Counter-Currents/Our Loss of Nerve

Our Loss of Nerve


IF any lover of Hogarth will look at the series of pictures which tell the story of the Idle and the Industrious Apprentice, he will feel that while the industrious apprentice fitted admirably into his time and place, the idle apprentice had the misfortune to be born out of date. In what a different spirit would his tragic tale be told to-day, and what different emotions it would awaken. A poor tired boy, who ought to be at school or at play, sleeping for very exhaustion at his loom. A cruel boss daring to strike the worn-out lad. No better playground given him in the scant leisure which Sunday brings than a loathsome graveyard. No healthier sport provided for him than gaming. And, in the end, a lack of living wage forcing him to steal. Unhappy apprentice, to have lived and sinned nearly two centuries too soon! And as if this were not a fate bitter enough for tears, he must needs have contrasted with him at every step an industrious companion, whom that unenlightened age permitted to work as hard as he pleased, even for the benefit of a master, and to build up his own fortunes on the foundation of his own worth. Hogarth's simple conception of personal responsibility and of personal equation is as obsolete as the clumsy looms at which his apprentices sit, and the full-skirted coats they wear.

Yet the softening of the hard old rules, the rigid old standards, has not tended to strengthen the fibre of our race. Nobody supposes that the industrious apprentice had an enjoyable boyhood. As far as we can see, going to church was his sole recreation, as it was probably the principal recreation of his master's daughter, whose hymn-book he shares, and whom he duly marries. Her home-life doubtless bore a strong resemblance to the home-life of the tumultuous heroine of "Fanny's First Play," who tells us with a heaving breast that she never knew what a glorious thing life was until she had knocked out a policeman's tooth. Hogarth's young lady would probably have cared little for this form of exercise, even had the London policemen of 1748 been the chivalrous sufferers they were in 1911. She is a buxom, demure damsel; and in her, as in the lad by her side, there is a suggestion of reserve power. They are citizens in the making, prepared to accept soberly the restrictions and responsibilities of citizenship, and to follow with relish the star of their own destinies.

And all things considered, what can be better than to make a good job out of a given piece of work? "That intricate web of normal expectation," which Mr. Gilbert Murray tells us is the very essence of human society, provides incentives for reasonable men and women, and provides also compensations for courage. What Mr. Murray calls a "failure of nerve" in Greek philosophy and Greek religion is the relaxing of effort, the letting down of obligation. With the asceticism imposed, or at least induced, by Christianity, "the sacrifice of one part of human nature to another, that it may live in what survives the more completely," he has but scant and narrow sympathy; but he explains with characteristic clearness that the ideals of Greek citizenship withered and died, because of a weakening of faith in normal human resistance. "All the last manifestations of Hellenistic religion betray a lack of nerve."

It is with the best intentions in the world that we Americans are now engaged in letting down the walls of human resistance, in lessening personal obligation; and already the failure of nerve is apparent on every side. We begin our kindly ministrations with the little kindergarten scholar, to whom work is presented as play, and who is expected to absorb the elements of education without conscious effort, and certainly without compulsion. We encourage him to feel that the business of his teacher is to keep him interested in his task, and that he is justified in stopping short as soon as any mental process becomes irksome or difficult. Indeed, I do not know why I permit myself the use of the word "task," since by common consent it is banished from the vocabulary of school. Professor Gilman said it was a word which should never be spoken by teacher, never heard by pupil, and no doubt a kind-hearted public cordially agreed with him.

The firm old belief that the task is a valuable asset in education, that the making of a good job out of a given piece of work is about the highest thing on earth, has lost its hold upon the world. The firm old disbelief in a royal road to learning has vanished long ago. All knowledge, we are told, can be made so attractive that school-children will absorb it with delight. If they are not absorbing it, the teacher is to blame. Professor Wiener tells us that when his precocious little son failed to acquire the multiplication tables, he took him away from school, and let him study advanced mathematics. Whereupon the child discovered the tables for himself. Mrs. John Macy, well known to the community as the friend and instructor of Miss Helen Keller, has informed a listening world that she does not see why a child should study anything in which he is not interested. "It is a waste of energy."

Naturally, it is hard to convince parents—who have the illusions common to their estate—that while exceptional methods may answer for exceptional cases (little William Pitt, for instance, was trained from early boyhood to be a prime minister), common methods have their value for the rank and file. It is harder still to make them understand that enjoyment cannot with safety be accepted as a determining factor in education, and that the mental and moral discipline which comes of hard and perhaps unwilling study is worth a mine of pleasantly acquired information. It is not, after all, a smattering of chemistry, or an acquaintance with the habits of bees, which will carry our children through life; but a capacity for doing what they do not want to do, if it be a thing which needs to be done. They will have to do many things they do not want to do later on, if their lives are going to be worth the living, and the sooner they learn to stand to their guns, the better for them, and for all those whose welfare will lie in their hands.

The assumption that children should never be coerced into self-control, and never confronted with difficulties, makes for failure of nerve. The assumption that young people should never be burdened with responsibilities, and never, under any stress of circumstances, be deprived of the pleasures which are no longer a privilege, but their sacred and inalienable right, makes for failure of nerve. The assumption that married women are justified in abandoning their domestic duties, because they cannot stand the strain of home-life and housekeeping, makes for failure of nerve. The assumption that invalids must yield to invalidism, must isolate themselves from common currents of life, and from strong and stern incentives to recovery, makes for failure of nerve. The assumption that religion should content itself with persuasiveness, and that morality should be sparing in its demands, makes for failure of nerve. The assumption that a denial of civic rights constitutes a release from moral obligations makes for such a shattering failure of nerve that it brings insanity in its wake. And the assumption that poverty justifies prostitution, or exonerates the prostitute, lets down the last walls of human resistance. It is easier to find a royal road to learning than a royal road to self-mastery and self-respect.

A student of Mr. Whistler's once said to him that she did not want to paint in the low tones he recommended; she wanted to keep her colours clear and bright. "Then," replied Mr. Whistler, "you must keep them in your tubes. It is the only way." If we want bright colours and easy methods, we must stay in our tubes, and avoid the inevitable complications of life by careful and consistent uselessness. We may nurse our nerves in comfortable seclusion at home, or we may brace them with travel and change of scene. It does not matter; we are tube-dwellers under any skies. We may be so dependent upon amusements that we never call them anything but duties; or we may be as devout as La Fontaine's rat, which piously retired from the society of other rats into the heart of a Dutch cheese. We may be so rich that the world forgives us, or so poor that the world exonerates us. In each and every case we destroy life at the roots by a denial of its obligations, a fear of its difficulties, an indifference to its common rewards.

The seriousness of our age expresses itself in eloquent demands for gayety. The gospel of cheerfulness, I had almost said the gospel of amusement, is preached by people who lack experience to people who lack vitality. There is a vague impression that the world would be a good world if it were only happy, that it would be happy if it were amused, and that it would be amused if plenty of artificial recreation—that recreation for which we are now told every community stands responsible—were provided for its entertainment.

A few years ago an English clergyman made an eloquent appeal to the public, affirming that London's crying need was a score of "Pleasure-Palaces," supported by taxpayers, and free as the Roman games. Gladiators being, indeed, out of date, lions costly, and martyrs very scarce, some milder and simpler form of diversion was to be substituted for the vigorous sports of Rome. Comic songs and acrobats were, in the reverend gentleman's opinion, the appointed agents for the regeneration of the London poor. It is worthy of note that the drama did not occur to him as a bigger and broader pastime. It is worthy of note that the drama is fast losing ground with the proletariat, once its staunch upholders. A very hard-thinking English writer, Mr. J. G. Leigh, sees in the substitution of cheap vaudeville for cheap melodrama an indication of what he calls loss of stamina, and of what Mr. Murray calls loss of nerve. "When the sturdy melodrama, with its foiled villainy and triumphant virtue, ceases to allure, and people want in its place the vulgar vapidities of the vaudeville, we may be sure there is a spirit of sluggish impotence in the air."

To-day the moving pictures present the most triumphant form of cheap entertainment. They are good of their kind, and there is a visible effort to make them better; but the "special features" by which they are accompanied in the ten- and fifteen-cent shows, the shrill songs, the dull jokes, the clumsy clog-dances,—are all of an incredible badness. Compared with them, the worst of plays seems good, and the ill-paid actors who storm and sob through "Alone in a Great City," or "No Wedding Bells for Her," assume heroic proportions, as ministering to the emotions of the heart.

The question of amusement is one with which all classes are deeply concerned. Le Monde où l'on s'amuse is no longer the narrow world of fashion. It has extended its border lines to embrace humanity. It is no longer an exclusively adult world. The pleasures of youth have become something too important for interference, too sacred for denial. Whatever may be happening to parents, whatever their cares and anxieties, the sons and daughters must lose none of the gayeties now held essential to their happiness. They are trained to a selfishness which is foreign to their natures, and which does them grievous wrong. A few years ago I asked an acquaintance about her mother, with whom she lived, and who was, I knew, incurably ill. "She is no better," said the lady disconsolately, "and I must say it is very hard on my children. They cannot have any of their young friends in the house. They cannot entertain. They have been cut off from all social pleasures this winter."

I said it was a matter of regret, and I forbore to add that the poor invalid would probably have been glad to die a little sooner, had she been given the chance. It was not the mere selfishness of old age which kept her so long about it. Yet neither was my acquaintance the callous creature that she seemed. Left to herself, she would not have begrudged her mother the time to die; but she had been deeply imbued with the conviction that young people in general, and her own children in particular, should never be saddened, or depressed, or asked to assume responsibilities, or be called upon for self-denial. She was preparing them carefully for that failure of nerve which would make them impotent in the stress of life.

The desire of the modern philanthropist to provide amusement for the working-classes is based upon the determination of the working classes to be amused. He is as keen that the poor shall have their fill of dancing, as Dickens, in his less enlightened age, was keen that the poor should have their fill of beer. He knows that it is natural for young men and women to crave diversion, and that it is right for them to have it. What he does not clearly understand, what Dickens did not clearly understand, is that to crave either amusement or drink so weakly that we cannot conquer our craving, is to be worthless in a work-a-day world.

And worse than worthless in a world which is called upon for heroism and high resolve. A cruel lesson taught by the war is the degeneracy of the British workman, who, in the hour of his country's need, has clung basely to his ease and his sottishness. What does it avail that English gentlemen fling away their lives with unshrinking courage, when the common people, from whose sturdy spirit England was wont to draw her strength, have shrivelled into a craven apathy. The contempt of the British soldier for the British artisan is not the contempt of the fighting man for the man of peace. It is the loathing of the man who has accepted his trust for the man who can do and bear nothing; who cries out if his drink is touched, who cries out if his work is heavy, who cries out if his hours are lengthened, who has parted with his manhood, and does not want it back. Whatever England has needed for the regeneration of her sons, it was certainly not "pleasure-palaces" and cheap amusements. The "sluggish impotence" which Mr. Leigh observed four years ago, did not call, and does not call, for relaxation. The only cure will be so stern that no one cares to prophesy its coming.

And Americans! Well, thousands of people bearing that name assembled in New York on the 13th of November, 1915, under the auspices of the Woman's Peace Party, and amused themselves by denouncing the Administration, howling down all mention of national defence, and jeering every time the word patriotism (which we used to think a noble word) was spoken in their hearing. Men endeared themselves to the audience by declaring that they would not risk their all too precious lives to fight for any cause, and women intelligently asked why a foreign rule would not be just as good as a home one. They did not seem aware that Brussels was having a less enviable time than Boston or Milwaukee. Profound foolishness swayed the audience, abysmal ignorance soothed it. There was an abundant showing of childish irrationality; there was the apathy which befits old age; but of intelligence or of virility there was nothing.

This loss of nerve, this "weakening of faith in normal human resistance," means the disintegration of citizenship. It is the sudden call to manhood which shows us where manhood is not to be found. We Americans, begirt by sentiment, mindful of our ease, and spared for more than half-a-century from ennobling self-sacrifice, have been seeking smooth and facile methods of reform. The world, grown old in ill-doing, responds nimbly to our offers of amusement, but balks at the austere virtues which no cajolery can disguise. The more it is amused, the more it assumes amusement to be its due; and this assumption receives the support and encouragement of those whose experience must have taught them its perils.

Miss Jane Addams, in her careful study of the Chicago streets, speaks of the "pleasure-loving girl who demands that each evening shall bring her some measure of recreation." Miss Addams admits that such a girl is beset by nightly dangers, but does not appear to think her attitude an unnatural or an unreasonable one. A very able and intelligent woman who has worked hard for the establishment of decently conducted dance-halls in New York,—dance-halls sorely needed to supplant the vicious places of entertainment where drink and degradation walk hand in hand,—was asked at a public meeting whether the girls for whose welfare she was pleading never stayed at home. "Never," was the firm reply, "and will you pardon me for saying, Neither do you." The retort provoked laughter, because the young married woman who had put the question probably never did spend a night at home, unless she were entertaining. She represented a social summit,—a combination of health, wealth, beauty, charm and high spirits. But there were scores of girls and women in the audience who spent many nights at home. There are hundreds of girls and women in what are called fashionable circles who spend many nights at home. There are thousands of girls and women in more modest circumstances who spend many nights at home. If this were not the case, our cities would soon present a spectacle of demoralization. They would be chaotic on the surface, and rotten at the core.

It is claimed that the nervous exhaustion produced by hours of sustained and monotonous labour sends the factory girl into the streets at night. She is too unstrung for rest. That this is in a measure true, no experienced worker will deny, because every experienced worker is familiar with the sensation. Every woman who has toiled for hours, whether with a sewing machine or a typewriter, whether with a needle or a pen, whether in an office or at home, has felt the nervous fatigue which does not crave rest but distraction, which makes her want to "go." Every woman worth her salt has overcome this weakness, has mastered this desire. It is probable that many men suffer and struggle in the same fashion. Dr. Johnson certainly did. With inspired directness, he speaks of people who are "afraid to go home and think." He knew that fear. Many a night it drove him through the London streets till daybreak. He conquered it, conquered the sick nerves so at variance with his sound mind and sound principles, and his example is a beacon light to strugglers in the gloom.

Naturally, the working girl knows nothing about Dr. Johnson. Unhappily, she knows little of any beacon light or guide. But, if she be a reasonable human being, she does know that to expect every evening to "bring her some measure of recreation" is an utterly unreasonable demand, and that it can be gratified only at the risk of her physical and moral undoing. She has been taught to read in our public schools; she is provided with countless novels and storybooks by our public libraries; the lightest of light literature is at her command. Is this not enough to tide her over a night or two in the week? If her clothes never need mending or renovating, she is unlike any other woman the world has got to show. If there is never any washing, ironing, or housework for her to do, her position is at once unusual and regrettable. If she will not sometimes read, or work, or, because she is tired, go early to bed; if her craving for amusement has reached that acute stage when only the streets, or the moving pictures, or the dance-hall will satisfy it, she has so completely lost nerve that she has no moral stamina left. She may be virtuous, but she is an incapable weakling, and the working man who marries her ruins his life. Such girls swell the army of deserted wives which is the despair of all organized charities.

The sincere effort to regenerate the world by amusing it is to be respected; but it is not the final word of reform. The sincere effort to regenerate the world by a legal regulation of wages is a new version of an old story,—the shifting of personal obligation, the search for somebody's door at which to lay the burden of blame. It is also a denial of human experience, inherited and acquired, and a rejection of the only doctrine which stands for self-respect: "Temptations do not make the man, but they show him for what he is." Qualities nourished by this stern and sane doctrine die with the withering of faith.

So much well-meant, but not harmless nonsense—nonsense is never harmless—has been preached concerning women and their wages, that we are in the predicament of Sydney Smith when Macaulay flooded him with talk. We positively "stand in the slops." A professor of economics in an American college offers out of the fulness of his heart the following specific and original remedy for existing ills: "My idea is that one of the best ways to get an increased remuneration for women is to make them worth it."

"My idea!" This is what it means to have the scientific mind at work. A unique proposition (what have we been thinking about with our free schools for the past hundred years?), unclogged by detail, unhampered by ways and means. And if we do not see salvation in truisms, if we are daunted by the gulf between people who are theorizing and people who are merely living, we can take refuge with the reformers who demand "increased remuneration for women" whether they are worth it or not; who would make the need of the worker, and not the quality of the work, the determining factor in wages. We may "protect women from themselves," by prohibiting them from accepting less than their legal hire.

The only real peril of a minimum wage law is that it has a tendency to relegate the incompetent to beggary. It cannot, as some economists claim, discourage efficiency. Nothing can discourage efficiency, which scorns help and defies hindrance. But, by the same ruling, nothing can command more than it is worth in the markets of the world. We do wrong when we release the worker from any incentive to good work. We do wrong when we release her from a sense of personal responsibility. We do wrong when we give her a plausible excuse for following the line of least resistance, when we blight her courage by permitting her to think that her moral welfare lies in any hands but her own. The choice between poverty and dishonesty, the choice between poverty and prostitution is not an "open question." It is closed, if human reason and human experience can speak authoritatively upon any subject in the world.

The injury done by loose thinking and loose talking is irremediable. When the State Senate Vice Investigating Committee of Illinois permitted and encouraged an expression of what it was pleased to call the "shop-girl's philosophy," it sowed the seeds of mischief deep enough to insure a heavy crop of evil. I quote a single episode, as it was reported in the newspapers of March 8th, 1913,—a report which, if inaccurate in detail, must be correct in substance. A young man who had been in the employ of Sears, Roebuck & Co. was on the stand. She was questioned by Lieutenant-Governor O'Hara.

"'If a girl were getting $8 a week, and had to support a widowed mother, would you blame that girl if she committed a crime?'

"The witness looked up frankly, and replied, 'No, I would n't.'

"'Would you blame her if she killed herself?'

"'No, I would n't, came the emphatic reply.

"'And would you blame her, if she committed a greater crime?'

"The young Lieutenant-Governor's meaning was in his embarrassed tones and in his heightened colour. The girl was the more composed of the two. She paused a moment, and then repeated distinctly, 'No, I would n't.'

"The room had been painfully quiet, but at this there was a round of applause, led by the women spectators. It was the first general spontaneous outburst of the session. 'Emily' was then dismissed."

Dismissed with the "round of applause" ringing in her ears, and in her mind the comfortable assurance that her theory of life was a sound one. Also that a warm-hearted public was prepared to exonerate her, should she find a virtuous life too onerous for endurance. Is it likely that this girl, and hundreds of other Emilys, thus encouraged to let down the walls of resistance, can be saved from the hopeless failure of nerve which will relegate them to the ranks of the defeated? Is it likely that the emotional hysteria of the applauding audience, and of hundreds of similar audiences, can be reduced to reason by such sober statistics as those furnished by the Bureau of Social Hygiene in New York, or by the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills? Less than three per cent of seven hundred girls examined at the Bedford Hills reformatory pleaded poverty as a reason for their fall; and, of this three per cent, more than half had been temporarily out of work. On the other hand, twenty per cent were feeble-minded, were mentally incapacitated for self-control, and as much at the mercy of their instincts as so many animals. These are the blameless unfortunates whom vice commissioners seem somewhat disposed to ignore. These are the women who should be protected from themselves, and from whose progeny the public should be protected.

It is evident that triumphant virtue must have strong foundations. Income and recreation are but slender props. Becky Sharp was of the opinion that, given five thousand pounds a year, she could be as respectable as her neighbours; but, in our hearts, we have always doubted Becky. "Where virtue is well rooted," said the watchful Saint Theresa, "provocations matter little." All results are in proportion to the greatness of the spirit which has nourished them. When Cromwell made the discomforting discovery that "tapsters and town apprentices" could not stand in battle against the Cavaliers, he said to his cousin, John Hampden, that he must have men of religion to fight with men of honour. He summoned these men of religion, fired them with enthusiasm, hardened them into consistency, and within fourteen years the nations which had mocked learned to fear, and the name of England was "made terrible" to the world.

For big issues we must have strong incentives and compelling measures. "Where the religious emotions surge up," says Mr. Gilbert Murray, "the moral emotions are not far away." Perhaps the mighty forces which have winnowed the world for centuries may still prove efficacious. Perhaps the illuminating principles of religion, the ennobling spirit of patriotism, the uncompromising standards of morality, may do more to stiffen our powers of resistance than lectures on "Life as a Fine Art," or papers on "The Significance of Play," and "Amusement as a Factor in Man's Spiritual Uplift." Perhaps the stable government which ensures to the Industrious Apprentice the reward of his own diligence is more bracing to citizenship than the zealous humanity which protects the Idle Apprentice from the consequences of his own ill-doing.