Domestic Superstitions

I

SUPERSTITIONS are perpetuated mainly in the church and the home, because whatever is said out loud in either place is intended to edify those who hear it. Parents and other adult members of the family belong to the priestly caste. It is their business to preach the doctrine and to be ostentatiously on their good behavior. Like their colleagues of the church, they feel the strain and find it necessary to enjoy stolen hours of unfrocked relaxation, which they spend with others of the profession who are pledged not to betray them. There are so many whom circumstance has placed in this position, but who feel unequal to its duties, that there is a widespread tendency to centralize the work of edification in the boarding-school, where it can be done by paid experts. As yet, however, this relief is too expensive to be generally enjoyed, and it still falls to the common lot of the adult to work, to pay taxes, and to officiate in the home.

Edification breeds superstition simply because fictions having sentimental value have to be preferred to facts. In the home this begins with the myths of Santa Claus and fairyland, and ends with the myth of the Perfect Gentleman and the Perfect Lady. In the home, as in the church, there are ecclesiastical as well as doctrinal superstitions —that is, superstitions having the function of protecting the prestige of the authorities. In the case of the home these superstitions have to do particularly with the pure benevolence, exemplary rectitude, and perfect manners of the parents. This idealized, fictitious parent may vary to any degree from the real parent. His activities off the stage, the friends with whom he associates there, and even his past history, are constructed and recast to fit the rôle of paragon which he assumes in the domestic drama.

Despite the weakness of his position otherwise, the adult member of the home enjoys this great advantage, that he fixes its superstitions in the form which they finally assume. He utilizes the experiences, deeds, and shrewd comments of the children, but puts his own interpretation on them. It is the adult who tells the story — sometimes, from motives of pride or retaliation, to other adults of rival domestic establishments; sometimes, for purposes of edification, to one of the children. In either case the moral that adorns the tale becomes its dominant feature, and it is the adult saga-maker who points the moral. He enjoys this advantage at his peril, however. For he is the most defenseless victim of his own eloquence. His rivals do not believe him because they possess prior domestic superstitions of their own. The children are protected by their inattention, levity, and worldly wisdom. But he himself hears himself so often, and takes himself so seriously, that he is like to become the only thoroughly orthodox adherent of his own teaching. It is in the hope of opening the eyes of the domestic adult, and enabling him to resist this insidious process of auto-suggestion, that these words are written.

There is, for example, a widespread belief that the mother, or wife, or resident aunt, or other domestic adult female, is the lover and champion of the home. Man is supposed to be a natural vagrant, only with great difficulty prevented from spending his idle time wandering from club to club, or from hole to hole on the golf-links. Woman, on the other hand, is supposed to be by nature the nostic or homing animal. Domestic dynamics, in short, are commonly explained as a resultant of the centrifugal force of the male and the centripetal force of the female. This is doubtless the more edifying view of the matter, because it idealizes what circumstance has decreed to be necessary. Since livelihood falls to the lot of the male and homekeeping to the lot of the female, it is prettier to suppose that the deepest passion of the one is the love of outdoors, and of the other the love of indoors; just as it would be prettier to suppose that a man compelled to earn his living as a night-watchman was by nature a nocturnal animal.

The facts, however, do not agree with this edifying view of the matter. The greatest day in the history of a privileged woman is the day of her Coming Out. From that day forth she wages a more or less ineffectual struggle to stay out. On the other hand, the greatest hour in a man’s day is the hour when he sets his face toward home. Every day, through hours of work, he is sustained by the same bright vision, which he derives from romantic fiction, or from his own creative imagination. He sees himself joyfully greeted by a household, no member of which has anything else to do, or any other wish, save to make him comfortable. They have all indulged themselves to their hearts’ content earlier in the day, and now it is his turn to be indulged. It is understood that he, and he alone, is tired. Any attentions or amiability on his part are gratefully appreciated, but they are not demanded, or even expected, of him. After dinner, there is a certain comfortable chair waiting for him in an accustomed spot near a reading-lamp. The contour of the upholstery is his perfect complement. He fits himself to the chair, reaches for the evening paper, and then experiences the purest rapture of domestic bliss. It consists in a sense of being ‘let alone,’ of snugness, relaxation, and a hovering protection. But, like all ecstasies, it is essentially indescribable.

This is man’s sustaining vision. It is only a vision, but, like all visions, it shows where the heart I lies.

Now, why is it only a vision? Because it leaves out approximately seventy-five per cent of the facts. All the other members of the household are tired,also, and are as conscious of having acquired merit and earned indulgence as is the male wage-earner. Each, like the adult male, forms his own conception of the end of a perfect day by the simple method of opposition. The children, having spent most of the day in a restrained posture on a school-bench, incline to riot. The woman, having spent the day indoors, desires to go out; and having seen no one during the day except the postman, the milkman, and the iceman, desires to associate more extensively with her kind. She, too, has been sustained during the day by a vision —children tucked in bed, her husband fired with social zeal, best clothes, a taxicab, a meal prepared by somebody else, and then a dance or the theatre, friends, gayety, and late to bed! Hence, while for the man the symbol of home is the armchair, for the woman it is the dressing-table. When the inward-bound man and the outward-bound woman meet on the threshold at the end of the day, then indeed is the ligature of matrimony strained!

What might or will be the case under a different social organization it is impossible to predict. The present domestic motivation is doubtless a more or less artificial pressure-effect of circumstance. Men work all day in order to be able to go home; women, in order to be able to leave home. Men are standing outside, looking in; women, inside, looking out. In both cases the force of inclination is equal and opposite to the force of circumstance. Thus the day of the man and the day of the woman and the day of the children culminate discordantly; and at the only hour when the family is united in the flesh it is divided in spirit. Somebody must spend the ‘free’ evening virtuously and patiently doing something that he does not want, or else everybody must spend it in a joint debate that nobody wants. Possibly, in some future time, men and women will both work at home and go out to play; or will both go out to work and spend the evening in adjoining armchairs. Even then one does not see one’s way clear about the children.

As it stands, then, man is the lover and champion of the home. To him it is a haven, a place of refuge, and an opportunity of leisure. Woman is the custodian and curator of the home. It is her place of business. ‘Woman’s place is in the home’ is not a description of female human nature, but a theory regarding the division of labor, or a precept, coined and circulated by men who want homes and need women to create them.

This corrected view of the home-sentiments throws a new light on certain habits of life which might be supposed at first to contradict it. There is, for example, man’s well-known addiction to clubs. It is popularly supposed that he resorts to these places in order to get away from home. Quite the contrary, He goes to his club because his club is the nearest approximation to his ideal of home that is available. It is more homelike than home. A man’s club does not exist for the promotion of social life, but for the purpose of avoiding it. It is essentially a place where the upholstery is deep, where one can read newspapers and eat, and where one is safe from intrusion. In other words, a man goes out to his club only from fear of having to go farther out.

Or, consider the popular view that women are more religious than men.

The real point seems to be that women are more inclined than men to go to church; which is a very different thing. Sunday is related to the week as the evening to the day. For a man, therefore, it is a day at home; and for a woman, a day out. A man’s idea of Sunday is to surround his house with barbed-wire, lock and barricade the doors and windows, disconnect the telephone, put on his slippers and an old suit, and then devote the day to reading the paper and ‘puttering.’ A woman’s idea of Sunday is to have everything cleaned and polished up, including the children; everybody in best clothes; and then have half of her friends in in the afternoon, and visit the other half in the evening. Now it is not difficult to see which programme and mood most easily accommodates itself to public worship. If you are all dressed up and socially inclined, what can be more natural and agreeable than going to church? And if you are down cellar, in old clothes, building bookshelves out of a packing-box, what can be more impossible?

According to the orthodox superstition, woman, as inwardly bent on religion and the home, is the natural conservative. She is regarded as the instinctive exponent of established things — of convention, authority, and the moral code. As a matter of fact, being more or less rigidly subjected to these things, her heart is set against them. Only men are really shocked; women pretend to be, because men would be still more shocked if they did n’t. Men, who have had the making of laws, have a real respect for them; women publicly observe them, but secretly regard them as little better than a nuisance. It is the same opposite play of inclination and circumstance that has been observed in the narrower sphere of the home. Men, being placed by circumstance in positions of hazard and exposure, long for security; women, being accustomed to security, long for freedom and adventure.

II

But to return to our domestic superstitions. The most distinctive and highly developed domestic art is scolding. The orthodox belief is that scolding is a sort of judicial censure administered from motives of the purest benevolence. If there is a tone of anger in it, that is supposed to be righteous indignation, or the voice of offended justice, the scolder being for the moment the mouth-piece of the categorical imperative. Scolding is conceived to be a duty peculiar to the home because of the relation of guardianship in which one member of the family stands to another. Thus one is one’s child’s keeper, or one’s wife’s, or one’s husband’s, but not one’s neighbor’s.

Now, what are the facts? Among animals, where motives are more unashamed, scolding is a mode of threat or attack. It is a manifestation of enmity. There is no reason for supposing it otherwise in the case of the domestic life of man. Statistics would undoubtedly reveal an almost perfect correlation between the frequency and intensity of scolding and the parent’s threshold of irritability — the latter depending on conditions of age, digestion, fatigue, temperamental irascibility, and personal idiosyncrasy.

Why should scolding be peculiar to the home? Not because the home is dedicated to benevolent admonition, but because the family circle provides perpetual, inescapable, intimate, and unseasonable human contacts. Individuals of the same species are brought together in every permutation and combination of conflicting interests and incompatible moods. There is no other grouping of human beings which provides so many stimuli for the combative instinct. When this instinct is aroused among the children, it is called quarrelsomeness, and is greatly deprecated by adults. When it is aroused in the adult himself, it assumes the more or less sublimated form of scolding. It flourishes in the home because it is both aroused and protected there. Scolding provides a reputable method of venting spleen when other outlets are stopped by law and convention. In the home, scolding can be indulged in with impunity so long as it does not arouse the neighbors. Its victims are defenseless; and the corporate pride of the family seals the mouths of its members, so that a decent repute may be preserved before the world. It is this conspiracy of silence and regard for appearances that has created the fiction of the happy fireside choir, where all voices carol in perpetual unison.

There would be no merit in this exposure, did it not serve to bring to light the real disciplinary value of home life, which consists, not in the eloquence and light of admonition, but rather in the aggravation of social experience. An individual who learns how to live cheerfully, or even how to live at all, in a home, finds little difficulty in living with his fellows anywhere else. The scolding of children teaches them not so much the error of their ways, as a practised skill in getting on with irritable adults, many of whom they will meet in real life later on. Perhaps the most superb manifestation of domestic life is the magnanimity of children — their swift forgetfulness of injury and their indulgence even of those human weaknesses of which they are themselves the victims. Both children and adults, consorting with one another in every combination of age and sex, in every condition of health, at every hour of the day, and in a great variety of moods and temperaments, exhaust the whole repertory of human relations and learn how to live together. The best name for this is patience. It is the lack of this which distinguishes the bachelor, the maid, the orphan, and in some degree the only child.

In the family, as elsewhere, example is said to be better than precept. The idea is that the child, carefully noting the heroic or saintly qualities of the father, mother, or resident aunt, — those qualities particularly celebrated in domestic song and story, — models his action closely thereon, and so of his own accord grows in wisdom and in favor at the same time that he grows in stature. But the observed results are so unlike this as to justify suspicion that here, too, we have to do with a superstition. And such is, indeed, unhappily the case. While it is doubtless true that the exemplar is better than the preceptor, in the family, at least, there is no ground for believing that example works any better than precept. What the child gives particular attention to in the domestic adult is the genial weakness, the human errancy, the comic relief, the discomfiture of dignity. He carefully notes that his father smokes and swears, and puts his feet on the table; and that his mother or resident aunt eats candy, uses slang, and puts her elbows on the table. He thereupon does these things himself, not because he is imitating a model, but because, having an inclination to do them anyway, he takes advantage of the fact that his monitor is for the moment disarmed.

It is not that the child is indifferent to example, but that he finds his examples elsewhere. The domestic adult is not in his line at all. He would as soon think of imitating him as the domestic adult himself would think of imitating the Emperor of Japan or the Grand Llama of Thibet. He has his own pantheon and hierarchy of heroes in the real world outside. These are sometimes adults, more often the elders of his own tribe. In any case they are free from that odor of sanctity and strained posture of edification which disqualify the domestic adult. It should be added that this discontinuity, though it may prevent emulation, does not hinder, but rather promotes, a certain shrewd, critical observation; so that a child may find himself presently cultivating the complementary opposite of certain types of character that have been peculiarly familiar to him in his domestic environment.

III

Many minor superstitions arise from domestic myopia. The intensity and the close propinquity of the domestic drama exaggerates all its values, both positive and negative. The normal genius of childhood is mistaken for individual distinction; and its normal limitations for individual delinquency. Within the family all children are remarkable; generic traits disappear from view altogether. The parent who will laugh heartily at a cartoon depicting the characteristic greediness, cruelty, truancy, disobedience, noisiness, irresponsibility, and general barbarism of a fictious boy or girl, will at once stiffen into apprehensive sobriety when his own child betrays the least of these weaknesses. Viewing human life as a whole, he observes that children grow and outgrow, and that mischievous children have been known to spend their adult years outside the penitentiary; he may even recollect that he had a fault or two himself in early years; but as regards his own children, every offense is a crime, every evil a calamity, and every incident a crisis. His only salvation lies in frequent, unannounced visits to other families.

IV

We have finally to examine a fundamental superstition relating to the seat of domestic authority. In so far as the feudal principle, or the theocratic principle, or the autocratic principle, or the plutocratic principle, survives here and there, owing to the conservatism of the home, the father does manage to retain some semblance of authority. But patriarchy is on its last legs. There is little to it now but outward form and old court ritual. The father still gives his name to the family, sits at the head of the table, and — oh, yes, pays the bills! But there is more service than authority in the second and third of these prerogatives, since someone has to carve, and it is the making rather than the paying of bills that really counts. Of course, he can still tyrannize over the family by making himself so disagreeable that he has to be bought off; but in a family anybody can do that. It is not a power that attaches to the male parent as such. As father, he is still the titular monarch, and that is about all. If he were formally to abdicate, it would not alter the actual balance of domestic forces in the least.

Meanwhile, it is to be feared that he to some extent exploits the pathos of his fallen greatness, and wrings from the feelings of his wife, children, or sister-in-law various minor concessions affecting his comfort. Nothing can exceed the scrupulousness with which appearances are preserved in public. He still takes the curb when the family uses the sidewalk, and is the last to enter and the first to leave a public or private conveyance. But to one who knows life as it is, the irony and bathos of the modern age are summed up in two spectacles: Kaiser Wilhelm chopping wood at Amerongen, and the paterfamilias washing dishes in the pantry.

If the father has fallen from authority, who has superseded him? The mother? Not at all. The popular impression to that effect has no basis except the fact that the power of the mother has increased relatively to that of the father. But this is due to the fall of the father rather than to any notable rise of the mother. No, the new domestic polity is neither the patriarchy nor the matriarchy, but the pediarchy.

That the children should encroach upon, and eventually seize, the authority of the parents is not so strange as might at first appear. After all, it is only the domestic manifestation of the most characteristic social and political movement of modern times, the rise, namely, of the proletarian masses. Within the family the children constitute the majority, the unpropertied, the unskilled, and the unprivileged. They are intensely class-conscious, and have come to a clearer and clearer recognition of the conflict of interest that divides them from the owners and managers. Their methods have been similar to those employed in the industrial revolution — the strike, passive resistance, malingering, restriction of output, and, occasionally, direct action.

Within the family, as in the modern democracy, the control is by public opinion. It is government of the children, by the children, and for the children. But this juvenile sovereignty is exercised indirectly rather than directly. The office-holders are adults, whose power is proportional to their juvenile support. The real (though largely unseen and unacknowledged) principle of domestic politics is the struggle for prestige among the adults. Some employ the methods of decadent Rome, the panem et circenses; others, the arts of the military hero or of the popular orator. But all acknowledge the need of conciliating the juvenile masses.

The power of juvenile opinion is due, not merely to its mass, and to the boldness and unscrupulousness with which it is asserted, but to its reinforcement from outside. It is more than a domestic movement: it is an interdomestic movement. The opinion of t he children is thus less provincial than that of domestic adults. It has, furthermore, a force which it derives from its more intimate contact with the main currents of history. The domestic adult is in a sort of backwash. He is looking toward the past, while the children are thinking the thoughts and speaking the language of to-morrow. They are in closer touch with reality, and cannot fail, however indulgent, to feel that their parents and resident aunt are antiquated. The children’s end of the family is its budding, forward-looking end; the adults’ end is, at best, its root. There is a profound law of life by which buds and roots grow in opposite directions.

The domestic conflict is in many of its notable features parallel to the industrial conflict; and they may be of common origin. It is natural that similar remedies should be proposed. The Taylor system and other efficiency systems have already broken down in both cases. Conservatives will propose to meet the domestic problem by higher allowances and shorter school-hours, with perhaps time and a half for overtime and a bit of profit-sharing. Liberals will propose boards of conciliation with child representation, attempts to link study and chores with the ‘creative’ impulses, and experiments in divided management. Radicals and domestic revolutionists will regard all such half-way measures as utterly ineffectual, because they preserve the parental system in its essentials. They will aim to consummate the revolution as soon as possible by violence, and then to bring a new order into being through a dictatorship of a sectarian minority.

This new order would be an almost exact inversion of the parental order. Whereas, under the present system, the parents are supposed to control the home for the benefit of the children, providing them with the necessities of life, and giving them work and advice for their own good, under the new system, the children would control the home for the benefit of the parents and other adults, assuming full responsibility for their living, and employing their expert services only as might be required. However difficult it may be to put such a change into effect, there is, from the adults’ point of view, much to be said for it.