Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/June 1898/The Secret of Atavism

1393752Popular Science Monthly Volume 53 June 1898 — The Secret of Atavism1898Felix Leopold Oswald



THE laws of Nature reveal themselves most plainly in the extremes of their manifestations, and a month ago the remark of an American press correspondent must have called the attention of thousands to a suggestive curiosum of hereditary influences.

"This city is decked with voluntary bunting in honor of the Czar," he writes from Wiesbaden; "and it is certainly a remarkable fact that the most amiable of the Romanoffs should be the son of a narrow-minded despot, while whole-souled Kaiser Friedrich, the modern Titus, the idol of his countrymen, was guilty of being the father of the most unpopular prince who perhaps ever succeeded to a hereditary throne."

At first glance the coincidence does look like an altogether exceptional freak of chance, but, on second thought, one is surprised to find the alleged portent recall analogies far too numerous to be classed with the exceptions that confirm a rule.

Peter the Great, a more absolute autocrat than the first Napoleon, was the son of the dawdler Alexis, a puppet in the hands of his tutor Morouzoff, and of favorites of the Buckingham type, a holiday prince not wholly adverse to administrative reforms, but with no more backbone than a man of straw.

Witty, skeptical Frederick the Great, the worshiper of Voltaire and the Muses, a genial host, but a political Iscariot and a shocking husband, was the undoubtedly legitimate son of an illiterate ruffian, a miser and bigot whose only redeeming traits were his conjugal fidelity and his temptation-proof loyalty as a vassal of his Kaiser.

And even slander-mongering Fouché did not question the legitimacy of the Duke of Reichstadt as the son, if not the primogenitus, of the Corsican demigod. The poor youngster, it is true, was saddled with Austrian tutors, selected by the Cultus Minister, with no special reference to modern culture; but decided talents would have asserted themselves in spite of such handicaps, and Dr. Hentzen, an intelligent and impartial observer, admits that the young exile was "modest, rather good-natured, but hopelessly indolent and incurious—indifferent alike to the marvels of Nature and art. But for a love of good cheer, not always distinguishable from gluttony," he adds, "one might suppose that he was pining away and had turned from earthly to hyperphysical hopes."

Indolent, good-natured, and gluttonous—the son of the man who would "dine on the wing of a chicken, and on that frail support fly through Europe in a cloud of blood and fire!"

It will not do to say that the vital energy of the Corsican Cæsar had exhausted itself in his forty campaigns, and that human prodigies are produced at the expense of the next generation. That explanation is neither irrelevant nor unsupported by facts, but it is inadequate; it would explain a difference of degree, hut fails to account for a difference of kind. It might suggest the cause of the fact that sons of great men often fall short in their attempts to follow in the footsteps of their sires, but it does not solve the enigma why so many of them should persistently walk in the opposite direction.

Apollo did not differ more from a python than Wolfgang Goethe differed from the sluggish old philistine who coiled himself up in his Frankfort alley-den and hissed venomously at all dissenters from his antediluvian tenets. Carlyle's "dry-as-dust" does not begin to describe the idiosyncrasies of that old dragon; the dust on his soul did not cover lurid hopes or relinquished poetical aspirations; he was Irosaic to the very tissue of his mental organism and so pig-headed that he once came near ruining his family by venting his ill humor on the commander of a military garrison who had ventured to express his opinions with the freedom of a privileged guest.

And Goethe's only son was ein kalter Schleicher—a frigid dullard, with only one passion, an inordinate fondness for the weed, which his father detested as one of the three chief curses of his existence.

"Heroum filii noxæ" was a Latin proverb "The sons of heroes are public nuisances"; and not one of Charlemagne's sons seems to have possessed a single princely quality; while a little, shriveled-up señor in an owl-castle of the Pyrenees begat that meteor of splendid chivalry, King Henry of Navarre.

Voltaire's father, the notary Arouet, threatened to disinherit his son for preferring poetry to pandects, and avoided religious controversies with the anxiety of a Spanish Hebrew. He never ceased to lament the death of his eldest son, who he had hoped would climb the official ladder to the height of a procurateur du châtelet, and died without the least suspicion of having produced a champion destined to reach the pinnacles of intellectual fame and decide the litigation of ages as a procurator of reason vs. the powers of darkness.

The zealots who proposed to suppress that champion by a general ostracism of the Christianized world would never have got the consent of Dominie Nelson, of Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, a happiest of country parsons, but also a meekest. In the little garden adjoining his parsonage he would amuse himself for hours digging up herbs and replanting them with a view to quaint color effects, white on sea-green, or pale yellow on blue, like stars on an azure sky. He was fond of guests, and liked to listen to an exposition of new theories, but could not be provoked into hot controversies, and missed several chances to assert his claims to preferment rather than run the risks incidental to an antagonism of interests.

And that most non-aggressive of mortals originated the seamonster Horatio, a more insatiable fire-eater than any of the desperadoes that followed the fortunes of Frundsberg and Skanderbeg. During the siege of Calvi he marched a detachment within a stone's throw of a sea wall, to be on hand for a rush into the first breach, and stood motionless, watching the effects of the cannonade, till a shower of splinters struck him full in the face and knocked out one of his eyes. At Trafalgar he would not even button his overcoat enough to cover the insignia of his rank when the sharpshooters of the Bucentaur began their close-range target practice. "What's the matter, Wheeler—have you got the belly-ache?" he chuckled, when the captain of the deck battery conjured him to notice that five or six musket balls had knocked the splinters out of the mast close over his head. And when the overshot marksmen at last mended their aim, his first exclamation was one of military approval: "That's a good one! By Gotham, they've got me this time"

Energies bottled up (represses) in one generation are apt to explode in the next," says Chamfort, probably with the allusion to such cases as that of Hamilcar, who had sworn vengeance to Rome and passed his life hungering and thirsting for the opportunity which at last came to his son; or the elder Carlyle, an illiterate orator and amateur controversialist, hampered by the lack of the high-grade tools which education supplied to the author of the Latter-day Pamphlets.

But preacher Nelson experienced no fits of combativeness needing repression in stress of circumstances; he was pacific by instinct, and more averse to controversies than could always be reconciled with the exigencies of his situation.

Jean Jacques Rousseau was the son of a well-to-do artisan, more distinguished by his convivial disposition than by a lurking penchant for solitude or social revolt. Mirabeau, père, was a miser and bigot of conservatism, sticking to his Provençal country seat like a badger to his den, while his son exhausted his resources in extravaganzas and needed lettres de cachet to restrain his roving mania.

That revulsion from avarice to extravagance is, indeed, so frequent a phenomenon that Goethe seemed to consider it the normal result of a niggardly education:

"Ist der Vater auf Geld versessen,
Und nützt sogar die Lampen-Schnuppen.
Kriegen sie dann der Sohn in die Kluppen,
Gauner und Dirnen werden es fressen."

Mirabeau senior was wealthy enough to roam earth in a coach and four, but preferred his rural retreat; Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher on the throne of the civilized universe, could have found diversion from the cares of empire in the hunting grounds of three different continents, but the proconsuls of Pontus and Numidia invited him in vain; he stuck to his task like a slave to his treadmill, and shunned even music:

"Enjoyment from one entrance quite shut out;"

ignored panegyrics in honor of his virtues, and tolerated circus games only as a concession to the natural depravity of his subjects, who might riot in the atrocities of the amphitheater, while their ruler wore out his life with the elaboration of reform plans and sought recreation only in prose elegies and communion with the spirit of Zeno.

Now, the theory of exhaustion would have been strikingly confirmed if the offspring of the great altruist had been a rickety whimpy-owl, one of those listless youngsters supposed to be too good for the present world, but withal too indolent to aspire to the rewards of the next.

But the matrimonial venture of the sad-eyed philosopher resulted •in a birth of a chuckleheaded pupus who grew up into a bull-necked and vindictive blackguard, a reckless egotist who passed his time with riots and the arrangement of festivals in honor of his own merits. When one of his sycophants remarked that his moral and physical perfections had never before been united in a human being, he did not hesitate to enroll himself among the Olympian gods. He wasted the revenue of a province on a single circus pageant, and not only bade grumblers go to hades, but sent them there by scores and hecatombs. "The Prætorian Guards have been pacified by an enormous bribe" said the prefect Perennis, "but had we not better do something to allay the resentment of the people, something to perpetuate our names in the memory of posterity?" "Well, you can change the name of Rome to Colonia Commodiana," said this son of a modest father.

A son of the Inquisitor Hæmmerlin was indicted for heresy, and there is a tradition about a Syrian wood devil ("satyr") who was converted by a sermon of St. Eusebius and reared a family of saints.

But from Syria comes also an anecdote that suggests a solution of the inversion puzzle. "That's Lot's wife" said Professor Bertholet's guide, pointing to a rock-salt pillar forty feet high and about four yards in diameter. "Is that so?" said the witty Frenchman. Then I'll bet gold to copper that Mr. Lot wasn't more than five feet high."

Again, a multitude of analogies confirms the aptness of the conceit. Bruisers are attracted by Mignons, light-weight dandies by two hundred-pound peasant girls, stoics by shrews, polyhistors by unsophisticated Gretchens, saints by flirts, metaphysicians by tomboys, grimy Vulcan by Venus, moral or physical anomalies by their opposite extremes. One-sided men, as it were, instinctively seek their complement in the interest of the next generation, and it so happens that nearly all great men are one-sided—one or two of their faculties having been phenomenally developed at the expense of the rest.

And to complete the explanation, moral and intellectual preeminence are frequently attained at the cost of the physical organism:

"The restless spirit, working out its way,
Fretted the feeble body to decay;"

and Marcus Aurelius, yielding to instinct, selects a Faustina whose vital vigor gives her a superior chance to transmit her physical and moral characteristics.

Hence the portent of disparity, the toto-cœlo contrast between legitimate sons and such fathers as Cromwell, Bonaparte, Humboldt, Goethe, and Dante. Hence, also, the phenomenon of atavism: the necessity of neutralizing anomalies by an alliance of opposite extremes tends to repeat itself in successive generations, and two inversions may thus result in the re-establishment of a strange ancestral type.