Counter-Currents/The Cost of Modern Sentiment

The Cost of Modern Sentiment


WE are rising dizzily and fearlessly on the crest of a great wave of sentiment. When the wave breaks, we may find ourselves submerged, and in danger of drowning; but for the present we are full of hope and high resolve. Forty years ago we stood in shallow water, and mocked at the mid-Victorian sentiment, then ebbing slowly with the tide. We have nothing now in common with that fine, thin, tenacious conception of life and its responsibilities. We do not prate about valour for men, and domesticity for women. A vague humanity is our theme. We do not feel the fastidious distaste for repulsive details which made our grandparents culpably negligent. All knowledge, apart from its quality, and apart from our requirements, now seems to us desirable. Taste is no longer a controlling force. We do not, if we can help it, look "that jade, Duty,"—I use Sir Walter Scott's phrase, and he knew the lady in question better than do most men,—squarely in the face; but we speak well of her behind her back, which is more than Sir Walter did. To hear us talk, one would imagine that she never cost a pang.

The sentiment of to-day is social and philanthropic. It has no affiliations with art, which stands aloof from it,—a new experience for the world. It dominates periodical literature, minor fiction, and serious verse; but it has so far given nothing of permanent value to letters. It is in high favour with politicians, and is echoed loudly from all party platforms. It has unduly influenced our attitude toward the war in Europe, and toward our defences at home. It is a force to be reckoned with, and to be controlled. It is capable of raising us to a better and clearer vision, or of weakening our judgment and shattering our common sense. If we value our safety, we must forever bear in mind that sentiment is subjective, and a personal thing. However exalted and however ardent, it cannot be accepted as a scale for justice, or as a test for truth.

The issues with which our modern sentiment chiefly concerns itself are the conditions of labour, the progress of women, the social evil, and—for the past two years—the overwhelming question of peace and war. Sometimes these issues are commingled. Always they have a bearing upon one another. There is also a distinct and perilous tendency toward sentiment in matters political and judicial; while an excess of emotionalism is the stumbling-block of those noble associations which work for the protection of animals. It is profoundly discouraging to read in the accredited organ of an American humane society an angry protest against Vilhjalmur Stefansson's being permitted the use of Eskimo dogs on his Arctic explorations, because, forsooth, when he went hungry, the dogs went hungry too, and because their feet were hurt by the ice. The writer (a woman) reminds us that these dogs (like all other animals) are not "free agents"; and she calls upon public opinion and law to rescue them. We hear about the "long arm of the law," but it would be a giant stretch that could reach Stefansson in his ice fields. "Men who do such things," she affirms, "are not heroes of the highest type; and, anyway, when you have found or explored the North Pole or the South Pole, what can you do with it?"

This query is hard to answer. Perhaps no explorer wants to do anything with the Poles; but just leave them as they are, uncolonized for the present. They are not the only things in the world which have no commercial value. But if Stefansson is not a hero, of what stuff are heroes made, and where shall we look to find one? And with all Europe crying out in its agony of pain, is it worth our while to worry over a few dogs, who are doing, under hard conditions, the work they are fitted to do?

The same journal insults the intelligence of its readers by printing a wild rhapsody of Mrs. Annie Besant's, apparently under the illusion that it can be accepted as an argument for vegetarianism. I venture to quote one particularly mad paragraph as an illustration of the unplumbed depths to which emotional humanitarianism can descend:—

"The killing of animals in order to devour their flesh is so obviously an outrage on all humane feelings, that one is almost ashamed to mention it in a paper that is regarding man as a director of evolution. If any one who eats flesh could be taken to the shambles, to watch the agonized struggles of the terrified victims as they are dragged to the spot where knife or mallet slays them; if he could be made to stand with the odours of the blood reeking in his nostrils; if there his astral vision could be opened so that he might see the filthy creatures that flock round to feast on the loathsome exhalations, and see also the fear and horror of the slaughtered beasts as they arrive in the astral world, and send back thence currents of dread and hatred that flow between men and animals in constantly refed streams; if a man could pass through these experiences, he would be cured of meat-eating forever."

Now, when one has belonged for many years to the society which printed this precious paragraph, when one has believed all one's life that to be sentient is to possess rights, and that, not kindness only, but justice to the brute creation is an essential element of decent living, it is hard to be confronted with unutterable nonsense about astral currents and astral visions. It is harder still to be held indirectly responsible for the publication of such nonsense, and to entertain for the thousandth time the weary conviction that common sense is not a determining factor in humanity.

Mr. Chesterton, upon whom the delight of startling his readers never seems to pall, has declared that men are more sentimental than women, "whose only fault is their excessive sense." Also that the apparent absorption of the modern world in social service is not the comprehensive thing it seems. The general public still remains indifferent. This may or may not be true. It is as hard for Mr. Chesterton as for the rest of us to know much about that remnant of the public which is not writing, or lecturing, or collecting data, or collecting funds, or working for clubs and societies. But no one can say that the social reformer is the slighted creature that he was a half-century ago. He meets with the most distinguished consideration, and he is always accorded the first hearing in print and on the platform. He commands our respect when he deals soberly with sober facts in sober language, when his conclusions are just, his statements irrefutable. He is less praiseworthy when he flies to fiction, an agreeable but unconvincing medium; or to verse, which, as the theologian said of "Paradise Lost," "proves nothing." It is very good verse sometimes, and its grace of sentiment, its note of appeal, find an easy echo in the reader's heart.

A little poem called "The Factories," published in "McClure's Magazine" for September, 1912, gives an almost perfect example of the modern point of view, of the emotional treatment of an economic question, and of the mental confusion which arises from the substitution of sympathy for exactness.

"I have shut my little sister in from life and light
(For a rose, for a ribbon, for a wreath across my hair),
I have made her restless feet still until the night,
Locked from sweets of summer, and from wild spring air:
I who ranged the meadow-lands, free from sun to sun,
Free to sing, and pull the buds, and watch the far wings fly,
I have bound my sister till her playing-time is done,—
Oh, my little sister, was it I?—was it I?


"I have robbed my sister of her day of maidenhood
(For a robe, for a feather, for a trinket's restless spark),
Shut from Love till dusk shall fall, how shall she know good,
How shall she pass scatheless through the sinlit dark?
I who could be innocent, I who could be gay,
I who could have love and mirth before the light went by,
I have put my sister in her mating-time away,—
Sister, my young sister, was it I?—was it I?


"I have robbed my sister of the lips against her breast
(For a coin, for the weaving of my children's lace and lawn),
Feet that pace beside the loom, hands that cannot rest:
How can she know motherhood, whose strength is gone?
I who took no heed of her, starved and labor worn,
I against whose placid heart my sleepy gold-heads lie,
Round my path they cry to me, little souls unborn,—
God of Life—Creator! It was I! It was I."

Now if by "I" is meant the average woman who wears the "robe," the "ribbon," the "feather," and possibly—though rarely—the "wreath across my hair," "I" must protest distinctly against assuming a guilt which is none of mine. I have not shut my little sister in a factory, any more than I have ranged the meadow-lands, "free from sun to sun." What I probably am doing is trying to persuade my sister to cook my dinner, and sweep my house, and help me to take care of my "gold-heads," who are not always so sleepy as I could desire. If my sister declines to do this at a wage equal to her factory earnings, and with board and lodging included, she is well within her rights, and I have no business, as is sometimes my habit, weakly to complain of her decision. If I made my household arrangements acceptable to her, she would come. As this is difficult or distasteful to me, she goes to a factory instead. The right of every man and woman to do the work he or she chooses to do, and can do, at what wages, and under what conditions he or she can command, is the fruit of centuries of struggle. It is now so well established that only the trade unions venture to deny it.

In that vivid and sad study of New York factory life, published some years ago by the Century Company, under the title of "The Long Day," a girl who is out of work, and who has lost her few possessions in a lodging-house fire, seeks counsel of a wealthy stranger who has befriended her.

"The lady looked at me a moment out of fine, clear eyes.

"'You would not go into service, I suppose?' she asked slowly.

"I had never thought of such an alternative before, but I met it without a moment's hesitation. 'No, I would not care to go into service,' I replied; and, as I did so, the lady's face showed mingled disappointment and disgust.

"'That is too bad,' she answered, 'for, in that case, I'm afraid I can do nothing for you.' And she went out of the room, leaving me, I must confess, not sorry for having thus bluntly decided against wearing the definite badge of servitude."

Here at least is a refreshingly plain statement of facts. The girl in question bore the servitude imposed upon her by the foremen of half a dozen factories; she slept for many months in quarters which no domestic servant would consent to occupy; she ate food which no servant would be asked to eat; she associated with young women whom no servant would accept as equals and companions. But, as she had voluntarily relinquished comfort, protection, and the grace of human relations between employer and employed, she accepted her chosen conditions, and tried successfully to better them along her chosen lines. The reader is made to understand that it was as unreasonable for the benevolent lady—who had visions of a trim and white-capped parlor-maid dancing be fore her eyes—to show "disappointment and disgust" because her overtures were rejected, as it would have been to charge the same lady with robbing the girl of her "day of maidenhood," and her "little souls unborn," by shutting her up in a factory. If we will blow our minds clear of generous illusions, we shall understand that an emotional verdict has no validity when offered as a criterion of facts.

The excess of sentiment, which is misleading in philanthropy and economics, grows acutely dangerous when it interferes with legislation, or with the ordinary rulings of morality. The substitution of a sentimental principle of authority for the impersonal processes of law confuses our understanding, and undermines our sense of justice. It is a painful truth that most laws have had their origin in a profound mistrust of human nature (even Mr. Olney admits that the Constitution, although framed in the interests of freedom, is not strictly altruistic); but the time is hardly ripe for brushing aside this ungenerous mistrust, and establishing the social order on a basis of pure enthusiasm. The reformers who lightheartedly announce that people are "tired of the old Constitution anyway," voice the buoyant creed of ignorance. I once heard a popular lecturer say of a popular idol that he "preferred making precedents to following them," and the remark evoked a storm of applause. It was plain that the audience considered following a precedent to be a timorous and unworthy thing for a strong man to do; and it was equally plain that nobody had given the matter the benefit of a serious thought. Believers in political faith-healing enjoy a supreme immunity from doubt.

This growing contempt for paltry but not unuseful restrictions, this excess of sentiment, combined with paucity of humour and a melodramatic attitude toward crime, has had some discouraging results. It is ill putting the strong man, or the avenging angel, or the sinned-against woman above the law, which is a sacred trust for the preservation of life and liberty. It is ill so to soften our hearts with a psychological interest in the lawbreaker that no criminal is safe from popularity. The "Nation" performed a well-timed duty when it commented grimly on the message sent to the public by a murderer, and a singularly cold-blooded murderer, through the minister who attended him on the scaffold: "Mr. Beattie desired to thank his many friends for kind letters and expressions of interest, and the public for whatever sympathy was felt or expressed."

It sounds like a cabinet minister who has lost an honoured and beloved wife; not like an assassin who has lured his wife to a lonely spot, and there pitilessly killed her. One fails to see why "kind letters" and "expressions of interest" should have poured in upon this malefactor, just as one fails to see why a young woman who shot her lover a few months later in Columbus, Ohio, should have received an ovation in the court-room. It was not even her first lover (it seldom is); but when a gallant jury had acquitted her of all blame in the trifling matter of manslaughter, "the crowd shouted its approval"; "scores of women rushed up to her, and insisted upon kissing her"; and an intrepid suitor, stimulated by circumstances which might have daunted a less mettlesome man, announced his intention of marrying the heroine on the spot.

In New York a woman murdered her lover because he refused his aid—a dastardly refusal—when her husband had cast her off. She was not only acquitted by a jury,—which was to be expected; but the husband, pleased with the turn affairs had taken, restored her to his home and his affections; and a sympathetic newspaper offered this explanation to a highly gratified public: "They are Sicilians, and in Sicily a woman may retrieve her own honour and avenge her husband's, only by doing as this woman had done."

Perhaps. But New York is not Sicily, our civilization is not Sicilian civilization, and our courts of law are not modelled on a Sicilian vendetta. The reporter described with all the eloquence of his craft the young wife reconciled and joyous in her husband's arms, laughing and singing to her baby, happier than she had been at any time since her honeymoon. A pretty picture, if the shadow of a murdered man did not intrude upon it.

Our revolt from the old callous cruelty—the heart-sickening cruelty of the eighteenth century—has made us tender to criminals, and strangely lenient to their derelictions. It inspires genial visitors at Sing Sing to write about the "fine type" of men, sentenced for the foulest of crimes. It fills us all with concern lest detention prove irksome to the detained, lest baseball and well-appointed vaudeville should not sufficiently beguile the tedium of their leisure hours.

"Imprisonment alone is not
A thing of which we would complain,
And ill-conwenience is our lot,
But do not give the convick pain."

Sentiment has been defined as a revolt from the despotism of facts. It is often a revolt from authority, which, to the sentimentalist, seems forever despotic; and this revolt, or rather this easy disregard of authority, is fatal to the noblest efforts of the humanitarian. The women of wealth and position who from time to time fling themselves with ardour into the cause of striking shirt-waist-makers and garment-makers are always well intentioned, but not always well advised. In so far as they uphold the strikers in what are often just and reasonable demands, they do good work; and the substantial aid they give is sweetened by the spirit in which it is given,—the sense of fellow feeling with their kind. But there is no doubt that one of the lessons taught at such times to our foreign-born population is that the laws of our country may be disregarded with impunity. The picketers who attack the "scab" workers, and are arrested for disorderly conduct, are swiftly released, to become the heroines of the hour. I once remonstrated with a friend who had given bail for a dozen of these young lawbreakers, and she answered reproachfully: "But they are so ignorant and helpless. There were two poor bewildered girls in court yesterday who did not know enough English to understand the charge made against them. You could not conceive of anything more pathetic."

I said that a young woman who bowled over another young woman into the gutter understood perfectly the charge made against her, whether she spoke English or not. One does not have to study French or Spanish to know that one may not knock down a Frenchman or a Spaniard. No civilized country permits this robust line of argument. But reason is powerless when sentiment takes the helm. It would be as easy to argue with a conflagration as with unbalanced zeal. The vision of a good cause debauched by intemperance is familiar to all students of sociology; but it is no less melancholy for being both recognizable and ridiculous.

A moderate knowledge of history—which, though discouraging, is also enlightening—might prove serviceable to all the enthusiasts who are engaged in making over the world. Many of them (in this country, at least) talk and write as if nothing in particular had happened between the Deluge and the Civil War. That they sometimes know as little of the Civil War as of the Deluge is proven by the lament of an ardent and oratorical pacifist that this great struggle should be spoken of in school histories as a war for the preservation of the Union, instead of a war for the abolishment of slavery. A lady lecturer, very prominent in social work, has made the gratifying announcement that "the greatest discovery of the nineteenth century is woman's discovery of herself. It is only within the last fifty years that it has come to be realized that a woman is human, and has a right to think and act for herself."

Now, after all, the past cannot be a closed page, even to one so exclusively concerned with the present. A little less talking, a little more reading, and such baseless generalizations would be impossible, even on that stronghold of ignorance, the platform. If women failed to discover themselves a hundred, or five hundred years ago, it was because they had never been lost; it was because their important activities left them no leisure for self-contemplation. Yet Miss Jane Addams, who has toiled so long and so nobly for the bettering of social conditions, and whose work lends weight to her words, displays in "A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil" the same placid indifference to all that history has to tell. What can we say or think when confronted by such an astounding passage as this?

"Formerly all that the best woman possessed was a negative chastity, which had been carefully guarded by her parents and duennas. The chastity of the modern woman of self-directed activity and of a varied circle of interests, which give her an acquaintance with many men as well as women, has therefore a new value and importance in the establishment of social standards."

"Negative chastity!" "Parents and duennas!" Was there ever such a maiden outlook upon life! It was the chastity of the married woman upon which rested the security of the civilized world;—that chastity which all men prized, and most men assailed, which was preserved in the midst of temptations unknown in our decorous age, and held inviolate by women whose "acquaintance with many men" was at least as intimate and potent as anything experienced to-day. Committees and congresses are not the only meeting-grounds for the sexes. "Remember," says M. Taine, writing of a time which was not so long ago that it need be forgotten, "remember that during all these years women were paramount. They set the social tone, led society, and thereby guided public opinion. When they appeared in the vanguard of political progress, we may be sure that the men were following."

We might be sure of the same thing to-day, were it not for the tendency of the modern woman to sever her rights and wrongs from the rights and wrongs of men; thereby resembling the disputant who, being content to receive half the severed baby, was adjudged by the wise Solomon to be unworthy of any baby at all. Half a baby is every whit as valuable as the half-measure of reform which fails to take into impartial consideration the inseparable claims of men and women. Even in that most vital of all reforms, the crusade against social evils, the welfare of both sexes unifies the subject. Here again we are swayed by our anger at the indifference of an earlier generation, at the hard and healthy attitude of men like Huxley, who had not imagination enough to identify the possible saint with the certain sinner, and who habitually confined their labours to fields which promised sure results. "In my judgment," wrote Huxley, "a domestic servant, who is perhaps giving half her wages to support her old parents, is more worthy of help than half a dozen Magdalens."

If we are forced to choose between them,—yes. But our esteem for the servant's self-respecting life, with its decent restraints and its purely normal activities, need not necessarily harden our hearts against the women whom Mr. Huxley called "Magdalens," nor against those whom we luridly designate as "white slaves." No work under Heaven is more imperative than the rescue of young and innocent girls; no crime is more dastardly than the sale of their youth and innocence; no charity is greater than that which lifts the sinner from her sin. But the fact that we habitually apply the term "white slave" to the wilful prostitute as well as to the entrapped child shows that a powerful and popular sentiment is absolved from the shackles of accuracy. Also that this absolution confuses the minds of men. The sentimentalist pities the prostitute as a victim; the sociologist abhors her as a menace. The sentimentalist conceives that men prey, and women are preyed upon; the sociologist, aware that evil men and women prey upon one another ceaselessly and ravenously, has no measure of mercy for sin. The sentimentalist clings tenaciously to the association of youth with innocence; the sociologist knows that even the age-limit which the law fixes as a boundary-line of innocence has no corresponding restriction in fact. It is inconceivable that so many books and pamphlets dealing with this subject—books and pamphlets now to be found on every library shelf, and in the hands of young and old—should dare to ignore the balance of depravity, the swaying of the pendulum of vice.

A new and painful instance of the cost of modern sentiment is afforded by the statement of Miss Addams and other pacifists that middle-aged men are in favour of strengthened defences, and that young men oppose them, as savouring of militarism; that middle-aged men cling to the belief that war may be just and righteous, and that young men reject it, as unreservedly and inevitably evil. I am loath to accept this statement, as I am loath to accept all unpleasant statements; but if it be—as I presume it is—based upon data, or upon careful observation, it fits closely with my argument. The men under thirty are the men who have done their thinking in an era of undiluted sentiment. The men over forty were trained in a simpler, sterner creed. The call to duty embraced for them the call to arms.

"A country's a thing men should die for at need."

Some of them remember the days when Americans died for their country, and it is a recollection good for the soul. Again, the men over forty were taught by men; the men under thirty were taught by women; and the most dangerous economy practised by our extravagant Republic is the eliminating of the male teacher from our public schools. It is no insult to femininity to say that the feminization of boys is not a desirable development.

It was thought and said a few years ago that the substitution of organized charities for the somewhat haphazard benevolence of our youth would exclude sentiment, just as it excluded human and personal relations with the poor. It was thought and said that the steady advance of women in commercial and civic life would correct the sentimental bias which only Mr. Chesterton has failed to observe in the sex. No one who reads books and newspapers, or listens to speeches, or indulges in the pleasures of conversation can any longer cherish these illusions. No one can fail to see that sentiment is the motor power which drives us to intemperate words and actions; which weakens our judgment, and destroys our sense of proportion. The current phraseology, the current criticisms, the current enthusiasms of the day, all betray an excess of emotionalism. I pick up a table of statistics, furnishing economic data, and this is what I read: "Case 3. Two children under five. Mother shortly expecting the supreme trial of womanhood." That is the way to write stories, and, possibly, sermons; but it is not the way to write reports. I pick up a newspaper, and learn that an Englishman visiting the United States has made the interesting announcement that he is a reincarnation of one of the Pharaohs, and that an attentive and credulous band of disciples are gathering wisdom from his lips. I pick up a very serious and very well-written book on the Brontë sisters, and am told that if I would "touch the very heart of the mystery that was Charlotte Brontë" (I had never been aware that there was anything mysterious about this famous lady), I will find it—save the mark!—in her passionate love for children.

"We are face to face here, not with a want, but with an abyss, depth beyond depth of tenderness, and longing, and frustration; with a passion that found no clear voice in her works because it was one with the elemental nature in her, undefined, unuttered, unutterable!"

It was certainly unuttered. It was not even hinted at in Miss Brontë's novels, nor in her voluminous correspondence. Her attitude toward children—so far as it found expression—was the arid but pardonable attitude of one who had been their reluctant caretaker and teacher. If, as we are now told, "there were moments when it was pain for Charlotte to see the children born of and possessed by other women," there were certainly hours—so much she makes clear to us—in which the business of looking after them wearied her beyond her powers of endurance. It is true that Miss Brontë said a few, a very few friendly words about these little people. She did not, like Swift, propose that babies should be cooked and eaten. But this temperate regard, this restricted benevolence, gives us no excuse for wallowing in sentiment at her expense.

"If some virtues are new, all vices are old." We can reckon the cost of misdirected emotions by the price which the past has paid for them. We know the full significance of that irresponsible sympathy which grows hysterical over animals it should soberly protect; which accuses the consumer of strange cruelties to the producer; which condones lawbreaking and vindicates the lawbreaker; which admits no difference between attack and resistance, between a war of aggression and a war of defence; which confuses moral issues, ignores experience, and insults the intelligence of mankind.

The reformer whose heart is in the right place, but whose head is elsewhere, represents a waste of force; and we cannot afford any waste in the conservation of honour and goodness. We cannot afford errors of judgment, or errors of taste. The business of leading lives morally worthy of men is neither simple nor easy. And there are moments when, with the ageing Fontenelle, we sigh and say, "I am beginning to see things as they are. It is surely time for me to die."