresses his mind with all the rest of his face; he smiles and grins and pouts and frowns, but his ears stand like gravestones with the inscriptions effaced. How different is the case when you turn from man to the "irrational" animals! The eyes of a fawn are lustrous and beautiful, but they would be as meaningless as polished stones without the eloquent ears that stand behind them and tell her thoughts. Curiosity, suspicion, alarm, anger, submission, friendliness, every emotion that flits across her quick, sensitive mind speaks through them. They are in touch with her soul, and half the music of her life is played on them. And if you abstract yourself from individuals and look at that thing, the ear, in the wide field of life, what a great, living reality it is!—a spiritual unity under infinite diversity of material form and fashion. It is like the telegraph wire overhead, the commonest and plainest of material things, but charged with the silent and invisible currents of the life of the world.
"Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore."
Birds have no ears, nor have crocodiles, nor frogs, nor snakes. Ears seem to be for beasts only. And not for all beasts. Seals are divided by naturalists into two great families—those with ears, and those without. The common seal belongs to the latter class, and the sea-lion to the former. A common seal lives in the sea, and when it does wriggle up on the beach of an iceberg there is nothing to hear, I suppose, or perhaps when it wants to listen it raises a flipper to its ear. I never saw one doing so, but we do not see everything that happens in the world. The sea-lion, with its stouter limbs, can lift its forepart, raise its head and look about it, and even flop about the ice-fields at a respectable rate. And there is no doubt that one of these is as much above an earless seal as fifty years of Europe are better than a cycle of Cathay. When performing seals are exhibited at a circus sitting on chairs, catching balls on the points of their noses and playing diabolo with them, or balancing billiard cues on their snouts, and doing other miraculous things, they are always sea-lions, not common seals. Of course, I do not mean to insinuate that sea-lions invented the ear and stuck it on: that would be unscientific; but I mean that their general intelligence and interest in affairs created that demand for more distinct hearing which led to the development of an ear trumpet. This view is wholly scientific, though pedants may quarrel with my way of putting it.
The sea-lion's ears are very minute, mere apologies one might think; but don't be hasty. The finny prey of the sea-lion makes no sound as it skims through the water; and perhaps the padded foot of that stealthy garrotter, the Polar bear, makes as little on the smooth ice; for catching the one and not being caught by the other the sea-lion must trust to the keenness of its great goggle eyes. But it is a social beast, and it wants to catch the bellowing of its fellows far across the foggy waste of ice-floes; and that little leather scoop standing behind the ear-hole seems to be just the instrument required to catch and send down those sounds which would otherwise glance off the glossy fur and never find entrance to the tiny orifice at all. If it were any larger than is absolutely necessary it would be a serious impediment to a professional diver and swimmer like the sea-lion. This is the reason why otters have very small ears, and why whales and porpoises have none at all.