The New Barbarism

THE deviser of the electric bell has probably long since gone where all janglings cease, but his alarming contrivance is with us still. The evil that men do lives after them, as even Mark Antony observed; and sometimes the ingenuity of it blinds us to its darker side. How happy any gong-banging savage would have been, had he been able to rig up an arrangement to keep his gong banging continually while he sat back and reveled in the noise! But would he have been any less a savage for his success?

Once, and once only, have I encountered barbarism — that is, if one may say so, barbarism proper. I left by the first boat, but before it called, I had registered three definite impressions. They were Noise, Odor, and Confusion. Of course, there were other minor ones. There was no water even to wash with; and one felt a general insecurity of life and liberty, a certain well-known English resident having been freshly kidnapped and held for ransom. But these were incidents. The others were fundamental.

As we dropped anchor off the mole, a crowd of barbarians made their appearance on shore, yelling and gesticulating in the wild cannibalistic manner well known to readers of Tartarin and Crusoe. If it had not been for the providential appearance of a representative of Mr. Cook, we might have thought twice about landing. The yelling, which had come faintly to us on the ship’s deck, became pandemonium when we arrived upon the mole. There seemed to be no method in it, each man merely shouting his loudest in sheer excitement. It was the voice of barbarism upraised in salute to civilization.

But at five o’clock of a dark winter afternoon, when stores and offices are closing, and streets are packed with hurrying throngs, you stand on the pavement waiting to cross the crowded street, amid the warning notes of motors, the shrill whistles of policemen, and the rush of clanging trolley-cars, the whole fitfully illumined by an arc light, and the elevated roaring deafeningly overhead — and you ask, Is this civilization? Does the mere fact that all this din and confusion are mechanically produced really make them civilized? Or is it only the big brother of barbarism?

The old barbarism exulted in Noise, Sensation, and Slaughter. But how poor were its achievements in these directions beside those of the new! And what, in the name of fair play, could their poor old lungs and tom-toms accomplish against those modern marvels, the whistle, the siren, and the cut-out? At a recent dinner of patriotic speakers, the occasion was enlivened by a Jackies’ band. Upon the illimitable spaces of the high seas, its appalling clamor might have melted into music; but in a small dining-room, seating only a thousand or so, the finer effects were lost. I was surrounded by great converters, but against that avalanche of sound they were as impotent as I. We read each other’s lips a while, then simply clung to our chairs and waited, till

Silence like a poultice came
To heal the blows of sound.

And odors! Those of barbarism are strong for a mile or two, but they cannot carry like those of civilization. All the scents of Araby and Cologne could not disguise the odor that one beneficent industry daily distills upon one million of my fellow citizens. My own experience of it runs back only some fifty years; but it is not new. Only it grows stronger and more analyzable as the years roll by. The poet’s ‘leagues of odor’ puts it none too strong.

On summer evenings the train often bears me along a beautiful stream, winding between wooded banks, and breaking now and again into waterfalls and rapids. Beyond it, the sinking sun gilds the fleecy clouds, and all their sunset glories are mirrored in the brimming river. The soft air of evening floats in at the windows, fragrant with forest odors. Everything conspires to soothe the jaded senses, until we reach the vicinity of the cheese factory, when the fragrance is suddenly displaced by something quite different, but fully equal to anything I can recall in my brief visit to barbarism.

Barbarism rejoices greatly in display, in feathers, beads, and warpaint — which brings us to the delicate and difficult subject of dress and jewels. As respects woman’s use of these, let us content ourselves with remarking that there are few jewels that seem really to enhance beauty. But when one sees his follow men wearing diamond studs, in negligee shirts already equipped with their full complement of buttons, one is really at a loss to determine whether this be the new barbarism or the old.

And when the weather is raw and unfavorable, and the golfers few upon the links, and I hear a shrill chorus of chattering voices from the caddie house; or when the skating-house is full of uproarious boyhood shouting meaninglessly together, I know it for the voice of the old barbarism lifted by our youth in the savage stage of development, through which, according to a well-known theory of social evolution, we all must pass — if so be we do indeed pass through it and emerge safely on the further side.

Barbarism, no doubt, saw more of slaughter than do we; but the old yearning for it will not die, and we certainly make the most of what we have. We film it, headline it, and chart it, until it becomes a staple feature of our daily life. Like Dryden’s Alexander, thrice we slay the slain, and the most Cowperian of us would feel a haunting void were it withdrawn. There is still a strain in us that calls for a certain amount of bloodshed, real or imaginary, to be enjoyed, if not experienced. Mere accidents, it is to be observed, do not satisfy this craving.

How our sensibilities are harrowed by the inexplicable disappearance of a little girl from some household previously unknown to fame! What has become of her? Has she been eaten by a bear, or fallen into the lake, or run away with the butcher? All these promising clues are followed out in turn by the faithful, relentless, and sleuth-like press, but alike in vain. If our interest does not wane, we are gratified (or disappointed) to learn that, in sober fact, she had gone on a visit to her aunt in the country, and had not been seeing the papers there. Fatal omission! One cannot safely refrain from seeing the papers, if only to keep them from getting the idea that one is missing, and investing one with an air of sinister and tremendous mystery before one knows it. For, after such investiture, it is useless to explain, protest, or deny. One remains a being of mystery, a person with a past, obstinately carrying one’s hollow secret with one to the grave.

Nor is the new barbarism without its religion. In all great cities it rears its spacious temples, with vast naves rich with bronze and marble. Upon a kind of pulpit high above the throng appears at intervals the muezzin of the cult, and intones his litany: ‘The train — is now ready — for De Kalb — Marshalltown — Omaha — Cheyenne — Salt Lake City — San Francisco — and Los Angeles — The Pacific Limited — leaving — at ten-thirty — from track three.’ His is no inconsiderable art; for he pauses after each measure, until the last great true note dies away; and he keeps his voice to the last syllable on the same level tone. Not even on ‘Track Three’ does it descend. The effect is stately, liturgical, worthy of its splendid setting. And the worshipers seated in the pews at once rise up in obedience to his call, and move silently out to Track Three. Even we who are left behind know something of their exalted mood, for has not the muezzin with his chant sent our thoughts hurrying over the plains and Rockies to the coast, and conjured up within us many a rich memory and high aspiration?

If transcontinental departures are events, still more are such arrivals. You stand at the gate with a throng of expectant sons, mothers, and daughters, and the California train pulls slowly and interminably in. From it emerge in a triumphal procession the hadjis, the devotees of travel, a fanatical gleam in their eyes, the bright light of achievement upon their faces. They have arrived!

No religion is worth anything without hardship, and the new one has its share. You will spend hot hours of a July evening, waiting in line by the hotter kitchen of the dining-car for a chance to sit down and be fed. Or you will dash off at so-called eatingstations, and snatch a hasty meal, or purchase a sodden cake right out of the refrigerator. You will toss restlessly in chilly uppers or gasp in stifling lowers. You will sit for hours on observation platforms, long after observation has ceased to be a pleasure. You will see the frost gather on every bit of metal in your car, and the desert sand will sift in about you unto suffocation. But you will travel. Nothing can stop you. As for these light afflictions, you will glory in them. Such is religion.

And who does not know the sects and schisms of travel? — how some swear by Florida, and some by California, while others find salvation only in Canada, Alaska, or the Orient; but each is forever dinning in your ears the dogmas of his cult.

Nor is the new religion without its adepts. I met one of them once — a child not yet in her teens, yet set apart as a devotee of travel. Her sole interest was to inquire how many times one had crossed the ocean. If but six times, one was naught; she had crossed twelve — or was it sixteen? With her, at any rate, it was something more than an annual experience. But that was years ago. Nowadays the question is, how many times have you been round the world? A colonel told me the other day that he had been round twice in one year. I wish he and the little girl, now grown no doubt to fanatical womanhood, might meet.

Of course, travel has its high days, its pilgrimages, its evangelistic literature, designed to implant in the minds of the stay-at-home public, if such there be, an insatiable yearning for it. It has even its daily exercises. I, unfortunately, can walk in three minutes from the garden gate to the museum where I muse for a living. But I have, therefore, no opportunity to progress in the new cult such as is enjoyed by my neighbors, who travel from eight to twenty-eight miles to business every morning. Still more blest are those whose duties call them every week or two to New York or Washington.

A rich store of common experience binds these travel-adepts together. Once, on the ocean, I sat at table with a certain much-traveled man, of large and placid habit, whose wont it was, at dinner, after the steward had conferred upon each of us our ration of six raw oysters, to beckon the man to his side and devour any surplus. He could inform us just how many of them one was likely to get with one order at each of the leading American hotels. I, in my superficiality, had never realized that such inequalities existed.

In the mountains of Kentucky, we are told, if a girl marries and settles twenty miles from home, her family definitely resigns all expectation of seeing her again this side of heaven. But we less sheltered beings think nothing of journeying that far for dinner, or even tea. To be deterred by an insubstantial consideration like distance would argue a fatal weakness of the modern mind. It would violate the new religion, the purpose of which is the annihilation of distance.

An aerial friend assures me that he has taken breakfast and dinner in Fresno, and lunched the same day in Coronado, over three hundred miles away. In one of the chief seats of the new barbarism a favorite afternoon diversion is motoring past forty miles of billboards, embodying the very purest traditions of savage art; a sight to gladden the palæolithic decorator of the cavern of Altamira. And the other day, in the seclusion of a western golf-club, one man was telling another how Tom Jones had motored down from San Francisco to Los Angeles in twentythree hours; to which the other irreligiously replied, ‘What delayed him?’

But it is in its ways of trade that barbarism is most instructive. The street vender cries his wares through the city, and will pursue you far with his insistent demands that you buy. The shopkeeper will follow you for blocks, with his patter of rapidly falling prices. In rural Egypt, in former days, if you wished to hire a donkey, you had first to hire a man to protect you from the rabble of donkey-boys from which you were to choose. With resounding blows of his staff, he would keep them from actually riding you down in their determination to win your trade. The insistence of trade and the violence of competition are stable features of barbarism.

We do these things a little more subtly, perhaps — or, should we say, more crudely? In effect, if not in person, the peddler hounds us through the town, by day and night. If we ascend into the street cars, he is there. If we motor over the boulevards, he is there. If we open a magazine or a programme, he is there. If we look over our morning mail, he is there. If the telephone rings, he is there, desiring to take our photograph or clean our rugs and curtains. His hand is under the door with a dodger, and up the telegraph pole with a placard. Night itself does not obscure him.

The old barbarism was undoubtedly gossipy and scandalous. But it did not gossip and scandalize in editions of half-a-million copies. The old barbarism was hideous, vulgar, and noisome. But it did not have all the resources of machinery and capital to help keep it so. The old barbarism was noisy and dirty; but the distribution of dirt in barbarism is nowhere nearly as efficient and constant as in civilization. As a great prima donna remarked the other morning, ‘ I have washed my hands fifteen times to-day already, but I love your city.’ The whole population of the metropolis where I reside is each day evenly and patiently coated with soot, and will certainly end by going over to the pigmented races which we have so long misprized.

I once had occasion to walk across the Nile Valley at Abydos, a distance of some eight miles, to catch the Cairo train. As it was market-day, the little winding path across the cultivation was dotted with groups of peasants, old and young, journeying in my direction; and many a courteous old Egyptian, seeing me hurrying along, alighted from his camel or donkey to offer me a ride. Perhaps it was their gentle influence that led me the other evening, as I was returning from the City of Destruction in a crowded railway train, to yield to a chivalrous impulse and, at the risk of having to stand up for twelve minutes, offer a young woman my seat. Before she could take it, an old gentleman, surely devoid of all nobler qualities, slipped nimbly into it, leaving the baffled young woman to languish in the perpendicular, until the neighboring sitters adroitly crowded together enough to make a fractional place for her, in which she continued her journey.

But then, of course, Egypt is one of the most ancient seats of civilization.