An Adventure in Prophecy

PROPHECY, after all, is merely the logical continuance of the known into the unknown; and, on the data we have, it should be quite easy to prophesy for at least fifty years ahead.

It is also an admirable exercise to try to peer into the future; and, as the prophet need not prove that he is right, and as no one else can prove that he is wrong, it is a safe trade for any person to enter headlong.

The unknown is inconceivable. We may, therefore, hold tha1 there is no such thing, and that all history and progress is merely a getting and begetting of the thing we already have. It is the game that supplies the interest : otherwise, cricketers would long ago have wearied of stealing runs, boxers of acquiring knock-outs, and baseball players of being shrieked at by enthusiastic and unknown females; for these results have all been obtained innumerably by their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers. So the games of war, literature, and music are perpetually being played, with nations as teams, and the honors to be acquired have been got as immemorially and diversely as in the other games mentioned.

Mental energy usually follows on the heels of physical energy, and the country that is playing the hardest is the country that is getting ready to think the hardest. It is a mistake to suppose that play is the reward of work: it is merely its preliminary, and the country that cannot get its games going will not get much else going, either.

When Russia invented the ballet and America the tango, they were both preparing for something more than dancing. The ballet is danced with the other leg of Tolstoy; the tango is danced with the other leg of Whitman; and the modern world has no better men to show, and, apparently, no better dancing.

The country that does not export something ridiculous may be alive, but it is not kicking. It is past its playtime, and is either well into middle age and its physical reluctances, or well on its way to old age and a long sleep. These conditions of middle age and old age are the conditions apparent in the Europe of to-day. She requires a long rest, and is making up her mind to have it and to watch younger competitors undertake the business she once was supreme in.

All activities are protean, and mental activity is not less so than any of the other forces of nature; for, although force may be always the same, the form in which it is momentarily defined seems as out of our control as the elements are; which is but to say that, although we may understand ourselves very well, we are rather at a loss when coping with, or accounting for, our environment, that is, our collectivity; for man’s environment is simply other men, and objective nature has been largely put out of the game.

At one time man decides that he can express himself more satisfactorily, that is, more easily, in action, and he initiates schemes of work or invention or war, satisfying thus some obscure desire of being. At another, we all conceive that we are actually interested in thought; then the chatter of the salon revives and the feminine gender gets its chance again.

Just as men have always been interested in discovering the philosopher’s stone, or the elixir of life, so they have been interested in the periodicity of things, and have speculated as gravely, and perhaps as ludicrously, about the one as about the other. So there have been people who ascribed occult significances to certain numbers and their multiples, and who have tried to discover if there may not be, underlying the measures of time, general laws and particular applications of them, which could equally interest the social philosopher and the man of science.

It is a sane postulate that law underlies all phenomena, and that the sequence of the seasons, or of birth, growth, maturity, and decay, can be applied to any other matter we are interested in. The organizations of a man and a nation are different only in terms of duration. A man lives quicker and dies quicker than a nation does; but the facts of childhood, maturity, and age are as evident in the one case as in the other.

Climatic evolution is similarly periodic, ticking in terms of thirty years from good weather to bad, with the exactitude of a grandfather’s clock. Trade booms and depressions follow the like sequences, and in the matter of art, the same growths, maturities, decays, and reëmergings are to be traced. Flinders Petrie, the great Egyptologist, has indicated some of these recurring phases in books that are well worthy of being read again by those who may have forgotten them. And the peripatetics of art can be as easily followed as the passages of dynasties are.

The nation whose period of activity has arrived has usually two strings to its bow. Thus, Germany had metaphysics and music to play with; England, literature and mechanics; France, psychology and war, and so forth. For nearly all of these nations the period of work in the form specified has passed, and a new phase of life is beginning for them. We need not look any more to England for literature, to France for psychology (which is largely criticism), or to Germany for music. But if we can discover the conditions in other countries which are analogous to those of the England, France, and Germany of long ago, we may hazard a guess as to whence the world’s supply of art, and so forth, is to come.

Historic England may be considered roughly as the period from fifty years before the birth of Chaucer to the death of Shelley. Before that period, all was tentative; during it, all was achievement : after it, all was inertia. And today that splendid initiative has run its course. The like appears to be true of Germany and France, except that France seems to have gone further on the road to dissolution than her companion nations have.

But these arts are the business of young peoples, and England, France, and Germany are no longer young. Leaving (and it is temerarious to do so) the East out of the question, I would suggest that the young nations of the world now are America, Italy, and Russia; and that it is by the energies of these three countries that the world will be moved, until their work also is done.

It takes time, however, to attain, to, or to recognize and organize, a national inheritance, and much water will flow before any change is apparent in existing conditions, except the change that was already evident before the war. That change consisted in the fact that the countries named had ceased to produce the qualities for which they were famous, and that these qualities were appearing elsewhere, if only in the germ.

Music and metaphysics had shifted from Germany to Russia. Literature and mechanics are shifting from England to America, and actual social and critical intelligence has, I think, deserted France for Italy.

The countries named seem to have more vitality, curiosity, invention than any others; but for English-speaking people, the new world-activity is more readily discernible than for the others, and especially so in literature.

It is safe to predict a great literary renaissance in America. All the raw material, all the fresh interest and driving energy are there, and her one necessity now is to forget English literature, from Dickens to Wells, and to let her own wells bubble like the dickens. Indeed she had started doing that some years back; and, like the beginning of anything, the first result is unpleasant and incoherent. But the old standards are not quite as satisfying as they once were: the powerful hands of Messrs, Kipling and Anthony Hope are beginning to relax what had seemed like an eternal grip, and American brains are growing self-conscious and self-sufficing.

Saving everybody’s presence, I think the American story is the saddest invention of modern times; and it seems less to have been produced by a man’s head than by a donkey’s hoof. But the energy wasted on these tales cannot be paralleled in Europe; and within the last few years certain American writers have appeared, who are actually trying to write, and who understand that writing is a beautiful and very difficult art, demanding all of thought and sweat that a full-grown man has. America has attained national equilibrium, and her writers may be with us in less than a generation.

If one may speak of nations in the terms of master and pupil, it is reasonable to say that England has been the master of America, Germany the master of Russia, and France the master of Italy; and an interchange not only of gifts but of national characteristics has taken place between these various countries. Therefore, the person who wishes to be wise before the event should look to these pupil nations for the arts and magnificences which their tutors have grown out of.

It may seem odd, in a world packed with small and healthy nationalities, that these lighter tribes should be disregarded in this hasty summary. But they are left out, of malice aforethought. With the exception of Ireland, the small nations of the world are elderly little people. They have lived now for several centuries in a tranquillity that is near neighbor to stagnation; and if they had anything in their sacks worth giving to the world, they would have traded it. long ago, or advertised somehow that they had it. None but an enraged optimist would look to Scandinavia or the Low Countries, to Switzerland, Hungary, or Spain, for any more artistic exports than emigrants, antique furniture, and cuckoo clocks. These countries are contemporaneous in history with their greater neighbors, and really fall within their orbit of influence and fortune.

With Ireland the case is different, for she is young again. She was not a partaker in her neighbors’ affluence or culture, and she plays—that is, she has quite recently taken to dancing and hurling; and as the Irish dances are the most strenuous form of gayety known to the world, so hurling is the most strenuous and deadly fashion of sport that the mind of man has invented. She will hop or hurl into self-expression, though the devil himself stood in the way.

Ireland is now the world-baby, and should be very benevolently regarded by her lustier brothers of the future. Therefore, in writing this prophetical article, I place her under the protection of America, Italy, and Russia, and I wish them all Godspeed and good hunting.