Reflections of a Grundy Cousin
THINGS have a way of focusing. An article by ‘ Mr. Grundy ’ in the May Atlantic synchronizes with the receipt of a protest which I am asked (as a ‘ woman writer’) to sign, against the prevailing immodesty of women’s dress. Yesterday, between the arrival of the protest and the reading of the article, I attended a ‘ movie,’ given for the benefit of the local hospital — a movie during which some incredible people danced at a place called ‘The Green Lantern.’ The screen-dancing aroused the loud laughter of the undergraduates in the audience; and I (who have not danced since waltz and two-step days) asked: ‘Are they laughing because people do dance that way, or because they don’t?’
‘Because they don’t— I think,’ my companion replied.
Later, in an historical film, the young man kissed the girl very shyly, and she slapped his face —gently, but seriously. Laughter again — this time, only too obviously, because they don’t do it that way. And just now, before taking up my pen, I discovered an advertisement — in the Atlantic — which displayed a costume that the good ladies whose protest I have not yet decided about signing would certainly have thought should be included in their anathemas. Yesterday, I had been reading a very young novel, which affects to describe the sort of life that can be lived nowadays by boys and girls who have had ‘advantages.’ Things have a way of focusing, as I said. Add to this the fact that no one who lives in a university town can be unaware of the problems stated by Mr. Grundy; and that they furnish, inevitably, at this moment or that, the stuff of passionate discussion.
The fault I find with Mr. Grundy’s interesting article is that, somehow, by making everybody share the blame equally, he relieves any one of very much blame; and that he ends too optimistically. He is quite right, doubtless, in saying that fathers, mothers, boys, and girls are all responsible for the state of affairs. When a youth brings a girl of doubtful morals to dance on the floor with his friends’ sisters, he is, on more counts than one, to blame. When a ‘ nice ’ girl behaves as if her own morals were nil, she is to blame. When a mother sends her daughter off to a ball unchaperoned, she is at fault; and when a father allows his daughter to drive a young man about for a few hours after midnight, in her own car, after supplying him with whiskey filched from the parental reserve, the father has not precisely lived up to his responsibilities.
Granted — all of it. ‘It is the war, I believe,’ said one mother, the other evening. ‘ It is the mothers,’ say other women who keep a proper tab on their own girls. ‘It is the motor-car,’ says a man who does not give his débutante daughter a car of her own. ‘It is the girls: they want you to make love to them,’ say the boys. ‘It is the men: they won’t dance with you if you wear a corset,’ say the girls. Passing the buck, as Mr. Grundy implies.
But it is really — is it. not? — more than this. It is everything. That is why it seems to me that Mr. Grundy’s final optimism is perhaps unjustified. Give the motor-car its due share of responsibility. Give the movie more blame, please, than it has hitherto received. Give the war some — but not too much; for all this antedates the war. Give the radical intellectuals a little, for their tendency to howl down everything that has ever, anywhere, been of good repute. Give a lot of it to the luxury of the nouveaux riches: a luxury which inevitably, at first, finds expression in pampering the body. Give ‘prohibition’ a little, if only as an earnest of the vast blame it is going to have to shoulder in the next decade or two. And give all you can heap up to the general abandonment of religion.
For the abandonment of religion is probably most responsible of all, since it bears a causal relation to most of these other facts. When we had religion, we may have been vulgar, but our vulgarity was not so vital. The type of religion by which we were for the most part influenced in America did not necessarily give us manners, but it did necessarily give us morals. It called certain things sins: it stuck to the Ten Commandments. It forbade exploitation of the senses. Perhaps it forbade too much. That is not for me to say. By objecting to all music, to all dancing, to all plays, to most fiction, to a hundred forms of art and beauty, it brought about — you may believe — an inevitable and legitimate revolt. No one, I have heard it said, is gayer than the Quaker turned ‘worldly.’ But the fact remains that when, as a social group, we threw over religion, we threw over—probably without meaning to — most of our everyday moral sanctions.
Many of my friends are not religious at all, although they are moral. But they were nearly all brought up in strict religious forms; and while their brains have discarded dogma, their characters have none the less been moulded by a fairly firm Christian ethic. Whether they will be able to pass that ethic on to their children, without the dogma, remains, most interestingly, to be seen. At present, what they cling to most, I find, is the recognized social code — which, itself, was built up largely by the Christian ethic. But social conditions in a modern democracy change so rapidly, that a code with no eternal sanction is a weak reed to lean upon. We are enduring more and more, in America, the influence of people who have broken deliberately or violently with any religious law; and you cannot knock away the props and still keep the structure. You cannot make the Ten Commandments potent by mere dwelling on their inherent felicity. If there is no divine command back of them, they lose all power over the man who finds it more satisfactory to break them. The modesty and manly chivalry which Mr. Grundy sees recovering from their collapse have nothing at present to recover with. Religion was the blood in their veins. You may faint from acute indigestion; but of pernicious anæmia you die. For better or worse, our Western civilization has been built up on the Christian religion; and if the Christian religion decays, many accidents will happen that will puzzle the politicians.
Now it is a fad with some people to talk as if the war had not only made necessary, but made actual, a vast religious revival. As far as one can observe, both in Europe and in America, the two ways in which this hypothetical religious revival has manifested itself are Humanitarianism and Spiritualism. People are talking, more even than before the war, about ‘service’ and spooks. Mr. Chesterton said delightfully the other day that ‘free verse is no more a new form of poetry than sleeping in a ditch is a new form of architecture.’ Humanitarianism and Spiritualism are no more new forms of religion than sleeping in a ditch is a new form of architecture. A large part of the humanitarianism of the present day is being managed by people who have no religious creed of any kind; and when this sort, of altruistic activity is linked up with an existing church, the church is apt to be the tail of the kite. ‘Social service’ as carried on by the churches seems to be but one of the many attempts they are making to furbish up their wares in accordance with fashionable taste.
That last sentence as it stands would be misleading indeed, if I did not hasten to say that the Church, in all time, has been mindful of its duty of altruism — whether, at given moments, it performed that duty very well or not. ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ is one of the fundamental Christian commands. But two things must be borne in mind. One is that the organized altruists today, the official lovers of their neighbors, have no relation to the Church. The second is that the Church — so far as ‘ service ’ goes — follows, mimetically, in the wake of non-religious reformers and theorists. The great humanitarian congregation is without a temple — or an altar. Especially without an altar. Humanitarianism is the intellectual mode of the day — but it is not religious in its source, its method, or its spirit. No code is religious, however much it may deal with the duty of one individual to another or to society, which does not deal with the duty of the individual to God. The ethic that humanitarianism imposes may turn out to resemble, at many points, the ethic imposed by religion; but it will not resemble it at all points, for the principle of authority makes all the difference. God and ‘ the greatest good of the greatest number’ are not, after all, interchangeable terms. Take the little matter of immodest dress to which we have alluded. You can tell a girl that she is appealing crudely to the physical nature of men; she may admit it, and at the same time justify herself with something out of Freud or Theodore Dreiser. But if you remind her (and if, again, she admits it) that her body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, she has no retort coming. The general principle of altruism is a very noble thing; but in its application it is too often arguable. Obedience to a divine command is not arguable at all.
As for spiritualism: it is a delicate matter to speak of, in these days. Whether you side with Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Conan Doyle, or quote The Road to En-Dor under your breath, you will admit that it has nothing to do with religion. Because Christianity (in common with most other religions) has preached the immortality of the soul, it does not necessarily follow that the people who have decided that they can communicate, by table tipping, by ouija-boards, by automatic writing, or what not, with their dead, have become religious. It is mere paucity and conventionality of imagination that considers belief in life after death the equivalent of religious faith. The logical process seems to go thus: Christians believe in immortality; most of the people who have thrown over Christianity have thrown over their belief in immortality; therefore people who believe in immortality are Christians. You believe that the dead send you messages? Very well. Et après? Personally I do not believe that the dead send messages — not because I have not had extraordinary messages, myself, through a very explicitly tipping table. I have; and things that I swear were never part s of my conscious imaginings, in all my life, to say nothing of my conscious knowledge. But even if I believed that those extraordinary messages were genuine (as I emphatically do not), it would have nothing to do, one way or the other, with my religion.
As for the effect of spiritualism on morals, frankly, I do not know what it may be. According to Sir Oliver Lodge, I believe, they use tobacco in heaven — if heaven be what the spiritualists call ‘the next life.’ But that does not take us very far. Does it not stand to reason that the people who go to Raymond instead of the Gospels for information about ‘the next life’ are not what we should call religious? As far as I can make out — though I am not very familiar with this literature — the accounts, the admonitions even, of the departed, are vague enough. What people seem to get out of it is either the egotistic satisfaction of being sure that they will not, themselves, die with death, or the comforting sense that they will rejoin the people they have loved here. And that, in point of fact , seems to be all that they want out of spiritualism. If they had been orthodox Christians, they would, presumably, have had it before. No: it is not going to take the place of God — without whom there can be no religion.
All that is over-long and, it may be, digressive. But I started by saying that I thought the lack of religion more responsible than war or movies or motorcars for the vulgarity of our manners and the laxity of our morals; and it was necessary to show why I do not agree with the people who talk as if AngloSaxondom were experiencing a great religious revival. The evidences of that revival are evidences, I believe, of something else. As for the Inter-Church World-Movement, — which cannot be passed by, in this connection, without mention, — I have no doubt that it is in many ways a good thing, and all in the interests of efficiency. But it is a sign, I fancy, of the waning, rather than of the waxing, of religious zeal. I found myself, the other day, in sneaking sympathy with that particular Baptist church which put itself on record as against the I.C.W.M. Not that I am, or ever should be, a Baptist. But it is a comfort, in these days when all churches are taking the easy way of latitudinarianism, to find some body that stands stiff-necked against the prevailing wind: declaring that it is more important that religion should be right than that it should be universal. The fact is, you cannot go on telling people that this thing or that does not matter (things that men have believed in to the point of persecution) and expect them to believe that anything of the sort matters very much. ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’ is one of the truest sayings ever said. Every church has been built on beliefs that men would go to the stake for — and did.
‘Strong was he that had a Church, what we can call a Church: he stood thereby, though “ in the centre of Immensities, in the conflux of Eternities,” yet manlike towards God and man; the vague shoreless Universe had become for him a firm city, and dwelling which he knew. Such virtue was in Belief; in these words, well spoken: I believe. Well might men praise their Credo, and raise stateliest Temples for it, and reverend Hierarchies, and give it the tithe of their substance; it was worth living for and dying for.’
No: religion must be definite or it is a mere state of mind, a perishable and mutable thing. Though I am not a Baptist, I respect those Baptists who do not think that my church is any proper substitute for theirs. They have a conviction; and life is not worth much without one. I fancy they may perceive, too, that to flood the market with Ersatz-creeds will eventually destroy the creed-market entirely. I am no more a Catholic than I am a Baptist; but I cannot refrain from pointing out that the Catholic church is not joining the I.C.W.M. Rome is too old a bird for that.
And what has it to do, all this, with the subject of Mr. Grundy’s discussion, and the agitated tea-table talk of many mothers? Merely this: that you cannot alter the contemporary state of affairs simply by taking thought. All the things that Mr. Grundy mentions, and some others, have played their part. But the facts that he gives as causes are themselves results, ‘signs of the times.’ I hear parents discussing what they will, and what they will not, permit their daughters to do, at this or that dance, this or that house-party. Those particular mothers, perhaps, can make reasonably sure that their girls will be decently dressed, will not kiss their partners on the ballroom floor, will not carry flasks of whiskey in their bags, will not spend the hours from 1 A.M. to 4 A.M. alone with some youth, in a roadster, jaunting about the country, with a radius, from home, of fifty miles — for those mothers are more or less on the spot. Moreover, they have brought up their daughters, if not in the Christian creed, according to the Christian ethic. But such mothers are growing fewer.
If one mentions aristocracy, in these days, one is likely to be misunderstood. Let us speak of oligarchy, rather: a polity, as Aristotle defines it, in which the offices of the state are distributed among the persons who possess a certain property qualification. Socially speaking, we may fairly be said to be an oligarchy; and it is the oligarchs who set the social pace and fix the social code. Certainly the young people who get drunk, and spend the night in automobiles, and entertain chorus girls elaborately, and wear fashionably indecent clothes, and hire famous jazz orchestras to play to them, must be the financially privileged.
Two things have incontestably been happening to that portion of our society which sets the fashion, and visés, if it does not create, the prevailing social code. In the first place, since we have more recently been, socially speaking, an oligarchy, the group ‘at the top’ has not been homogeneous or traditional. It has been constantly recruited from the successful of every group, who bring various traditions, various standards, with them. That in itself tends to confusion. In the second place, the direct heirs of the people who established and maintained our social code for many generations have themselves discarded, for the most part, religion except as a form. Take even the faithful congregation of almost any Protestant church. If you could look into the secret minds of the individual members thereof, you would find a vast diversity and vagueness of essential belief. When you add to this breaking down of religious faith in the men and women who were brought up to have it, the immense influx of men and women of other types who have never had any creed, or who have renounced creeds of very different kinds, you get a society which is not going to abide eternally, be sure, by the Christian ethic. Take away the hope of heaven, — take away, much more, the fear of hell,— and you are going to be left with, at best, an attitude of mere politeness toward the Commandments; an attitude, at worst, of contempt or hostility.
Even in the churches, the nature of sermons has changed vastly in this generation. Ministers preach now about topics of the times, about schemes of social betterment, about political issues. They call this vitalizing the Church’s message, whereas it is more like side-stepping it. ‘He preached a good Gospel sermon,’ one old lady said to me a few years ago, after church. The good Gospel sermon is very rare in most churches nowadays. Clergymen are afraid of being too narrow, afraid of offending their hearers, afraid of boring them. I do not say that it is a good thing to be narrow, or that my own susceptibilities might not be offended by Jonathan Edwards. All the same, I would prefer to listen to Jonathan Edwards rather than to the Y.M.C.A. secretary who is so interested in Christ’s humanity that he forgets his divinity. You cannot mould religion to suit the tastes of men; if there is any moulding to be done, it must be the other way. Place in the dock, please, with the abandonment of religion, the particular things that the churches themselves are doing to religion.
What the social aspect of it comes to is this: that humanity will go the primrose path unless forbidden by some power in which it believes. You may get a little way by saying to people, ‘This conduct is unsocial.’ But you will not get very far unless you can say, ‘This conduct is wrong.’ For as to what, in personal conduct, is social and unsocial, the theorists will perpetually argue. The parents of this younger generation that is shocking us kept, as I said, their morality when they threw over their religion. But they cannot pass on that morality, except in a weakened form, when the religion is gone. The literature, the art, the science, of the day are profoundly irreligious. Even if young folk do serious reading, or serious thinking, it is under the tutelage of people who are, in the old term, ‘unbelievers.’ There has never been, I know, in a free country, more tendency to strait-jacket legislation than now. But in so far as that legislation affects youth at all directly, it affects it in the direction of revolt. And perhaps not illogically. American liberty was conceived and brought into being by a profoundly religious community. The Eighteenth Amendment (to take the most crying and recent case) is merely one of the instances of what happens to liberty when you substitute this or that minor issue of morals or expediency for a coherent faith. When you reject the great panacea of religion, you are bound to get a conflicting welter of little panaceas, each with its believers. Eventually we may achieve, by the aid of Congress, a document as heart-breakingly funny as, let us say, the Constitution of Hayti.
No: you cannot put stays on débutantes or decent clothes on ‘society matrons’ by warning them that they are pandering to the sexuality of men. When it comes to that, why should n’t they ? Men do not object, if girls do not. There is no reason why the young should not do anything they please, so long as it is not inexpedient. Society, escaped from its leash of authority, will soon see to it that anything it pleases to do shall be expedient. Some of us still atone for jazz at our parties by contributing to the support of missionaries in Africa. We must clean jazz out of the jungle, but we may keep it at home. The fact is that we are all bewildered and do not know just where to draw the line. The result of that state of mind is to have the line drawn a great deal further along than anyone expected.
Mr. Grundy thinks that modesty and manly chivalry are showing signs of life. Perhaps they are. We will hope so. But I seriously doubt if much blood will be pumped into their enfeebled veins until ‘polite society’ has once more learned to hear the faint, far call of ‘Thou shalt not.’