The Human Saturation-Point


IF a solute or soluble substance is dissolved in water or other solvent, a point is often reached that indicates that the limit of solubility has been attained, and that is called the saturation-point. The solvent cannot take up any more. Now in our relations with one another we often find that we behave as if we were solvents, and show by our saturation-points the measure of good things that we can take up or dissolve. If I do you a favor and you reward me equitably for it, and we maintain an equilibrium of favor and reward, we may, after the manner of chemists, express the situation in this way: —

My favors to you = your rewards to me.

You may reward me in greater measure than my favor deserves, and I may be able to take up or dissolve a great deal of such reward from you and be the better for it. But the chances are that I have a saturation point, and if your reward goes beyond it I shall show a precipitate, and then I cease to be the clear solution that I was. Then I am super-saturated,—and injured. Perhaps I can best explain this by the story of a man named Hans whom I had in my employ once, in a chemical factory.

Hans was a remarkably efficient workman. He had a good head, was diligent, faithful, and interested in his work. In fact, Hans was a jewel. I paid him two dollars a day. This was back in the early eighties, and two dollars was better pay then than it is now.

Hans’s job was caring for a kettle, and he did it exceedingly well. The melt; in his kettle nearly always came out right because he watched the thermometers carefully and knew how to manage the fire underneath. Then, too, if anything went, wrong he was alert to observe it, and he would come and tell me at the first sign of disorder, instead of waiting, as some of the other men had done, until several hundred dollars’ worth of material was spoiled. Then I gave him two kettles and a helper and raised his pay to $2.25 a day. The results justified my happiest expectations. Then I gave him four kettles to look after and $2.50 a day. Results were still better. In time he became gang foreman, in charge of all the kettles, and his wages were $3.00 a day. He used his judgment to good advantage. My troubles with the kettles almost ceased. There was a little more work in that department which required some attention to temperatures. It was not arduous and demanded but a little time occasionally. We discussed the problem, he was certain that, he could look after it easily, and made one or two valuable suggestions. So I made him department foreman at $3.25 a day.

That last quarter of a dollar spoiled him! Straightway his conceit knew no bounds, he bullied the men under him, assumed a false dignity, would listen to no advice, knew everything better — and the finish was painful.

Across the street, in another department, Charlie went to pieces an slighter promotion.

Plans reached his saturation-point at $3.25 a day; Charlie at $2.50.

The illustration may not be a happy one; perhaps in managing my men I missed some principles of psychology which, duly applied, would have avoided the trouble. But I think the example holds; each reached his saturation-point— not in money necessarily, but in responsibility and reward.

The saturation-point, as we are calling it, is peculiar in this respect: we rarely observe it in ourselves although it becomes immediately patent to every one else. Now the world is full of super-saturated people. The sudden accession of wealth is the occasion of its frequent display. Access of responsibility often causes it. A prosperous or socially favorable marriage super-saturates many women, and it does the same to many men. When any one gets what is known in slang as ‘the big head’ he has passed his saturation-point. It is more frequently reached by master or mistress than by man or maid, but none of us is free from the possibility of it. The impertinence of others is often not their own fault, but rather our own unconscious bumptiousness — the normal human reaction against super-saturation.

The man who struts about declaring that ingratitude is the one thing he will not brook, is almost certain to have passed his point, and his call for gratitude is more often than not the cry of his own vanity for appreciation of merit that he lacks. It would seem that excess of reward sets something askew in the human mechanism. The megalomania that follows it manifests itself occasionally only on the social side, leaving the mind as clear to administer affairs as ever it was; but more often super-saturation affects more than our manners, it affects our character. At times it is ruinous. The very best of us go to pieces under it. Successful institutions are often the graves of the reputations of the men who made them; of their real creators who conceived the ideas, organized, and worked with inspiration and unceasing effort to bring about success and then, somewhere in the process, all-unexpectedly, reached their saturation-points. Then they proceeded to follow in the way of Hans.

What happens to such a man or woman? Is it a pathological process? Is some poison secreted which produces this megalomania? The creature who has passed his saturation-point is not the same as he was before. He loses patience, he thinks only of himself in relation to his work, his attention to the opinions and advice of others is inhibited, he ceases to acknowledge that he makes mistakes; and the very leader whom you have been depending upon, supporting, defending and encouraging, turns out to be inefficient and inadequate. It is a veritable tragedy; and it is constantly occurring.

We find it in politics often. The once inspiring leader is likely to change his whole nature as soon as his saturation-point of praise is reached, and to degenerate into a selfish boss or a demagogue. The man of ideals closes his mind and becomes a common scold. It almost seems as if it were not good to be fully rewarded, because the least excess — and who can measure rewards with justice? — will weigh in the balances against us and then up we go, off the earth, into the air; and so into the windmill region.

It does indeed seem odd to think of an employee cautioning his employer against paying him too great a reward lest he reach his saturation-point; nevertheless, we should all beware of great rewards, for danger lurks in them.

The professions are full of examples of this, and so is the business world. Labor leaders are often the unconscious victims of severe attacks of the malady, and it occasionally occurs that all parties to an arbitration of a labor dispute are afflicted at the same time. Then the poor go hungry, and dividends cease. As soon as a man’s reward is too great or as soon as his job is too big for him, whether because of increasing complexities of his task or because he decreases in efficiency, the saturation-point is at hand. He may go to pieces in a nervous break-down, but usually the first symptom is his denial that his administration is open to criticism, and, out of sheer weakness, he closes his mind. Then come impatience and irascibility,—and the first person singular enters into his soul.

The ability to remain both sober and gracious under high reward or great responsibility is a quality that we greatly admire in others. To retain a simple and open mind after doing something that is acknowledged to be of merit is one of the rarest accomplishments of sanity. It makes for pleasantness in abundant measure.

Indeed it does more than this: it makes living possible, paves the way to success, begets good will, conquers hatred and uncharitableness; in short, it is the substance of comity, the evidence of grace, and the proof of a large mind that is sane.

Some of us begin to develop when rewards come. We peg away at our jobs, none too graciously, perhaps, until others begin to admire. Under this stimulus some of us ripen into exceptionally good citizens, fine, and of great benefit to the world we live in. But even those of us who have achieved great merit are not invulnerable. The hallucination that we are something that we are not, or are entitled to more than our deserts, or that our judgment is the only righteous and sound judgment, is the sign that the point of saturation has been passed.

It is, indeed, a kind of mild insanity, and we shall do well to guard against it. It is very wide-spread, and many of us are in the throes of it now.


WHEN Valeria approached me the other day on the subject of finances among the married, I was amused. I suggested that she should write to one of those publications which in settling the problems of all women manage to settle the hash of most men.

‘There’s sure to be a special column in any one of them,’ I said, ‘ particularly devoted to such aspects of married life. Now I think of it, I’m sure I’ve seen one, conducted by “Dodona.” Write to Dodona, and you’ll get an answer within two months — sooner, if you enclose an addressed, stamped envelope. And there will also be articles by contributors who have suffered.’

‘Rot!’ sighed Valeria. Then, grinning, ‘I know what you mean: “How I Dressed My Family of Six in Paper Bags”; “A Complete Trousseau from the Ten-Cent Store”; “Agate-Ware in Household Decoration.” ’

‘You’ve been reading them,’ I commented.

‘I?’exclaimedValeria. ‘Never!’ But she blushed.

‘It all comes to this,’ said Valeria. ‘I wish I had a dot.’

‘We all do,’ I assented.

‘No, but any old dot,’ she sighed.

‘Why I knew personally — and to my impoverishment — a street-beggar in Tours who gave his daughter a dowry of ten thousand francs when she married.’

‘Maurice will be amply able to support you,’ I rejoined very conventionally.

‘That is n’t the point, and you know it.’ And Valeria changed the subject.

It was not the point. I did know it; and therefore I let her change the subject.

It is by no means my intention to enter on statistics or to offer advice on the vexed question of the proper apportionment between two people, or among six, of any man’s income. I have often been much interested, and not a little dismayed, by the immense amount of talk on the subject. It is not only the women’s periodicals that go into it. I remember vividly an Atlantic article of some years ago, by the ‘wife of a professor,’ that more than touched on it; an article, by the way, that proved the value of the decimal system, inasmuch as without it the writer’s family could hardly have kept their accounts at all. The temper of the author was admirable. But the temper of most of these articles is far from admirable, and points clearly to the fact that the woman writing either has, or is, a grievance.

Taken as a whole, they show a lamentable attempt to make marriage a contract after it has been entered into as a high adventure. If marriage is to be a contract at all, it would better be a contract at the beginning. But we know what all good Americans think of that theory. It goes with transatlantic marriages and coronets and debts and male cynicism and neglected innocence. We marry for love, and are almost shamelessly proud of it. That does not prevent our talking more about alimony than any of the races which dispose of that as of all other financial contingencies before anything has had a chance to go either right or wrong.

Laws are made, as everybody knows, for the people who are inclined to break them. They bear no relation whatever to the people who would never think of doing the prohibited thing. And when a woman says to me that she thinks the general attitude of men to the subject of family finances is quite wrong, I naïvely wonder why she is giving herself and her husband away.

I should not be mentioning the matter in these pages at all, if the question were discussed only by the social nonentities who consult ‘Dodona’ as to their financial rights — not because I am a snob, but because some one might retort that ‘ladies’ are not troubled about their financial rights. Ladies are. I have known some curious and extreme cases among the very rich; and I have heard the question hinted at, tentatively discussed, vehemently decided in one way or another, in drawing-rooms that no one could call in question. And, as I say, the strange thing is that they never see how they are giving themselves away — not as being mercenary, or improvident, or incapable of making up their own minds, but as having missed completely the ‘sacred terror.’

Yet the average happy wife in our romantic land, while she will own up to many things, will never confess that she and her husband could not have given points to Romeo and Juliet. Now, a grande passion can put up with almost anything and not notice it; it can even put up with keeping accounts. It can record with a fountain pen that dinner and the play, with attendant details, cost $8.65, though that looks as if one had bought pleasure at a department-store. The grande passion can do more: it can stop at home cheerfully if dinner and the play are too expensive. What the grande passion cannot do is to say, ‘So much for you and so much for me.’ Romeo is not disillusioned by the perception that he has less money to spend, now that he has married Juliet ; and Juliet does not grow wistful because Romeo runs an account at the butcher’s instead of at the florist’s. It cannot be denied that Romeo sometimes regrets the account at the florist’s, and that Juliet sometimes wishes that Romeo had not to pay her bills. But that is another matter. When, however, husband and wife begin to discuss an ‘allowance,’ they are already a long way from Arcady. Let Romeo and Juliet arrange their budget as they will — arranging a budget might be a very pretty nursery game—so long as arranging it is, for them, part of the high humor of life. When they come to it with grim faces, or when either accuses the other of inconsiderateness or extravagance, it is time to call in the Apothecary.

What Valeria said about the dot, none the less, set me to thinking. I had always held, in a vague way, that the French did things much better than we. I do not mean that I have ever believed in ‘loveless marriages.’ But if one marries for love, and love goes, there is nothing left; whereas a marriage of convenience can usually fall back on the convenience. The reason why I object to the eternal consulting of ‘Dodona’ is that we show ourselves as marrying for love and yet regretting the convenience. That is inconsistent of us. Valeria ought not to be worrying about diverting Maurice’s funds to her own legitimate uses — if only because Maurice would be so dist ressed. Yet Valeria cannot very well help it; and even Maurice would probably be glad if Valeria had a dot— if only because it would keep her from worrying about his possible privations. Absurd mistakes will result from this delicacy; and in the end the blunderers will probably find that delicacy would better, at a certain point, give way to frankness. Otherwise, they will both be saddled with plans and possessions which each loathes, but which each had somehow got the impression that the other fantastically wanted.

All this, however, is not the habit of the women who consult Dodona; or who generalize after dinner while the men are smoking in the library. Still less, apparently, is it the habit of their husbands. I am not speaking, at the moment, of extravagant women or miserly men. Perhaps what I have most vividly in mind is the earnest couple who submit everything to ethical considerations, and decide, year by year, the precise amount that shall go for clothes, books, amusements, and charities; the couple who solve the vexed question of financial equality by decreeing that the wife shall dole out the amusement money and the husband the money for books; and that like sums, to a penny, shall go for their respective wardrobes. It is the righteous people with a sturdy economic consciousness who most appall me; the people who try every solution under heaven (like Mrs. Peterkin when she had put salt in her coffee) except the instinctive and spontaneous one of the common purse. Politically, they may be right; but sentimentally they are monsters. I quite see the point, of an undowered woman’s hesitating to consider her husband’s purse common — I have privately a great deal of sympathy with Valeria. Naturally, any woman would prefer to be able to make Portia’s little speech to her fiancé. But frankly, I find most wives quite convinced that, their services as housekeepers and companions (they never seem to consider that housekeepers are not very dear, and that when they are with their husbands, they, too, are getting companionship) entitle them to half of the family income. Either the particular woman is unreasonable, or she has been humiliated. In either case, a dot would immensely help; and Dodona, or her upper-class equivalent, the intimate female friend, would be relieved.

I am not praying that the marriage of convenience may supplant the romantic marriage. But I should like to suggest that fiancés not authentically from Verona arrange their budget before they marry. They will not welcome the suggestion, for it is part of our modern hypocrisy that we all pretend to be from Verona. We are sentimental snobs, and would rather die than have Lady Kew in the family. But I should like also to point out to the pretenders that in the real Verona there is no Dodona — and no budget.