Life's Non-Sequiturs

THAT afternoon over the teacups we talked of the first foreign phrases which had imposed upon our vernacular, and an amusingly incongruous assortment was let loose. Only a few, we felt, were authentic, most of them being offered because of lack of time to recall the actual from the misty deep. The je vous aime of our first valentines, family and school mottoes, some phrase mother or nurse had sung, were however, interrupted by one given in no uncertain inflection, — ‘ Non-sequitur’

‘It does not follow!’ we translated in chorus.

‘Does n’t it!’ was the speaker’s retort. ‘Try it and see!’

She had risen and pulled on her gloves as she launched that laughing challenge, and would neither expatiate nor be detained; and by a curious turn of fate none of us ever saw her again. It followed as the night the day that as the phrase had (as we afterward found) punctuated and influenced her whole life, so it could not fail in some small way to sway ours. My own vocations had more and more drifted into the gentle and devious streams of inconsequence, but now I deliberately sent my thoughts questing into quiet pools of literature and sparkling eddies of conversation, over the shallows of the merely ridiculous, down the foaming rapids of life, trusting for an outlook at last over the ultimate sea. You must therefore bear with me (a pretty non-sequitur!), with me and my vade mecum, for it is not paradoxical to claim that what did not follow might cannily accompany me. So would have borne with me the good New England woman who was heard to thank her Creator for placing all the great rivers beside the great towns; so would the sympathetic soul who, hearing of a man having the small-pox twice and dying of it, begged to know if he died the first time or the second; so would Wackford Squeers, whose injured legs prevented his holding a pen; so would the curate whose voice was so thin that it was good only to read fine print; so would the man who got into the theatre without a ticket by the simple process of walking backward, which made the ticket-taker believe he was going out.

The non-sequitur that I know myself,—so inevitably does it follow that the phrase becomes a substantive, — admits only a collateral kinship with the muddle-headed. I may not act according to logical sequence or the law of reason; I may defy the reasonable inference; I may be, I certainly am, illogical, unreasonable, inconsequent, irrelevant; but I have no doubt in my own mind that I shall arrive. This the muddle-headed person seldom does. Instance the woman who pitied the people living before the Christian era because of the inconvenience they must have had in being obliged to count the years backward. The distinction is fine, I admit, and beg Stevenson to help me: ‘How I arrived at his conclusion I do not know. A man with a cold in his head does not necessarily know a rat-catcher.’ The opening words show that Stevenson got there. Little Tommy was not muddleheaded when he said that if the fire alarm had struck four the fire would have been in his district. He went to the crux of the matter as directly as did Mrs. Carlyle when she declared that Frederick the Great was a terrible piece of work and she wished that Frederick had died when a baby.

I brush, in passing, a third class, far too clever to be dubbed muddle-headed, far too forthcoming to be non-followers, — unless by their superlative quality of non-sequiturness they lead the procession, like many another leader, from the rear. This class expresses the opposite of what it says. Bergson cites one instance: ‘ My dear boy, gambling on ’Change is very risky, you win one day and lose the next.’—‘Well then, I’ll gamble only every other day.’ Variations which occur on every comic page include the man who being assured that with a certain kind of stove he could save half his fuel, decided to buy two stoves and save it all. The expressions of defeat on the face of the father and of the stove merchant testify that the respondents were not of the illimitably inane. The incursion of these actors into this leafy maze thrusts home upon me the fact that the non-sequitur is no passive but an active nonfollower. Sidney Lanier, exasperated by the strange methods of a brother poet, said that as far as he could make out, ‘Walt Whitman’s argument on Democracy was that because a prairie is wide therefore debauchery is admirable; and because the Mississippi is long therefore every man is God.’ A clear conviction of what to avoid necessarily influences the wanderings of even the most unarriving non-sequitur.

The twentieth century is responsible for the rise of many a vagary, but the quality of non-sequiturability is not one of them. Eighteen centuries ago Seneca wrote, ‘There are inconsequential studies as well as inconsequential men. Didymus wrote four thousand books wherein he is much concerned to discover where Homer was born; and some people are very anxious to know how many oars Ulysses had. Am I the more just, moderate, valiant or liberal for knowing that Dentatus was the first man who carried elephants in procession?’ Juvenal laughed at those who affect the principles of the Curii and live like Bacchanals. They have their counterparts, however, in the French of to-day who, Rolland assures us, are too clever to bring their literature into practice. ‘These Diderots are in private life honest citizens.’ Many of us know women of the hour whose ruthless feminist theories combine, in Conrad’s happy phrase, with a blameless conventionality in domestic practice. One of the most remarkable non-sequiturs in history is the case of Nietzsche, who denied our present moral values, or at least traced them to sources hitherto unsuspected, and yet himself fulfilled all the loftiest demands made by the morality now preached among us.

‘What! You a hare and hunting for game?’ runs the old Latin proverb. Decidedly, yes. I have come, like my friend over the tea-cups, to watch eagerly for this subtle something ‘which does not follow,’ never quite content till it appears and can be used as a conservative working factor in the subsequent proposition. When I catch Shakespeare nodding, — why, — that proves it is Shakespeare and not some smaller artist racked with the insomnia of omniscience. When I see the historian lingering intently over events and characters which are only supposed to have happened or wrought, I know that with a seer’s eye he has discovered what has influenced and will truly influence men and nations. When I begin Montaigne’s essay on Lame People, and find it a dissertation on miracles, I am diverted but not surprised. When I see parents seeking for their daughters the best educational advantages and then launching them no less eagerly into a life that discounts intellectual endeavor, the contented heart and clear-eyed perception of values; or when I hear fathers ‘ citing Polonius to their sons and calling it Shakespeare,’ I am surprised but not diverted.

Rabindranath Tagore, after hours of brooding and remembering that his life had once a different shape, said: ‘Many an hour have I spent in the strife of the good and the evil, but now it is the pleasure of my Playmate of the empty days to draw my heart on to him, and I know not why is this sudden call to what useless inconsequence,’—and from his wisdom, in my most perplexed moments, I take heart of expectancy.

The current idea of evolution is that it has taken place not continuously but by jumps. Many of us attained our stature so — for years just up to mother’s shoulder and then, in a few months, above her. The salvation of children is that parents cannot make of them just what they wish (‘another you ? oh, no: one is enough! ’). Our most valuable chemicals are the unexpected combinations and residuums of the experimenter; our finest hybrid plants the sport-work of bees and humming birds.

Chicago promotes a great drainage canal to rid itself of noxious sewage; then suddenly the scientist says, ‘Give me this sewage, and I will return you yearly the superior milk of a hundred thousand cows.’ But the antecedents of the two conclusions were the same, — the desire for the health and wealth of the city community. Is the soot wasting from a million chimneys the sequitur or the non-sequitur of commercial conservation? Perhaps every proposition has two legitimate conclusions which nevertheless contradict each other. That two and two make four is undisputed till some child puts her block figures side by side and proves to us that the result is twentytwo. When some one in Parliament sneered at Goethe’s statement that the beautiful is higher than the good, John Stuart Mill broke the silence to offer his own interpretation that the beautiful is the good made perfect. It was he who begged us to be indulgent to the one-eyed: the votary of life’s little non-sequiturs claims the same indulgence for even the two-eyed who see double.

If the years teach us any one lesson more than another, it is that we must not be dogmatic about results. We cannot say with impunity ‘ do this and that will follow: here is the theory, there the life, hence’ — we laugh and turn away, ‘What! is it done?’ the much-belated wife of the minister asked him at the church door. ‘No, my dear, it is said: it remains to be done.’ Evolution, said and done, is gainsaid, yet ever doing. Inevitable old age is itself but a kind of non-sequitur in t hat it so often assumes a new and charming attitude toward the facts and problems and solutions of life.

We cannot confine so elusive a thing as a non-sequitur to a formula. There is one glory of the sun and another glory of the moon; there is one season of the northern hemisphere and another of the southern. It is a provision of nature for leaves to fall, platitudinizes the oak; the pine tosses its head and laughs aloud. Sleep, we say, is a natural thing. Some one has asked us to contemplate the consternation of a visitant from a sleepless sphere at seeing the whole world lie down dead for a third of its time. A young wife in China writes me that native Christians who saw her husband kiss her before a brief separation, gave the matter prayerful consideration and finally begged him, for the sake of the cause, to desist from such practice, for ‘ if he does it to his wife what would he not do to other women!’ — the only possible sequitur from the Oriental point of view.

Livingstone led some natives of the interior of Africa on a toilsome march to the sea. When they came in sight of the ocean the men fell on their faces to the ground. ' We were marching along with our father,’ they reported afterward to their people, ‘believing what the ancients had told us, that the world had no end. Then all at once the world said to us, “I am finished: there is no more of me.” ’ In such unsophisticated but lofty words, they expressed their conscious impotence before the unknown conclusion. We, to whom the sea is but a feature of the landscape, know that it is but a new point of departure for other terra firma. Other non-sequiturs that still frighten us may be but the simplest of axioms to the great initiated: harmonious, inevitable resolutions of earlier dissonances.

What influence do the non-sequiturs of life, whether they strike us on the funny bone, or pat us on the heart, or lead our thoughts to the shore of the infinite, — what influence do they exert over us? Mv earliest perception of them was as though I had been driving along a straight road and suddenly realized that the horse had wandered off into a meadow, and stopped beside a frisky little brook with everything around unfamiliar and delicious. Of course it was crazy, my getting there: I ought to blush; but oh, the fun of it! The digression was, as Sterne said, like sunshine. Somehow, just so my later non-sequiturs have become points of departure for golden dreams and silver realities: just so have I sometimes reached obscure souls on their secret paths.

If nothing more, the non-sequitur teases one into thinking it out, or into trying to think it out; the endeavor being more operative than the solution sought. Some one has said that the ten commandments are not authoritative because they are commanded, but because they are true. So, if the non-sequitur be true, it is both authoritative and influential.

Breasting the stream of the irrelevant is quite a different thing from the swimming in some folks’ heads to which Socrates attributed the flux of the world. No one could play with words like Socrates, yet he laughed at Euthydemus’s anger at himself for exacting precise statements where he had thought to catch the philosopher in a shower of words. ‘When do you think, Theætetus,’ Socrates might have asked that charming youth, ‘when do you think the non-sequitur becomes the sequitur? ’ And how smilingly he would have led him along to some such conclusion as this: ‘Set out vaguely for the non-sequitur, and the logical sequitur is bound to follow; while with a goal clearly proposed and manfully sought, the result, however seemingly syllogistic, will somehow prove a beneficent non-sequitur.’ If we have watched over and cultivated and restrained body and mind and soul, their combinations, like those of a kaleidoscope, may astonish but can never humiliate us. If we have worked persistently toward certain results, our efforts may be no guaranty that we shall reach those particular results, but the nonsequitur will be odds in our favor.

How then shall we greet this inevitable non-sequitur in our lives, this illogical sequence of our former studies, of the influence of others, of environment, of circumstance, of the flux of the world? Be sure that we welcome it with a shout, interrogate it, react on it, do something to it. It may, as in cat’s cradle, come back with the next change of hands, to a familiar position with which we know how to deal, the little episode having served to lift the horizon for us; or, if not, lo, a chance to learn the solution of a new combination full of endless possibilities! Our principal business with the non-sequitur, as I see it, is just the grace to use it. Not to rebel and cry out for unruled stars and a truth untrue, but to accept the eternal law, finding therein a firm if unexpected

footing for the soul;
Discern a height beyond all heights
A depth beyond all depths. —
For these, despair is like a bubble pricked.

It does not follow? Does n’t it? Well, as my friend said over the teacups, try it and see.