'Polite Society'

‘WHAT is the matter with Society?’ is the inevitable question, when a few of the elder representatives of the socalled ‘Great World’ meet together to shake their heads over the younger generation, and to place unerring fingers on what seems to each individual the plague-spot of the body social.

‘The fault is with the young men of to-day!’ loudly vociferate the mothers of daughters.

‘The girls are entirely to blame for the lack of manners and morals,’ announce the mothers of sons.

The grandfathers shake sententious heads. ‘The real explanation of the lack of good breeding to-day is that the modern mother is not a mother at all. Now, in my day —’ And so they play their part.

The grandmothers are convinced that they alone hold the secret of the collapse of taste. ‘The whole trouble is with the fathers,’ they triumphantly proclaim. ‘Men have no authority nowadays over their sons, daughters, or wives. That is why chaos is come again.’

And so it goes; whosesoever the fault, the result is the gossip of rather a vicious little circle of critics, who are so intent upon playing Button, Button, who ’s got the Button of Responsibility? that, in their eagerness to identify the guilty hands, they forget to seek a remedy.

Where does the real fault appear to lie, to one who views the panorama of Society from the peak of middle age, and who is a member of the more dispassionate sex — old enough to remember the good times he enjoyed a quarter of a century ago, and young enough to enter into such social pleasures as are accessible to-day to one of the ‘ripe unwedded.’ As he looks down the slope where mists of romance and haze of sentiment blur the outlines of the past, he sees himself in a ballroom of other days, where, by the witchery of Strauss, an awkward man was transformed into a dervish of whirling grace; where the rhythm of dancers dancing in tune entered into his blood and made him a worshiper of beauty, forever adoring the spirit of mysterious and elusive womanhood in many, many different incarnations.

And on the plateau where he stands, what does he see? All around him is a vividly colored throng of restless, excited, noisy human beings, exhibiting little grace and less elegance, possessing no mystery, no romance, making no appeal to the poetic fancy. They trot like foxes, limp like lame ducks, onestep like cripples, and all to the barbaric yawp of strange instruments which transform the whole scene into a moving-picture of a fancy ball in Bedlam. But — let this middle-aged observer speak the truth and shame the critics — he enjoys hopping and scuffling about in this motley crew even as he once enjoyed gliding and sliding among a less bizarre assembly. It is a genuine pleasure in the frivolities of the Present, as well as of the Past, which gives this philosopher (who so prides himself on his broadmindedness) the wish to jot down a few middle-aged notes concerning the corner of Society in which he idly buzzes.

He must confess that, in observing the giddy whirl at their revels, he is sufficiently old-fashioned to find himself watching the ‘ cheek-to-cheek ’ dancing with his gray hairs standing on end— although his many black ones continue to lie decorously over his incipient bald spot. The scene suggests to him, with poignant irony, the German song so popular in his youth, ‘Lehn’ deine Wang’ an meine Wang’;’ hough Heine, for all his sentimentality, would have been shocked by the literal interpretation of his lover’s appeal.

The first rule for a student of contemporary customs is to lock up in the strong box of the past all natural yearning for a day that is dead.

Notre jeunesse est enterrée
Au fond du vieux calendrier.
Ce n’est plus qu’en fouillant la cendre
Des beaux jours qu’il a contenu
Qu’un souvenir pourra nous rendre
La clef des paradis perdus.
[Our vanished youth lies buried here,
Deep in this faded almanac.
’T is only as we stir the fire
Which smouldering o’er our fair past lies,
That Memory yields to fond Desire
The keys of our lost paradise.]

Throw away the key that memory hands us to what seems in retrospect a Paradise indeed; then fling open the portals of the mind and let the Spirit of the Time fly in; for it is not by shutting our eyes to the fact that we live in a new world that we can cheat ourselves into believing that we are surrounded by the old standards, and steering by the old chart.

It is not necessary to review in detail the astonishing facts that are brought up for discussion nowadays among little groups of outraged — but intensely interested — mothers, and later réchauffés as delicious tid-bits of scandal for home-consumption — a domestic feast which the man of the house is invited to share. There is a long catalogue of social sins and youthful misdemeanors served up with a sauce piquante; some are exaggerated, many authentic, some so sinister in their implications as to be almost incredible as reflecting the social code of our so-called best people.

One can fancy the variations on the usual themes; we have all heard them: the perfect freedom of intercourse between the sexes, the unchaperoned motor-flights at night, the intimacies of modern dancing, the scantiness of modern dress, and the frankness of conversation between young men and girls. There are even whispers concerning the sharing of the smuggled bottle during the early prohibition days, and the indulgent attitude of some of the most popular girls toward the evident intoxication of their partners. These are among the most serious arraignments of the idle life of the idle rich. Then there are the more venial sins. There is the thick skin and blunted social conscience of the young man who, like the courageous hero of the Limerick, —

Never knew when he was slighted,
But went to the party
And ate just as hearty
As if he ’d been really invited.

There is also the young man who does not answer his hostess’s invitation; nor does he speak to her when he lounges into her drawing-room, but treats a lady’s house like a public dancehall. In short, there is the lawless minority who turn a débutante’s entrance to society into a Saturnalian revel, and bring disrepute upon a whole section of society, when it is, in truth, only one link that is weak. None the less, a weak link mars the beauty and worth of an entire chain intended to be worn by Humanity as an ornament. But in upbraiding the reprehensible few, who will neither know nor care that they are being censured, we must not, as some ungracious pastors do, address with misplaced eloquence the faithful members of a congregation on the sin of not going to church.

It is not surprising, in the general ‘speeding up’ of every enterprise during the last hundred years, that human nature itself fails to respond, when the feeble hand of middle-age or old age tries to apply the brake to the new motor-force which impels it forward. When does strength yield to weakness? We are tired of listening to the old analogies: how steam succeeded stage horses as a method of locomotion, and a consequent acceleration of speed vibrated through society; how humanity took to an even quicker pace when electricity and gasoline increased the tempo of life. It is merely a bromide to recall that airplanes and submarines have still further transformed the universe. We cannot look for the qualities in men and women that went with the sedan-chair and a coach and four.

We all agree that certain human qualities are permanent, others temporary; but we probably all differ as to which virtues should be on the evanescent list. Perhaps we sometimes fail to recognize the same old human quality in the disguise of a passing fashion. Certainly, the desire on the part of young ladies to make themselves attractive to the opposite sex is the most fundamental and natural of their qualities, deserving no censure; but the manifestations vary with the mode of the day. There is a fashion in these things. ‘One generation passeth away and another generation cometh.’ Sensibility degenerates into nonsense; the pendulum swings upward, and nonsense is transformed into sense; it descends, and the appeal of sense degenerates into the appeal of the senses — the transition quickened by afterthe-war laxity of standards. George Meredith speaks truth when he says of women, —

Their sense is with their senses all mixed in, — but the mixture does not make them more intelligible to man. Many colored beads of different shape and design are strung upon the thread which Eve began unwinding in the Garden of Eden, and which is as long as human life — the thread of the Desire to be Liked.

A hundred years ago the young girl who wished to ensnare the heart of a man would blush, and tremble, give a side glance and look down, and carelessly drop a rose from her bosom in the path of her pursuer. Her granddaughter seeks popularity by another path. At a dinner-party she seizes a roll of bread, dexterously slings it across the table, avoiding intervening heads, and with a raucous cry of ‘Hi there! Catch it, you boob!’ has flung her gauntlet into the arena of popularity. One may prefer the fallen rose to the hurled roll, but the motor-power behind both is the same.

Of course, the eternal question of supply and demand confronts us. Do the wishes of the young man of to-day create the supply of ill-bred young hoydens whose well-aimed blows give Society its black eye? or has modern life, with its mechanical efficiency, produced the young Amazons who are to be the mothers of the next generation, and must man perforce submit to his destiny? It is the day of extremes, but a danger confronts the newest woman, which she must meet intelligently or lose all that she has gained: it is the danger that reactionary man may demand a return of the obsolete feminine virtues of modesty and gentleness, and that with their rebirth much that is worth keeping in the girl of to-day will disappear. May evolution forbid that the bottle of smelling-salts should be reinstated to supplant the steering-wheel of a motor-car as woman’s trade-mark!

The modern girl may be popular as a partner in a one-step, but will she be popular as a life-partner in that permanent two-step to which different gaits adjust themselves with such difficulty?

One does not wish to bear down too hard on an evanescent phase, and so contribute toward crystallizing it into permanence; nor does one wish to treat too lightly a really menacing laxity of standard. One can but hope that the sane majority will finally absorb and conquer the insane minority, and that the private ballroom will eventually yield to the censor of taste, as the public dance-hall is forced to conform to the censor of law.

‘But the Button of Responsibility is not yet found! ’ cry out the eager pursuers of the guilty, as they scan one another’s tightly closed fists. In this game the adversary of Society is Truth; and when her clear voice issues the old command of our childhood days, ‘Button, button, arise!’ look what happens. Fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters all stand up, a sheepish row, and between each pair of hands, clasped in supplication, lies concealed a button!

Yes, there is no question that the responsibility must be shared by us all. It is the duty of every father to have a first-hand knowledge of things as they are — not of things as they are repeated to him by dealers in highly spiced gossip. Then he should talk to his daughters (for his sons are presumably past being influenced by his conversation), and he should expend all the eloquence he can summon in making his girls feel that with them lies the entire future of the human race. The social standards will be what they make them, the young men will be the husbands — as well as the dancing partners — of the women who mould them. If a girl is right-minded and cleanhearted, her father can make her understand the strength of her natural weapons — her charm, her beauty, her sympathy, her youth. If she prefers to turn from these to the coarser tools of conquest, then it is time for the modern father to get out his good old weapon, now dull with disuse, the trusty sledgehammer of Parental Authority. Let him bring it down on the tendency he wishes to crush, with the ringing exhortation of primitive man, ‘This shall be done because I command it! ’ If woman resorts to barbaric methods of conquering young men, old men must retaliate by adopting uncivilized warfare to subjugate woman. It is for us middle-aged fathers and uncles to do our share toward restoring social law and order — peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.

With the mothers lie still greater responsibilities. They should have established, from the childhood of their daughters, such a close companionship of sympathy and wise guidance, such an understanding tolerance of the vagaries and frivolities of youth, that it should be absolutely impossible for their children to degenerate into the beautiful weeds which crop up sporadically in the rosebud garden of girls. In these days of freedom of speech between the sexes, it would do no harm to have a little more frankness between members of the same sex, and to encourage mothers to tell their daughters truthfully and simply the effect of some phases of their social laxity on the men whose moral fibre they are weakening. The fact that the young girls who demoralize the tone of society are themselves shielded from the results of their own recklessness is not sufficient reason for them to be held blameless. When lovely woman stoops to folly, she can always find someone to stoop with her, but not always someone to lift her up again to the level where she belongs.

‘ But it would rub off the bloom from our girls to talk of these things! ’ cry the outraged mothers. ‘My daughter is perfectly unconscious. I have tried to bring her up as a child of nature. I won’t put ideas into her head!’

Perhaps bloom is one of the obsolete accessories of youth and beauty; one certainly does not often find it, though it is not usually a mother’s hand which has rubbed it off. But even with the bloom of innocence and inexperience brushed away, there can be a soundness and cleanness remaining; and it is for the mothers to preserve that moral healthiness in their daughters. Would it cause a shrill chorus of protest if it were suggested that there are parents so eager for their daughters to attain popularity at any price that they close their eyes to the cost of the ephemeral success they encourage? If the fathers’ hands hold a button, the mothers’ hands certainly conceal more than one.

And how about the young girls themselves? It would show a woeful lack of intelligence to try to appeal to the offenders on any side save that of their own popularity. Those who do not offend are no concern of ours — the slipper of criticism does not fit the gentle Cinderella, whose methods of conquest are those of legitimate fascination; our business is with her proud and vain sisters whom the shoe fits to perfection. Cannot these modern sirens be made to realize that those of them who possess beauty, youth, wit, sympathy — the qualities that will always lure men — have only to decide by what methods they wish to attract their partners or friends, their lovers or their husbands, and the game is in their hands? They have the power of making any card trumps, and they can always play to win. They should think too well of themselves to employ methods hitherto confined to a class representing the victims of the social order rather than its makers. Nobody wishes to suggest that the young girls, full of vivacity and fun and the desire to be liked, should become either prudes or highbrows. They will, of course, do things that their grandparents would disapprove of — that is only evolution; let them dance and flirt and be frivolous and gay; only let them remember that the girls with whom men like to dance and whom they like to flatter are not necessarily the girls they will choose as friends, still less as wives. The popular adjective for the popular girl to-day is ‘jazzy,’ — the word carries its meaning in the sound, — and the quality seems to have superseded the gift of charm which womankind used to desire as the indefinable social magnet.

But the present-day young man will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely, for his ear is pitched to the shrill jargon of war-time slang and profanity; and — here enters his button of responsibility — by seeming to admire the most objectionable type of modern girl, he certainly encourages that type to persist. The word ‘simple’ has come to be synonymous with all that is stupidest and most unpopular in the modern girl; and in her dread of being stigmatized with the cryptic adjectives bestowed on her by masculine contemporaries, she consents to be labeled by the older generation as fast, unladylike, common, and underbred!

Young men are certainly not exempt from their share of the blame that is flung about with such reckless hands by both spectators of and participators in the social game. They are older than the girls they play with, they think themselves wiser, yet they do all in their power to make the customs and manners of an unlicensed world the standards of the young ladies whom they are ‘honoring’ with their attentions. They do know more of some things than the girls with whom they dance and flirt; and it is for them, with their wider experience, to exhibit more of the gentlemanly conduct which they would wish to have shown to their own sisters by their friends.

Perhaps some young people think to escape responsibility for the relaxed standards of the day by claiming that they really do not care for Society, but ask only to go their own way, lead their own lives, do what they choose, and harm nobody. This specious reasoning is more comforting than convincing, for, after all, Society with a large S is not very different from the society with a small s into which we are all thrust, willy-nilly, between cradle and grave. If we live in the world at all, we automatically become members of society; and though a girl never ‘comes out,’ she can never ‘go in’ till the painted veil drops behind her.

Individuality should, however, be very definitely considered and respected by the generation which tries to guide and guard the youth entrusted to its care; and the mechanical instruction which seeks to standardize all conduct turns out lifeless models of deportment far more discouraging than some of the hand-made failures.

Narrow-minded parents, intrenched in unimaginative virtue, are sometimes as reprehensible in their morality as the frivolous mothers or ignorant fathers who cast aside all responsibility, with a shrug of tolerance for the vices and faults they are too selfish to correct. The father who exacts a promise from his avid young son not to smoke, drink, or swear may be as blameworthy as the parent who preaches from the text so popular with youth, ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow you die.’ The over-sensible mother who, in protest against the follies of 1920, sends a sensitive little girl to a party dressed in what looks like a blue serge bathingsuit, will probably cause her child to think more about dress than the nou-

veau riche mamma who decks out her curled darling in real lace and butterfly bows. The attitude of constant protest against existing conditions is dangerously myopic. We must advance along the road where the new generation is leading us, or we must travel alone — and backwards; for it is only by following the path our sons and daughters must inevitably tread that we can keep close enough to them for our advice or warnings to be of any help. The education we receive from our children modifies that which we try to give them; so let us not be righteous overmuch. Customs change, codes vary, standards shift; but every age and every nationality has always produced two flowers of civilization — the Lady and the Gentleman. If these flowers have become rare botanical specimens in this country and this day, is it perhaps the fault, not of the soil or the climate, but of the gardeners?

Certainly, by looking at things as they are, without prejudice or hysteria, ways can be seen in which each division of the units that compose society can do something to restore its influence and dignity. If the whole tale could be compressed into the scareheads of yellow journalism, we should all situp and take notice, constituting ourselves the jury to try the mysterious culprits. Would not the story run something like this?



With these facts in mind, the self-appointed jury adjourns, and after due deliberation the foreman (who is none other than the self-satisfied middleaged observer) makes the following announcement, the result of the testimony offered on preceding pages: —

‘In this murder-case fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters are all found guilty, though in different degrees; but as their crime was not premeditated, we recommend them to mercy.’

He pauses for the expected murmur of mingled approbation and disapproval ; and at this moment a woman in the dress of a nun pushes through the crowd, and making her way to the platform, whispers something in the ear of the foreman. He raises his hand to command attention, and continues, — ‘A surprising piece of news has just been brought to us from the bedside of the victims. This Sister of Charity tells me that the supposed corpses are both giving signs of returning life. Modesty’s heart is beating faintly, and Chivalry is said to have breathed an almost imperceptible sigh.’