Counter-Currents/The Repeal of Reticence

The Repeal of Reticence


THERE is nothing new about the Seven Deadly Sins. They are as old as humanity. There is nothing mysterious about them. They are easier to understand than the Cardinal Virtues. Nor have they dwelt apart in secret places; but, on the contrary, have presented themselves, undisguised and unabashed, in every corner of the world, and in every epoch of recorded history. Why then do so many men and women talk and write as if they had just discovered these ancient associates of mankind? Why do they press upon our reluctant notice the result of their researches? Why this fresh enthusiasm in dealing with a foul subject? Why this relentless determination to make us intimately acquainted with matters of which a casual knowledge would suffice?

Above all, why should our self-appointed instructors assume that because we do not chatter about a thing, we have never heard of it? The well-ordered mind knows the value, no less than the charm, of reticence. The fruit of the tree of knowledge, which is now recommended as nourishing for childhood, strengthening for youth, and highly restorative for old age, falls ripe from its stem; but those who have eaten with sobriety find no need to discuss the processes of digestion. Human experience is very, very old. It is our surest monitor, our safest guide. To ignore it crudely is the error of those ardent but uninstructed missionaries who have lightly undertaken the re-building of the social world.

Therefore it is that the public is being daily instructed concerning matters which it was once assumed to know, and which, as a matter of fact, it has always known. When "The Lure" was played three years ago at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York, the redoubtable Mrs. Pankhurst arose in Mrs. Belmont's box, and, unsolicited, informed the audience that it was the truth which was being nakedly presented to them, and that as truth it should be taken to heart. Now, it is probable that the audience—adult men and women—knew as much about the situations developed in "The Lure" as did Mrs. Pankhurst. It is possible that some of them knew more, and could have given her points. But whatever may be the standard of morality, the standard of taste (and taste is a guardian of morality) must be curiously lowered, when a woman spectator at an indecent play commends its indecencies to the careful consideration of the audience. Even the absurdity of the proceeding fails to win pardon for its grossness.

It is not so much the nature of the advice showered upon us to which we reasonably object, but the fact that a great deal of it is given in the wrong way, at the wrong time, by the wrong people. Who made Mrs. Pankhurst our nursery governess, and put us in her hands for schooling? We might safely laugh at and ignore these unsolicited exhortations, were it not that the crude detailing of matters offensive to modesty is as hurtful to the young as it is wearisome to the old. Does it never occur to the women, who are now engaged in telling the world what the world has known since the days of Nineveh, that more legitimate, and, on the whole, more enlightened avenues exist for the distribution of such knowledge?

"Are there no clinics at our gates,
Nor any doctors in the land?"

The "Conspiracy of Silence" is broken. Of that no one can doubt. The phrase may be suffered to lapse into oblivion. In its day it was a menace, and few of us would now advocate the deliberate ignoring of things not to be denied. Few of us would care to see the rising generation as uninstructed in natural laws as we were, as adrift amid the unintelligible, or partly intelligible things of life. But surely the breaking of silence need not imply the opening of the floodgates of speech. It was never meant by those who first cautiously advised a clearer understanding of sexual relations and hygienic laws that everybody should chatter freely respecting these grave issues; that teachers, lecturers, novelists, story-writers, militants, dramatists, and social workers should copiously impart all they know, or assume they know, to the world. The lack of restraint, the lack of balance, the lack of soberness and common sense were never more apparent than in the obsession of sex, which has set us all a-babbling about matters once excluded from the amenities of conversation.

Knowledge is the cry. Crude, undigested knowledge, without limit and without reserve. Give it to boys, give it to girls, give it to children. No other force is taken into account by the visionaries who—in defiance, or in ignorance, of history—believe that evil understood is evil conquered. "The menace of degradation and destruction can be checked only by the dissemination of knowledge on the subject of sex-physiology and hygiene," writes an enthusiast in the "Forum," calling our attention to the methods which have been employed by some public schools, noticeably the Polytechnic High School of Los Angeles, for the instruction of students; and urging that similar lectures be given to boys and girls in the grammar schools. It is noticeable that while a woman doctor was employed to lecture to the girl students of the Polytechnic, a "science man" was chosen by preference for the boys. Doctors are proverbially reticent,—except, indeed, on the stage, where they prattle of all they know; but a "science man"—as distinct from a man of science—may be trusted, if he be young and ardent, to conceal little or nothing from his hearers. The lectures were obligatory for the boys, but optional for the girls, whose inquisitiveness could be relied upon. "The universal eagerness of under-classmen to reach the serene upper heights" (I quote the language of the "Forum") "gave the younger girls increased interest in the advanced lectures, if, indeed, a girl's natural curiosity regarding these vital facts needs any stimulus."

Perhaps it does not, but I am disposed to think it receives a strong artificial stimulus from instructors whose minds are unduly engrossed with sexual problems, and that this artificial stimulus is a menace rather than a safeguard. We hear too much about the thirst for knowledge from people keen to quench it. Dr. Edward L. Keyes advocates the teaching of sex-hygiene to children, because he thinks it is the kind of information that children are eagerly seeking. "What is this topic," he asks, "that all these little ones are questioning over, mulling over, fidgeting over, imagining over, worrying over? Ask your own memories."

I do ask my memory in vain for the answer Dr. Keyes anticipates. A child's life is so full, and everything that enters it seems of supreme importance. I fidgeted over my hair, which would not curl. I worried over my examples, which never came out right. I mulled (though unacquainted with the word) over every piece of sewing put into my incapable fingers, which could not be trained to hold a needle. I imagined I was stolen by brigands, and became—by virtue of beauty and intelligence—spouse of a patriotic outlaw in a frontierless land. I asked artless questions which brought me into discredit with my teachers, as, for example, who "massacred" St. Bartholomew. But vital facts, the great laws of propagation, were matters of but casual concern, crowded out of my life, and out of my companions' lives (in a convent boarding-school) by the more stirring happenings of every day. How could we fidget over obstetrics when we were learning to skate, and our very dreams were a medley of ice and bumps? How could we worry over "natural laws" in the face of a tyrannical interdict which lessened our chances of breaking our necks by forbidding us to coast down a hill covered with trees? The children to be pitied, the children whose minds become infected with unwholesome curiosity, are those who lack cheerful recreation, religious teaching, and the fine corrective of work. A playground or a swimming-pool will do more to keep them mentally and morally sound than scores of lectures upon sex-hygiene.

The point of view of the older generation was not altogether the futile thing it seems to the progressive of to-day. It assumed that children brought up in honour and goodness, children disciplined into some measure of self-restraint, and taught very plainly the difference between right and wrong in matters childish and seasonable, were in no supreme danger from the gradual and somewhat haphazard expansion of knowledge. It unconsciously reversed the adage, "Forewarned, forearmed," into "Forearmed, forewarned"; paying more heed to the arming than to the warning. It held that the workingman was able to rear his children in decency. The word degradation was not so frequently coupled with poverty as it is now. Nor was it anybody's business in those simple days to impress upon the poor the wretchedness of their estate.

If knowledge alone could save us from sin, the salvation of the world would be easy work. If by demonstrating the injuriousness of evil, we could insure the acceptance of good, a little logic would redeem mankind. But the laying of the foundation of law and order in the mind, the building up of character which will be strong enough to reject both folly and vice,—this is no facile task.

The justifiable reliance placed by our fathers upon religion and discipline has given place to a reliance upon understanding. It is assumed that youth will abstain from wrong-doing, if only the physical consequences of wrong-doing are made sufficiently clear. There are those who believe that a regard for future generations is a powerful deterrent from immorality, that boys and girls can be so interested in the quality of the baby to be born in 1990 that they will master their wayward impulses for its sake. What does not seem to occur to us is that this deep sense of obligation to ourselves and to our fellow creatures is the fruit of self-control. A course of lectures will not instil self-control into the human heart. It is born of childish virtues acquired in childhood, youthful virtues acquired in youth, and a wholesome preoccupation with the activities of life which gives young people something to think about besides the sexual relations which are pressed so relentlessly upon their attention.

The world is wide, and a great deal is happening in it. I do not plead for ignorance, but for the gradual and harmonious broadening of the field of knowledge, and for a more careful consideration of ways and means. There are subjects which may be taught in class, and subjects which commend themselves to individual teaching. There are topics which admit of plein-air handling, and topics which civilized man, as apart from his artless brother of the jungles, has veiled with reticence. There are truths which may be, and should be, privately imparted by a father, a mother, a family doctor, or an experienced teacher; but which young people cannot advantageously acquire from the platform, the stage, the moving-picture gallery, the novel, or the ubiquitous monthly magazine.

Yet all these sources of information are competing with one another as to which shall tell us most. All of them have missions, and all the missions are alike. We are gravely assured that the drama has awakened to a high and holy duty, that it has a "serious call," in obedience to which it has turned the stage into a clinic for the diagnosing of disease, and into a self-authorized commission for the intimate study of vice. It advertises itself as "battling with the evils of the age,"—which are the evils of every age,—and its method of warfare is to exploit the sins of the sensual for the edification of the virtuous, to rake up the dunghills with the avowed purpose of finding a jewel. The doors of the brothel have been flung hospitably open, and we have been invited to peep and peer (always in the interests of morality) into regions which were formerly closed to the uninitiated. It has been discovered that situations, once the exclusive property of the police courts, make valuable third acts, or can be usefully employed in curtain-lifters, unclean and undramatic, but which claim to "tell their story so clearly that the daring is lost in the splendid moral lesson conveyed." Familiarity with vice (which an old-fashioned but not inexperienced moralist like Pope held to be a perilous thing) is advocated as a safeguard, especially for the young and ardent. The lowering of our standard of taste, the deadening of our finer sensibilities, are matters of no moment to dramatist or to manager. They have other interests at stake.

For depravity is a valuable asset when presented to the consideration of the undepraved. It has coined money for the proprietors of moving-pictures, who for the past few years have been sending shows with attractive titles about "White Slaves," and "Outcasts," and "Traffic in Souls," all over the country. Many of these shows claimed to be dramatizations of the reports of vice-commissioners, who have thus entered the arena of sport, and become purveyors of pleasure to the multitude. "Original," "Authentic," "Authorized," are words used freely in their advertisements. The public is assured that "care has been taken to eliminate all suggestiveness," which is in a measure true. When everything is told, there is no room left for suggestions. If you kick a man down stairs and out of the door, you may candidly say that you never suggested he should leave your house. Now and then a particularly lurid revelation is commended to us as having received the endorsement of leading feminists; and again we are driven to ask why should these ladies assume an intimate knowledge of such alien matters? Why should they play the part of mentors to such an experienced Telemachus as the public?

It is hard to estimate the harm done by this persistent and crude handling of sexual vice. The peculiar childishness inherent in all moving-picture shows may possibly lessen their hurtfulness. What if the millionaires and the political bosses so depicted spend their existence is entrapping innocent young women? A single policeman of tender years, a single girl, inexperienced but resourceful, can defeat these fell conspirators, and bring them all to justice. Never were villains so helpless in a hard and virtuous world. But silliness is no sure safeguard, and to excite in youth a curiosity concerning brothels and their inmates can hardly fail of mischief. To demonstrate graphically and publicly the value of girls in such places is to familiarize them dangerously with sin. I can but hope that the little children who sit stolidly by their mothers' sides, and whom the authorities of every town should exclude from all shows dealing with prostitution, are saved from defilement by the invincible ignorance of childhood. As for the groups of boys and young men who compose the larger part of the audiences, and who snigger and whisper whenever the situations grow intense, nobody in his senses could assert that the pictures convey a "moral lesson" to them.

Nor is it for the conveying of lessons that managers present these photo-plays to the public. They are out to make money, and they are making it. Granted that when M. Brieux wrote "Les Avariés," he purposed a stern warning to the pleasure-loving world. No one can read the simple and sober words with which he prefaced the work, and doubt his absolute sincerity. Granted, though with some misgivings, that the presentation of "Damaged Goods" in this country—albeit commercialized and a smart business venture—had still a moral and scientific significance. It was not primarily designed as an exploitation of vice. But to tell such a story in moving pictures is to rob it of all excuse for being told at all. To thrust such a theme grossly and vulgarly before the general public, stripping it of nobility of thought and exactitude of speech, and leaving only the dull dregs of indecency, is an uncondonable offense,—the deeper because it claims to be beneficent.

In one respect all the studies of seduction now presented so urgently to our regard are curiously alike. They all conspire to lift the burden of blame from the woman's shoulders, to free her from any sense of human responsibility. It is assumed that she plays no part in her own undoing, that she is as passive as the animal bought for vivisection, as mute and helpless in the tormentors' hands. The tissue of false sentiment woven about her has resulted in an extraordinary confusion of outlook, a perilous nullification of honesty and honour.

To illustrate this point, I quote some verses which appeared in a periodical devoted to social work, a periodical with high and serious aims. I quote them reluctantly (not deeming them fit for publication), and only because it is impossible to ignore the fact that their appearance in such a paper makes them doubly and trebly reprehensible. They are entitled "The Cry to Christ of the Daughters of Shame."

"Crucified once for the sins of the world,
O fortunate Christ!" they cry:
"With an Easter dawn in thy dying eyes,
O happy death to die!


"But we,—we are crucified daily,
With never an Easter morn;
But only the hell of human lust,
And worse,—of human scorn.


"For the sins of passionless women,
For the sins of passionate men,
Daily we make atonement,
Golgotha again and again.


"O happy Christ, who died for love,
Judge us who die for lust.
For thou wast man, who now art God.
Thou knowest. Thou art just."

Now apart from the offence against religion in this easy comparison between the Saviour and the woman of the streets, and apart from the deplorable offence against good taste, which might repel even the irreligious, such unqualified acquittal stands forever in the way of reform, of the judgment and common sense which make for the betterment of the world. How is it possible to awaken any healthy emotion in the hearts of sinners so smothered in sentimentality? How is it possible to make girls and young women (as yet respectable) understand not only the possibility, but the obligation of a decent life?

There would be less discussion of meretricious subjects, either in print or in conversation, were it not for the morbid sensibility which has undermined our judgment, and set our nerves a-quivering. Even a counsellor so sane and so experienced as the Reverend Honourable Edward Lyttelton, Headmaster of Eton, who has written an admirable volume on "Training of the Young in Laws of Sex," drops his tone of wholesome austerity as soon as he turns from the safeguarding of lads to the pensive consideration of women. Boys and men he esteems to be captains of their souls, but the woman is adrift on the sea of life. He does not urge her to restraint; he pleads for her to the masters of her fate. "The unhappy partners of a rich man's lust," he writes, "are beings born with the mighty power to love, and are endowed with deep and tender instincts of loyalty and motherhood. When these divine and lovely graces of character are utterly shattered and foully degraded, the man, on whom all the treasure has been lavished, tries to believe that he has made ample reparation by an annuity of fifty pounds."

This kind of sentiment is out of place in everything save eighteenth-century lyrics, which are not expected to be a guiding force in morals. A woman with "lovely graces of character" does not usually become the mistress even of a rich man. After all, there is such a thing as triumphant virtue. It has an established place in the annals and traditions, the ballads and stories of every land.

"A mayden of England, sir, never will be
The wench of a monarcke," quoth Mary Ambree.

It is like a breath of fresh air blowing away mists to hear this gay and gallant militant assert the possibilities of resistance.

Forty years ago, a writer in "Blackwood's Magazine" commented upon the amazing fact that in Hogarth's day (more than a century earlier) vignettes representing the "Rake's Progress," and the " Harlot's Progress," were painted upon fans carried by young women. "English girls," said this sober essayist, "were thus, by way of warning, made familiar with subjects now wisely withheld from their consideration."

The pendulum has swung backward since 1876. Even Hogarth, who dealt for the most part with the robust simplicities of sin, would have little to teach the rising generation of 1916. Its sources of knowledge are manifold, and astoundingly explicit. Stories minutely describing houses of ill-fame, their furniture, their food, their barred windows, their perfumed air, and the men with melancholy eyes who visit them. Novels purporting to be candid and valuable studies of degeneracy and nymphomania. Plays and protests urging stock-farm methods of breeding the human race. Papers on venereal diseases scattered broadcast through the land. Comment upon those unnatural vices which have preceded the ruin of cities and the downfall of nations, and veiled allusions to which have marked the deepest degradation of the French stage. All these horrors, which would have made honest old Hogarth turn uneasily in his grave, are offered for the defence of youth and the purifying of civilized society.

The lamentable lack of reserve is closely associated with a lamentable absence of humour. We should be saved from many evils, if we could laugh at more absurdities. We could clearly estimate the value of reform, if we were not so befuddled with the sensationalism of reformers, and so daunted by the amazing irregularity of their methods. What can be thought of a woman who goes to a household of strangers, and volunteers to instruct its members in sex-hygiene! In the case which came under my notice, the visitor chanced upon a family of spinsters, discreet, retiring, well-conducted gentlewomen, the eldest of whom was eighty, and the youngest sixty years of age. But while this circumstance added to the humour of the situation, it in no wise lessened its insolent impropriety.

The enthusiasm for birth-control has carried its advocates so fast and so far from the conventions of society that two of them have been arrested in the State of New York for circulating indecent matter through the mails, and one has been convicted on this charge. To run amuck through the formalities of civilization, and then proclaim yourself a martyr to science and the public good, is one way of acquiring notoriety. To invite the selfish and the cowardly to follow the line of least resistance is one way, and a very easy way, of ensuring popularity. Thirty years ago, Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the story of a Spanish girl, born of a decadent and perishing race, to whom comes the promise of love, and of escape from her dire surroundings. Both these boons she rejects, knowing that the line from which she springs is fit for nothing but extinction, and knowing also that lesson hard to learn,—"that pain is the choice of the magnanimous, that it is better to suffer all things, and do well." Twenty years ago, Miss Elizabeth Robins gave us her solution of a similar problem. The heroine of her novel, fully aware that she comes of a stock diseased in mind and body, and that her lover, who is near of kin, shares this inheritance, forces upon him (he is a quiescent gentleman, more than willing to be let alone) first marriage, and then suicide. We must have our hour of happiness, is her initial demand. We must pay the price, is her ultimate decision. In our day, the noble austerity commended by Mr. Stevenson, the passionate wilfulness condoned by Miss Robins, are equally out of date. The International Neo-Malthusian Bureau has easier methods to propose, and softer ways to sanction.

It is touching to hear Mr. Percy MacKaye lament that "Mendelism has as yet hardly begun to influence art or popular feeling"; but he must not lose hope,—not, at least, so far as popular feeling is concerned. "Practical eugenics" is a phrase as familiar in our ears as "intensive farming." "How can we make the desirable marry one another?" asks Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, and answers his own question by affirming that every community should take a hand in the matter, giving the "support of public opinion," and the more emphatic support of "important and well-paid positions" to a choice stock of men, provided always that, "in the interests of the race," they marry and have offspring.

This is practical eugenics with a vengeance, but it is not practical business. Apart from the fact that most men and women regard marriage as a personal matter, with which their neighbours have no concern, it does not follow that the admirable and athletic young husband possesses any peculiar ability. Little runts of men are sometimes the ablest of citizens. When Nature is in a jesting mood, her best friends marvel at her blunders.

The connection between Mendelism and art is still a trifle strained. It is an alliance which Mendel himself—good abbot of Brünn working patiently in his cloister garden—failed to take into account. The field of economics is not Art's chosen playground; the imparting of scientific truths has never been her mission. Whether she deals with high and poignant emotions, or with the fears and wreckage of life, she subdues these human elements into an austere accord with her own harmonious laws. She is as remote from the crudities of the honest but uninspired reformer who dabbles in fiction and the drama, as she is remote from the shameless camp-followers of reform, for whose base ends, no less than for our instruction and betterment, the Seven Deadly Sins have acquired their present regrettable popularity. Liberated from the unsympathetic atmosphere of the catechism, they are urged upon the weary attention of adults, embodied in the lessons of youth, and explained in words of one syllable to childhood. Yet Hogarth never designed his pictures to decorate the fans of women. Suetonius never related his "pleasant atrocities" to the boys and girls of Rome.