The Temple's Difficult Door

Do you remember the little old white church which, when we were boys, we attended more or less unwillingly, according to the season, with its stiffbacked pews in which we sat aching, counting the pipes in the organ and the balusters in the altar-rail and the dentils in the moulding of the pulpit? Of course you remember it, and the little old lady who sat in a corner ejaculating her hallelujahs and amens with the regularity of a cuckoo-clock, and the solemn precentor who sawed out the time with his hand, and the preacher who took his texts from the Old Testament and rolled the names of the Ten Tribes and their enemies as a sweet morsel under his tongue. The little old lady, you recollect, was valiant, in prayer-meeting. She was not afraid to criticize the minister, or to repeat week by week the story of her conversion in her ninth year. Nor did she fail continually to impress upon us boys — facing us, sometimes, with uplifted finger — the immanence of him who goeth to and fro in the earth and rageth like a lion, seeking whom he may devour. Ah, those prayer-meetings! Shall we, shall we ever forget them? Or the references to the sinners who sat on the back row (where we always sat) ? Or the wailing hymns, or the dismal testimonies, or the waves of dejection that swept over us during the cataloguing of our omissions and commissions?

And there was always a boy! Do you remember him? A boy of our own age, mind you, a boy who ostentatiously arose and, with the decorum of a deacon, dwelt upon his former iniquities and present beatitude. We expected this of an occasional girl, yet the girls never did it; a mumbled text, a flurried word or two, were the extent of their temerity. As for us, it was not our custom to discuss our souls, even among ourselves. It is said that to forget the existence of a stomach is the best symptom of health in that useful organ, and, if the analogy holds, our souls must have been singularly robust. We were bashful about our virtues and vices; we could not fathom the sentiments of Take Time to be Holy; we were in mortal fear that some day somebody might convict us of sin and hale us forthwith into the fold of the elect. Yet here was a boy who flaunted his goodness in our faces. It was evident that he was not normal, that it lay with us as a duty to puncture the bubble of his presumptuousness.

The time came, you remember, very opportunely. On a memorable evening it was announced that this Infant Samuel, as the little old lady called him, was to recite to the congregation the entire Book of Esther from memory. For us, who found it beyond our powers to remember a Golden Text of ten words for ten minutes, such a performance was unbelievable. We put our heads together and evolved a plot, dark, yet charming in its simple effectiveness. We decided to make faces at him.

We were expert in the art of facemaking, because we had practiced it for weeks upon our sisters who sang in the choir. They had suffered, but were now immune. The grimaces of a Grimaldi could not have ruffled the calm of their scornful features.

We planted ourselves in the front row, and the boy began his recital. In time his preoccupied and lack-lustre eye wandered in our direction and rested upon us. He started, looked away, stammered, recovered, and went bravely on. But we knew that he would look back. We dared not glance at our neighbors, but had faith that each was doing his duty.

Of course he did look back, but why prolong the mournful tale? It is sufficient to say that Esther and Ahasuerus remained unwedded and Haman unhung; and that our victim retired amid the titterings of the judicious and the commiserations of the pious, while we plumed ourselves upon a difficult task laudably accomplished.

I have indulged in this long reminiscence, which probably can be matched in the experience of most of my masculine readers, because it is provocative of thoughts that deserve to be aired. An essay might be written upon the pathos that lies in the spectacle of a boy who is incited to a public display of his goodness; in the docility which is as clay in the hands of deluded adults. That he suffered there can be no doubt, — not one half so much under the ordeal of our contriving, which, I hope, cured him, as under the isolation which his dedication to goodness made inevitable. He was a lonely boy, though he may not have realized that he was. That he could ever understand his fellows, or be understood by them, was impossible. He was the victim of the most perverse fate that can afflict a boy: he had been born in the bosom of a family whose piety contained not a grain of the salt of humor, not a particle of the leaven of imagination, not — But I am forgetting. I wish to ask the reader’s consideration, not of the victim, but of the tormentors.

Why is it that boys are suspicious of that approximate moral perfection called goodness? Girls find a deep satisfaction in being good, — in being neat, in being clean, in being decorous. If they are not these, we call them tomboys, still casting the onus of sinfulness upon the other sex. When we boys confided our exploit to the little girls, we found that they openly defended the boy, though, it must be admitted, they privately admired us, as is the way of their sex. Our fathers, informed by our sisters, and instigated by our mothers, solemnly reproached us, but with a twinkle that would not be hidden. Manifestly, the trail of the serpent was over them, too. They were sorry that they had not sat in the choir.

The meekest of men love to tell how bad they were as boys, hugging their fiction of early depravity with an unregenerate glee. The more innocuous they may be now, the more they love to boast — especially to their wives — of these phantasmal wild oats. The ladies pretend to be shocked at the stories, but are glad to believe them; and so it is not surprising if some men, in their fear of being mistaken for saints, remain boys all their lives.

The pursuit of the ideal is complicated by man’s suspicion of goodness, and by woman’s curious, but characteristic, indecision whether to espouse perfection or imperfection. Gifted with a natural propensity toward virtue and propriety and neatness and respectability and all the other approximate perfections of life, attaining them with ease and wearing them with grace, she of course values them little enough in man. His foibles interest her more than his virtues. She admires even while she condemns. He, because he is a man, prefers admiration to commendation.

In education, man as a rule inculcates ideals of perfection without pretending to practice them; but woman, with an iron logic which, man’s aspersions to the contrary notwithstanding, is characteristic of her, not only points but leads the way. Hence it is that some teachers of her sex have two manners, the human for social occasions, and the divine for the class-room. In the privacy of their homes they have their imperfections; in the classroom they are icily perfect. Their perfectness extends to such details as facial expression and tone of voice. Occasionally a man adopts the duplex character, but with deplorable result. I remember such a one in high school. Those of us who had the good fortune to meet him socially, found that he had his peccadillos of character, manner, and language, but in the school he was a pattern which we despaired of imitating. From his necktie to his reading of Burke’s ‘Conciliation,’ he was without spot or blemish. We did not dare to love him; we gave up all hope of emulation. We nicknamed him Mrs. Dawson, and let it go at that.

But women carry this dual character more successfully than men. Whether because they are better actors or because we confuse saintliness with femininity, even as boys we are more ready to forgive it in them. To the little girls, it seems perfectly natural. They catch the idea readily and practice their teachers’ precisions and pruderies upon the family. We must admit, too, that in the art of being a pattern, women show a sterner conscientiousness than men. They are not constitutionally so lazy. It requires hard and sustained effort to be a pattern, an inveterate and dogged attention to detail. It is chiefly here that we men fail. The male saints — witness Jerome — had a time of it with their petty temptations, simply because sainthood is largely a matter of detail. Most men are good enough in essentials, but fail in the little things; the little things, of which woman is enamored, — too often, the slave. To be perfect gives her a satisfaction that man will never understand; and, prompted by the constitutional laziness aforesaid, he takes refuge in calling goodness womanish.

His institutions, therefore, are good enough in essentials; his political organizations and governments, his bureaus and offices and federations and unions, all are nobly planned, but lack the feminine touch that makes for perfection. His streets are dirty and so are his politics; his laws need dusting; a little sweeping would not hurt his governments; his various organizations would be none the worse for some polishing and weeding and clipping of loose threads and sewing up of rents and various other species of revamping. All these last subtleties are beyond him, just as, be he never so neat, are all the tiny sweetnesses and refinements and knots and bows and satisfying knick-knacks of his wife’s person. She is a creature of soupçons and nuances and intuitive niceties. She can endure no compromise with disorder or dirt or decay. Her motes are all beams until they are demolished; she uses a mountain of faith to move a mustardseed; she cannot see the polished surface for the speck of dust that is on it. In her extreme development she spends her life doing the million and one trifles that man would leave undone.

The trouble is that, not satisfied with all this, she longs to make him perfect, too. Never deterred by the stupendousness of the task, she goes on, century by century, generation by generation, teaching him, preaching to him, marrying him; gently leading him or tyrannously compelling him toward the heaven of her ideal. And here again her gaze is microscopic. In her attention to his foibles she is liable to overlook his sins. She can seldom understand badness in boys, nor can ever see that the boy who is most bad in small matters may be the most good in large. She loves to keep her male offspring lamblike, and tries his docility by making him wear long hair and wide collars and linen and ruffles and lace, never learning but through hard experience that, like the puppy, he takes naturally to mud and feels at ease only close to the soil. When he at last rebels and privily snips off his hair and rends his sashes and furbelows, she weeps, not because of the loss of material, but because of the loss of an ideal.

And who can blame her? It is seldom enough in this world that we can kiss and fondle an ideal, except in dreams.

I have a theory that, our school laws should be revised and that we should confide our grammar-school teaching of boys only to women who have been married. My reason is not the one the reader is imagining, however. It is not because she will have had children. No. I do not go so far as that. I merely demand that she shall have had a husband. He is quite sufficient. He is a male. A year’s association with him will have softened her fibre, will have aroused in her mind doubts of the perfectibility of mankind. Then, then she will be ready to teach boys.

Yet it must be admitted that every teacher who has managed to remain human is confronted by a dilemma. As a teacher, he is expected to inculcate ideals of perfection, not only in studies, but in deportment; and yet, when he happens to come upon a student who approaches perfection it is a mournful occasion. The student may be admirable, but he is dull company. It has been suggested that teaching can be a satisfying profession only to very big or very little natures. I suppose that the idea is that the big nature sees the future in the instant, tolerates the present imperfection, dreaming of a distant flawlessness; while the little nature satisfies itself by attaining perfection in trifles.

The average man or woman who has drifted into the profession is saved from despair or insanity by that, biological interest in, and curiosity about, humanity which we call humor. He knows that everlasting concern with perfection in trifles is a belittler of souls; that correcting sentences and paragraphs and Latin and German exercises and algebraic problems and geometrical proofs is poor food for a human mind. On the other hand, instinct tells him that the larger perfection is cold; that it dwells in the rarefied air of the mountain-tops; that it is un-human. To love the derelict student is treason to his profession; yet, as he looks back over the long line of pupils who have passed through his hands, he sees that the ones who remain warm and vivid in his memory are those who fell most short of the very ideals which he tried to inculcate.

Among all the students in a certain school, I have a living recollection of just one, and he was the most imperfect student in it. He refused to study, he refused to behave, he insisted on fighting and bringing snakes to school in his pocket and — I do not exaggerate — standing on his head in the middle of a recitation. He passed most of his days sitting in the headmaster’s office, studying demurely when that gentleman was present, and making paper flying-machines when surveillance relaxed. Yet, as I search my heart, I find that my memories of him are pleasant; that I should like to see him again, even at the price of having to recapture his garter-snakes, or of having to turn him right-side-up during a recitation. He was much misunderstood. Some of his teachers, having no faith in my theory of the interestingness of the imperfect, found him a thorn in the flesh, and predicted for him a sudden end by suspension; and there were doubtless times when, in an access of impatience, I longed for the end to come and was ready to officiate at it. He shattered the pedagogic ideal. Try as I would, I was unable to discover in him ideals of any sort, and he refused to adopt any that I offered, however edifying. Yet all the good little boys to whom he administered black eyes with the utmost generosity have faded from my memory and he stands out the brighter for the years that have gone. If he had been good, he, too, would long since have been consigned to the limbo of ‘ the dream of things that were.’ Viewed in the narrow light of class discipline, he was a burden, like the grasshopper; in the broad and genial glow that falls from a humorous philosophy of life, he was a joy, a heart-filling atomy of mischief, a triumphant example of the imperfectness of humanity and the humanness of imperfection.

We can postulate so much of the imperfect thing and so little of the perfect. Flawlessness leaves the weaker imagination so little to take hold of: it is slippery. Even woman, with that inconsistency which makes her adorable, really loves perfection no more than we. Every one knows that a little girl loves an old doll, or a rag doll, or a one-legged doll, better than the most expensive Parisian wax doll with real hair, and eyes that open and shut. The Parisian beauty has been longed for for months, but now that it has become an entity, it leaves the child cold. If it is so lucky as to lose an arm or some sawdust, there may be hope for it; but so long as it remains new and whole, it can never hope to enter the warmest precincts of the little girl’s heart. ‘To keep in sight Perfection,’ says a contemporary poet, ‘is the artist’s best delight,’ and his bitterest pang that he can do no more than that; yet in another epigram the same poet speaks as follows: —

The thousand painful steps at last are trod,
At last the temple’s difficult door we win.
Perfect upon his pedestal the god
Freezes us hopeless when we enter in.

The little girl is tasting this experience. The contemplation of elastic joints, mechanical eyes, and waxen complexion warmed the cockles of her heart, but the embodiment of these in a palpable doll freezes her hopeless. If the poet, with more imagination, suffers too, and the highest natures — those which we call the transcendental — whiff the sadness that lies in the attainment of the perfect, surely the unimaginative mass of mankind can be excused if they find the inter-lunar regions chilly.

In reckless moments I wonder whether the Greek statues did not suffer more happily at the hands of fate when they lost their arms and heads and legs than we are accustomed to think; whether their dilapidation has not given them a place in our hearts instead of merely in our heads; has not couched them in our love instead of merely pedestaled them in our reverence.

Or, to take an illustration from a lower plane, may it not be that we get a keener pleasure out of eating an imperfect apple? It is neither the best possible apple, which would be perfect, nor the worst possible apple, which would have a kind of negative perfection; it has a worm at the core; but I wonder whether we do not enjoy it more because we have to eat the more carefully to keep from eating him. Besides, he arouses in our mind all sorts of questionings. Why is he there? What kind of worm is he? How did he get in? How would he have got out if we had not ousted him? And—note this — what sort of an apple would it have been if he had taken up his residence elsewhere?

I am rather proud of this little apologue of the apple. For the perfect apple could have roused no queries which the defective apple does not. The same subtle influences went to make both: the same elements, the same forces, the same chemical processes. But the defective apple has in addition to all these — the worm.

There is ‘some strangeness’ even ‘in beauty.’ The perfect rhythm is intolerable. We demand chiaroscuro in life as in color. The preciousness of the ointment is the more evident for the fly. ‘We love people for their vices,’ so the vices do not make them despicable.

If the gods that sit above have a sense of humor, they must find us grown men and women as funny and as sad as we find the boys and girls and dogs. Not knowing the sentiments of the gods, we have to content ourselves with those of the poets and humorists who, we fondly imagine, have in them something of the god-like vision. They look at humanity from above. And they find that the spectacle of humanity trying to be what it cannot be, facing both ways, on the threshold of heaven casting a longing, lingering look behind, is comic and tragic in its very essence; for comedy and tragedy differ chiefly in degree. In the imperfection of humanity lie its tragedy and its humor. Without it, this would be a happier world; but with it, it is a merrier.