In spite of this belief, the case against the law and against the Society is usually presented so unfairly and with such malice and with such defective arguments that there is little satisfaction in joining the popular demonstration against them. I remember hearing not long ago a conservative Russian nobleman lecturing on the present situation in his native country with a sobriety of speech and a balance of judgment to which, in this matter, our American newspapers have not accustomed us. At the outset of his discussion of the Bolshevist régime, he told us that, in his study of public affairs, he invariably proceeded upon the principle that every movement which commands the enthusiastic adhesion of great numbers of people must have something in it which deserves respect-ful attention.
If this principle appeals to us, we shall join the wits of the press in dismissing with derisive laughter the Outraged Parents, the Associated Mothers' Club, the Y. M. C. A., the Catholic Club, the bishops and lesser clergumen, the Lord's Day Alliance, the Boy Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, and the various religious organizations which have rallied behind the execrated banner of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. We shall strenuously object to the characterization of a cause which such organizations espouse as a blackmailing and filthy-minded enterprise. We shall even admit the possibility that they have a genuine grievance. And, having made that admission, we shall be less concerned to minimize it than to suggest a wiser method of getting it redressed. If we approach the subject in this temper, without recrimination and indiscriminate mud-slinging, we may conceivably persuade them, as well as our own side.
I, for one, believe that they have a grievance. But like most enthusiastic crusading masses, the reformers injure their cause and expose themselves to bitter disappointment and to retarding reactionary movements by asking and expecting too much — by asking and expecting the impossible. They have created the impression that they are actuated by a desire 'to make the world safe for children and adolescents.' It can't be done. It is what an enthusiastic reformer would call a beautiful and inspiring thought; and there is something attractive to the best that is in us even in the most extravagant aspirations toward an ideal good. Yet it is as hopeless to make a morally safe world by wiping out all the germs of moral infection as it is to make a physically safe world by wiping out all the germs of smallpox, typhoid, and influenza.
Since it can't be done, the hope of doing it is, to sober consideration, not really beautiful and truly inspiring, but fantastic and dangerous. It deflects and absorbs to no purpose attention which might and should be directed toward that which can be done. We may stamp out centres of infection here and there; but operating on the world with a view to making it safe is a task beyond human instrumentalities (and the Dean of St. Paul's believes that God himself has given it up). The world is an old rake, a hoary incurable, and will always be breaking out in one place or another. That which experience proves can be done with some effect toward protecting the young from moral as well as physical diseases is to vaccinate against them — to put inside children and adolescents something capable of resisting and combating the morbid elements which, though the influence of the 'world' be avoided and excluded, still malignly germinate in the cloister, in the cell, in the dusky isolation of the heart.
The law which the reformers seek to enforce against authors is an attempt to make the world safe by exterminating one out of billions of possible sources of infection. If it could be enforced, it would be as effective as 'swatting' a fly in an African jungle, except that a well-swatted fly does 'stay dead.' Those who defend it, I suspect, conceive that this law is the same sort of law as the Volstead Act; and that, they are convinced, is going to be in the interest of public welfare. Those who oppose the law designed to suppress indecent literature are also, I think, generally under the impression that it is the same sort of law as the Volstead Act, and that it should, for essentially the same reason, be abolished. In a vital respect it is not of the same sort. It differs from the Volstead Act in a fashion which may permit a man of sense to applaud the one and yet to condemn the other.
The point is this: the legal definition of 'intoxicating liquor' is, though perhaps unscientific and absurd, perfectly fixed and objective. Whether a variety of liquor is intoxicating under the law can be accurately determined by scientific methods. Since this is true, there is nothing essentially impractica-ble in the task given to officers when they are ordered to confiscate and destroy 'intoxicating liquor.' But the legal definition of indecent literature is not fixed and objective; it is fluent and highly subjective. It differs from decade to decade, from year to year, from nation to nation, from town to town, from class to class, from age to age, from one person to the next. And there is this salient difference in the application of the two definitions: the presence of alcohol is sought in the liquor, but the presence of indecency is not sought in the book. It is sought in the mind of the reader of the book.
That is, indeed, the ultimate place in which to seek it, for there is nothing decent or indecent but thinking makes it so. It is notorious that even a renowned piece of sculptured marble which produces in one person a kind of religious tranquility and philosophic contemplation, with a sense of the eternity of form and the transience of passion, may at the same instant excite in another beholder such shamefastness that he will cry out for fig leaves, or such unruly emotions as, unchecked, may disrupt society.
Or, to take another case: I myself recently pictured, with what I thought were chaste strokes and in what I thought was a pure aesthetic mood, our jeune fille. But I could not conjecture the effect that it was destined to produce in the minds of the young, the innocent, the inexperienced: I find that Mr. H. L. Mencken speaks of this picture as 'lascivious.' What responsibility such facts impose upon the artist!
It is, furthermore, a puzzling paradox in the moral world that, as one progresses toward decency, one discovers that the number of objects which the sense of decency has to operate upon diminishes rather than multiplies, while to a person who has lost his sense of decency the universe bristles with indecent suggestion. In recognition of these facts, jurymen who are to determine the quality of a disputable book are instructed in no scientific method, not even in a rule of thumb. No: they are instructed to conjecture whether a book is indecent by first conjecturing how it will affect young minds which are, conjecturally, open to the conjecturable influences of such a book. But jurymen and officers of the law, bold and enterprising as some of the latter are, cannot penetrate into minds to collect the evidence requisite for conviction under the law; and it is merely absurd to send them there.
Yet it is entirely possible to condemn the law in its application to authors without for a moment denying the reality of the problem with which it is intended to cope. It is also quite possible to condemn the law without accepting more than a fraction of the case which the guild of authors have at-tempted to establish in their own behalf. In my opinion, the authors have taken up positions quite as untenable as those occupied by the reformers — positions from which, in the interest both of literature and of public morals, it is important that they be dislodged.
It has perhaps never been true in Europe, it is no longer true in America, that it is 'easy to distinguish art from pornography.' It was true in America as long as our literature was mainly written by scholars and gentlemen with an adequate sense of the powers of their profession and of their responsibility to society for the exercise of it. It was true in America as long as our literature was written by members of a class to whom the life of the senses was an interest quite inferior and sub-ordinate to the life of the mind and the imagination. It was true as long as artists did not concern themselves with pornography. And till this present generation, pornographic writing would have appeared to our chief American authors, with hardly an exception; as an interest perhaps of other lands, other times, other types of culture, but as an interest from them and their land and their type of culture inconceivably remote.
Pornography is defined as a 'treatise on prostitutes,' or as 'obscene or licentious writing.'
When our literature passed from the hands of scholars and gentlemen into the hands of our barbarian artists of what Emerson called the 'Jacksonian rabble,' it lost much of the high seriousness, the decorum, and the impeccable decency characteristic of the New England school. It eventually enlisted the pens of numerous writers who repudiate responsibility to society, and who are far more interested in the life of the senses than in the life of the mind and the imagination. Among these have appeared several authors to whom the sexual life is the all--absorbing centre of interest, and who have devoted no inconsiderable skill to familiarizing us with the life of the prostitute, and to domesticating her, with her amateur sisters, in our literature.
Now, the life of these interesting creatures who are beginning, as it were, to swarm about our firesides and to 'homestead' the vacant territory of our imaginations may or may not be written in an obscene or licentious fashion. If these words are ever applicable to literature, they are plainly, in my opinion, applicable to some of the most praised and prosecuted books of recent years. But the question whether they are applicable does not depend in the least upon the artistic skill with which the books are written. It depends upon the effect which they are designed to produce. Art, strictly speaking, is nothing but the means employed to produce a desired effect, and is not to be confused with beauty, which is the effect upon fine minds of fine art employed by fine artists. The difference between a filthy story told by a coal-heaver and a filthy story told by an artist is only the difference between expert pornography and inexpert pornography, when, as is often the case, the effect sought is the same. There is undeniably a streak of salacity in human nature, and some very eminent men of letters have from time to time, in the intervals of more noble occupation, permitted themselves to express it.