The Social Contrast
BY HILAIRE BELLOC
THE adjective ‘social’ is used at large, has grown diffuse, and has branched out with many meanings. My brethren of the Press use it as meaning ‘of wealthy women.’ I use it here in the strict and original sense to mean the relations between the citizens of one community — their general relations: that way of men with men which marks a national spirit. The contrast in this spirit between the American civilization and our own is the first, the most universal, the most characteristic form of contrast to be grasped.
What is the essential mark of the American social spirit? Its essential is publicity: the spirit of the marketplace. The contact of individual with individual is indefinitely more continuous and more frequent in America than east of the great water, on the farther shore. To us Europeans rudely surprising, this publicity is the note of all American things. It runs through every manifestation of American life and colors the whole. With us the market-place, the Forum, is a special meeting-place, privacy the rule. With the Americans the Forum is the habit of all life. In the Old World corporation stands separate from corporation, community from community, family from family, and the rest; among the Americans the sub-units — individuals, families, corporations — are possessed of a ceaseless molecular activity, as it were, and that especially of the individual; each affecting each directly and constantly. The interaction is perpetual between each man and his neighbors of whatever category of neighborhood. It is a quality like that which our physical scientists put forward as their guess at the constitution of a gas, distinguishing it from that of a fluid, a violent rapidity of motion in the particles. It is the extension to the highest degree of what the great Greeks of antiquity called the political nature of man: his civic character. It is the extreme of what is much more falsely called, in a characteristically modern metaphor, the gregarious quality of man; not in the sense of men’s tendency to act together in a great mass, like a herd (though that is one secondary consequence of the thing); but rather in its tendency to make each man affirm his fellowship with his fellows.
For intense individual contact and energy make for uniformity. Let me emphasize that very important little paradox. There is no contradiction between the intensity of individual action and an almost mechanical similarity in general action. On the contrary, the two go together; and where the activity of the individual, his desire to depend upon himself, and his consequent energy in action, are pushed to their furthest limit, there you will have also the most repeated contact between individuals, and, as a consequence, the most uniform result. That is why the uniformity of American life is so striking for the European observer.
Put a number of round smooth balls upon a billiard table. Give them each a slow and slight movement, and you will see no general movement appearing. There will be little clatter, few and rare collisions. Impart to them each a very rapid motion, that is, an individual intensity, and while you raise very greatly the noise of the shocks (which is a superficial phenomenon), and while you increase even more the number and frequency of collisions (which is the cause of the noise), you also soon develop a resultant of all the random directions. If the sharp speed of each be maintained you will soon perceive in the movement of the whole a general swing, and all that great mass of balls will be moving in a crowd. So it is with a human society.
I am not here concerned with whether this extreme of individual action and individual activity, the consequent extreme of individual contact (that is, of publicity), the further result of large streams of common action and of a vast uniformity also pushed to an extreme, are good or evil; for it is not a judgment of good and evil which I am attempting to describe, but a particular social phenomenon. I do not judge here, I only observe; and I say that the immediate mark, the obvious external mark, of America as compared with our European selves, is this generalization of the individual in action — his presence everywhere in perpetual touch with his fellows.
To us Europeans coming as travelers to America the degree of the thing is so unusual and, till it is experienced, so inconceivable that it is the first shock of difference we feel between ourselves and our hosts.
The American approaches and speaks to any man anywhere without previous knowledge of him, and is received as an Englishman, German, or Italian would receive a person he had known all his life. In Europe even a man urgently pressed to such action (for instance, a man catching a train and not knowing his way to the station) must always go through some form before he addresses another man; and if there is no urgency, the form must be prolonged and careful. In America this form is unknown. Contact is established at once and as a matter of course; and we of Europe feel this strange American thing subtly and continually in the ordinary approaches of men. One to whom you speak in a shop when you ask him for goods, and that one replying to you; one in a public office, a post office, of whom you ask information and who replies to you; one in any of a thousand relations, which recur daily, treats you in America after a fashion unknown in Europe; and when people are honest with themselves, their sharpest memory of the United States, especially if they remain there (as do most traveling Europeans) for but a moment of their lives, is that brusque relation, vivid, not to be mistaken, different from any experience in their own world.
On most Europeans this novel relation acts as an acute irritant. A smaller number it amuses. To all it is enormously strange; to me attractive. But to the American it is inconceivable that it should be strange. It is to him as normal as breathing. We call their mood a lack of privacy; they call our mood by equally uncomplimentary names. I have heard the thing deplored by some few Americans, but only by Americans of a leisured sort, and more often by men already acquainted with Europe. The mass of Americans have it of nature and take it for granted.
As the European visitor goes out of one of the great American cities and enters the miles of suburbs where the wealthier men have built their houses, the startling thing to his eyes is to note that there is no division between one man’s ground and another’s — they all stand on one lawn!
The startling thing that strikes his ears is the thunder of electric cars clanging past these houses on their steel rails all day — and all night. Wealth and opportunity in America connote the very opposites of what they do in Europe: extreme neatness, rarity of detail, a hospitable cleanliness of bath, drains, sinks; facile communication, plenty of noise and metal — and no seclusion. With us, wealth — especially wealth long possessed — is marked by an extreme of seclusion; a horror of noise; a carefully acquired distance from communications; a good deal of dust on old books and furniture; a mass of detail in every kind of reading and picture and chance-inherited or picked-up whatnots by the hundred; repose, and (especially with the English gentry) what they call Froust — which some of them also call Fug.
It is not newness which digs this chasm between the two, for the American thing is found in families and fields two hundred and fifty years old; it is a fathomless spiritual gulf separating two kinds of men and making it so that in the world of the one the other could not live.
Individuals support the change; but an English group, remaining English, could not (I say) live in America: it would breathe an alien air and die.
This element of publicity, then, is everywhere. I could by way of paradox pick out a thousand examples of the apparent contrary: things on which American convention forbids discussion, but European permits it, if not fully, more freely. But these make no counter-balance, for there are an equal amount of conventions the other way about: things not discussed in Europe freely but in America universally discussed — income, for instance, and digestion. But these examples of exception on the one hand, of exaggeration on the other, do not affect the main truths: that the note of American society is life under the eye and in the ear of all.
I have said that this root-character of vibrating individual activity leads not only to perpetual personal contact but also to uniformity; and I have said that there is here no contradiction, but that the one is an obvious consequence of the other.
This uniformity, this second effect of publicity, is as striking to the European as the first effect, that of perpetual contact. For the contrast here also, in the matter of uniformity, is bewilderingly intense.
In Europe the epigram passes round, ‘Everything in America is upon a belt’; by which I suppose the author of it meant that the European observes in America a lack of that high differentiation to which he is accustomed in his own world. Now the American, of course, is awake to a set of domestic differences which the foreign visitor does not feel. But if he will compare the social manner of his own country with that of Europe he will, I think, agree with me that there is in his society not only uniformity of ideas (compared with ours), but also a widespread uniformity of lesser daily action.
The rapid vibration of individual life has not led to a multiplicity of private habits as a slower but progressive individual pace might have done. It has led to the contrary. It has rendered the individual typical; a common mould exists into which men are run and their surroundings. Thus the large hotel is of identically the same structure, plan, and end whereever you go in the United States; and if it be objected that the hotel is naturally so, being an institution made to be in common and universal, one may reply that nothing in Europe is more personal and ‘ each-of-its-kind ‘ than our inns. One may add that the human house in America is equally on a pattern, its furniture, its reading, the very details of warming and of cooking and the rest. Every nation, and for that matter every civilization, has some uniformity in such things. There is a French house which is not Italian; a European house which is not Asiatic. But in America uniformity is far more striking (for it is far more exact) than it is with us. It has a far sharper edge, it makes a far neater imprint, it is far less varied within its own genus.
And the converse is true; the traveler is certain of finding one limited set of things everywhere; he is equally certain of lacking others. He will find the same book, the same bath, the same radiator. He will not find Chambertin or, say, ‘Lepanto’ — a poem, or changing soft songs. He feels a regimental effect.
Upon this I know not how many other causes converge besides those I have guessed at — the even topography; the rapid spread of population over a vast area, still continued in a flood and destined to continue; the delight in mechanical application.
Let me illustrate this last point. A novel form of transport — the American elevator (‘lift’ in English) — saves a proportion of energy compared with an earlier form, a staircase. In our European world the earlier form will nearly always survive; not precariously survive; not slowly die out; but survive. — continue, outlast the innovation — and that stubbornly. So also will many other forms, earlier still. This tenacity in the survival of old instruments goes with the spirit of privacy, with the individual private, domestic, turned inward; with the unit of the corporation, of the college, of the family, also turned inward.
And with us such differentiation is not due to dullness or routine, but just the opposite. It is a mark or symbol in our society of those who hold a special and even a superior place therein. Thus the high Western civilization of France, Spain, Britain, Italy is far more differentiated than that of Prussia, Russia, or the Balkans. With the Americans it is the reverse. Old forms surviving mean, there, something sluggish or poor: an inhibition. To have things about one less ‘efficient’ than those of the past is, among Americans, a sign of weakness. Many a European library is proud to be so individual as to be arranged haphazard: to allow a man to browse among its books at the expense of their continual misplacing. Its members choose by discovery, and find the pleasure of such a freedom to exceed the pleasure of rapid delivery through exact order. And in such old European libraries a change of system, the closing of the shelves to such general inspection for the sake of exact order, would be thought a loss, not a gain. But in America the consequent disorder would be found intolerable. The saving of energy in any department is, in America, a progress. To waste energy for the sake of individuality, caprice, elbow-room, tradition, is, with Americans, to be eccentric and less than their standard.
This spirit of common action takes the form also of creating enormous markets even for the things of the soul. It creates on a huge scale, and as a benefit, what our urban centres in Europe also suffer from not a little, as a curse — the ‘Best Seller’: the book which spreads like fire through dry grass, not because it makes any special appeal to individual minds, but because a crowd takes it up. Only some one book can at the same one time thus capture the universal market, but almost any book may do so. One book among a myriad gets the lead (no one knows how) and, immediately, its competitors fall out, and that one book sells by the million for three months — and is forgotten in six. That is the astounding part of the affair. The appetite admits itself worthless in judgment and abdicates immediately.
This spirit of common action shows itself much more importantly in the realm of ideas, from which all material manifestations spring. Social doctrines are in America universal. Thus one social doctrine — the treatment of all religious statement and practice within a certain limit as private opinions, the persecution of all beyond that limit as intolerable — is universal. It is unquestioned. It is taken for granted. No one may be specifically burdened for rejecting (or accepting) the Catholic doctrine of clerical celibacy. But no one will be tolerated who denies the Catholic doctrine of monogamy.
Again, the value, sacredness, and efficacy of the vote. The conception that a majority 1 has a divine right to decide in any matter is universal in America, not as a conclusion of reason but as an accepted dogma. It is not the doctrine that society as an organism may impose its organic will — that all humanity accepts. It is the doctrine that majority voting expresses that will!
The principle is, as all will agree after a moment’s thought, absurd. It applies only when three rare conditions are all present together: universal interest, a common experience, a perfect machinery. Shall two lads of twenty-one and twenty-two outvote their father? Is a family less of a social unit than a minx? Do one million care (or know) more about bimetallism than 999,999?
But the case is even worse than such unanswerable questions imply. It is clear to reason that such a conception, even if its principle be admitted, must have physical, necessary, limits. Society could not be conducted at all, and the State could no longer exist, if fifty-one out of a hundred were in all matters whatsoever free to dictate to forty-nine. It would be impossible mechanically, because the number of things to be decided is infinite. It would be intolerable in morals, because it may well be (and usually is the case) that the great majority are slightly opposed to something to which the minority is passionately attached: for instance, the Mass.
In a word, it is self-evident that majority rule, even if you accept it as a divine doctrine, as something in the very nature of morals, can work only on a small field; right or wrong, it can act only over very restricted areas. Yet the limits, until very lately at least, have been accepted only subconsciously in America; only recently has Europe noticed the beginnings of an American discussion upon them, which discussion had hardly begun when I was a young man in America thirty years ago.
It is perhaps the policy of Prohibition that has raised the issue of majority rule. I do not know. But, I repeat, the discussion has come. It will lead far; but it will not shake that conception of the divine right of a majority. That is a universal idea in America, rooted in the public mind and as omnipresent as was in other times and places the right of the Church to impose itself exclusively in, say, the English world of the thirteenth century.
Philosophers have, of course, debated the matter of majority rule both in America and in our own civilization, and that long before the modern organization of voting upon a very large scale was known. They at once discovered that the right of a majority thus to dictate can be based upon nothing but the absurdity of its alternative. If the majority has not the right to coerce the whole, still less has a minority. Supposing a complete identity of units and supposing an equality of interest in all those units, majority rule is merely the statement that its opposite is more absurd than itself.
But that impassive way of treating the idea of decisions by majorities is not at all the way in which the American mind has received it. It has been received as a self-evident truth in morals.
I know well enough that the wisdom of those who founded the American Constitution checked majority rule, limited it, and so saved the State. But my point is that this dogma, so universal, so unquestioned, so foolish, is an example of uniformity.
Another example of this uniformity of social action is found in the great waves of public feeling which sweep the New World. They change rapidly in direction and in object. That of to-day may be almost opposite in direction to that of to-morrow. The object exciting the wave of to-day may wholly differ in nature from the object exciting that of to-morrow; but the prime mark of uniformity is never lacking. The vast mass of human beings moves as one body.
Such cohesive universal action is a most formidable instrument of power. Of all the characteristics of American life which Europe respects, calls upon as an ally or dreads as an opponent, this is the chief; and it is not unamusing to watch the clumsy efforts of European propagandists to produce these waves in the United States. Even as I write the opposing interests of the French and English are urging these peoples to attempt by print and missionary speakers the rise of such a wave; with France it takes the form of attempting to raise an enthusiasm for her sufferings, with England it takes the form of appealing for American entry into a League of Nations, which it is hoped may be turned into an anti-French instrument. These attempts fail. For no force can raise these waves save one arising upon American soil. But when the source of an American enthusiasm is native it may have an astonishingly rapid rise and a still more astonishing vigor. Such emotions come too suddenly for us Europeans even to note their origins. We do not understand their nature.
Among the universal ideas which in practice are thus everywhere accepted, and which stamp the public mind of the United States, Europe has in particular noted one; and Europe (particularly England) has so misunderstood this one, that I hope to be excused if I attempt at some length to explain it. I mean the money standard — the close connection everywhere apparent in the American mind between civic value and an individual accumulation of wealth; the use of acquired (not inherited) fortune as a test of worth.
There is no point on which more acrimonious folly has been talked by foreigners than this, and all that folly proceeds from a lazy, or an ignorant, or an imperfect analysis of the thing.
There is an attitude toward private fortune, the private possession of wealth, which is, exactly, idolatrous; that is, which (a) imputes to this dead thing living attributes, (b) worships this dead thing. For in these two errors combined does idolatry consist. Where that spirit of idolatry is present, where there is a worship of the wealthy man, where there is a confusion between the advantages of wealth and the objects proper for human admiration, there you have as base a corruption of the religious instinct as man can suffer. That is, very exactly, Mammon.
Now at the risk of appearing paradoxical and fantastic to nearly all European readers, and even to many American readers, I will boldly say that no modern society is so free from this detestable heresy as the American. To transfer admiration from the thing possessed to its possessor; to conceive that the mere possession of material wealth makes of its possessor a proper object for worship; to feel abject before another who is wealthier — such emotions do not so much as enter the American mind. To say to himself, ‘That man is an owner of great wealth; therefore I respect him as I would respect a great poet or a great soldier,’ is impossible to an American.
In Europe this mood of Mammon is never absent. I am glad to say that even with us the degrees vary in different places and different times. It was very much worse before the war in England than it is to-day. It was very much worse just before the war than it was a generation earlier. It is worse in Paris than in any of the French provinces, and worse in the French provinces than in Italy. But throughout our long-stratified European societies there is everywhere a measure of this money-worship; and it is detestable. You may compare the beastly thing to the smell of gas. A leak may be just strong enough to be slightly unpleasant; or stronger and very unpleasant; or appalling. In a few places it will make a place uninhabitable and cause death. Now, to apply the parallel to Mammon, we in England live to-day complaining of that smell of gas as pretty nearly intolerable. Just before the war (which came in to correct the thing) it really had become intolerable. We were in a room where the leak was so bad that it drove people out. All over Europe (even in Castilian Spain, which is the freest of all our societies from the horror) you can smell that gas. In America you are wholly free from the faintest odor of it.
Mammon is not the passion for getting money, nor the desire for what money can buy; still less is it the envy of those who have more money than one’s self. It is the transference to the wealthy man of qualities not present in him and suggested only by the fact that he is wealthy. It is expressed in the feeling of genuine respect for a rich man and genuine contempt for a poor one; in the attribution of virtue to the one and of vices to the other. You will, I say, find that disease of the soul less present in the United States than in any other modern society. Mammon does not appear with the Americans in gesture, or tone of speech or glance, nor in any of those things which betray the deference of the soul. I, at least, have never seen those glances, or gestures, or heard those tones in America. With us they are universal.
What, then, is it in the American attitude which has been mistaken for Mammon?
It is something quite other. It is the threefold conception (1) that success in accumulation connotes effort upon the part of any man; (2) that American opportunity should make this equally possible for any man; and negatively (3) that there is nothing else in the State either so easily measurable as the money-standard or so universally present.
The American sees civic life as a race, entry to which is open for all. Nature around him lies still largely unexploited, new ideas of its new use arise day after day. The race is, as a fact, entered by nearly all, and your place in it can be — very roughly — measured by your material achievement. It is natural that under such conditions such a test should be applied.
The simplicity of the standard has its evils, and they are gross. They lead to a difference between the idea of production and the idea of accumulation. They lead to an excess of cunning, though that, again, is cunning of a simple type. But these and many other defects attaching to the conception most emphatically do not include that disgusting, that degrading element of base personal worship, and the exclusion of this evil is well worth the admission of all the rest.
As to the weak side of this ‘moneystandard ‘ habit, what else would you expect to find in a society which has had for its main temporal task during three centuries the development of a vast and still unexhausted continent? As to its strong side, it is a credit to the civic sense of Americans that they use it as they do without admixture of false emotion.
There is proof that what I say is true. In a society degraded by Mammon, those qualities in man which are inherent (from, say, Literary Talent, which is among the lowest, to, say, Holiness, which is the highest of all) are held to be less significant than the mere possession of money. They are more or less admired (and that in the wrong order), but they are never worshiped. Worship, to parody the theological definition, ‘is reserved for Money alone.’ Now among the Americans these inherent qualities not only reach their right place, but take, if anything, a place a little too high. A great soldier having saved Europe on a salary of five thousand dollars a year, the Americans are moved to receive him as he should be received. Did a poet appear nowadays (the world is waiting for him, but he has not come), the Americans would receive him as he should be received. In London rich women would ask him to lunch; but not the same rich woman twice. The poet would, in London, be an exhibit and a trapping at her table, like the ephemeral hero of the last scandal. That is not true of America. Hostesses scramble for lions there as here. But in America the lion is more than the hostess. With us, unless the lion is the richer, the lion is the less.
Or again: among people in one houseparty, upon our side of the Atlantic, degrees of deference are almost entirely determined by wealth. A very rich man is, in such a party, a special and sacred being, far more to his companions than to the servants. A poor man is insignificant. Such is our chief vice. We see men through an atmosphere or colored screen of possession. In America they enjoy the corresponding virtue of seeing men as they are. In the midst of so much which spiritually weakens the New World, this virtue, which is part of its candor, permanently strengthens it.
So much for the American moneystandard, our European misconceptions on vhich have bred so much false judgment as to merit this long digression. The digression arose, it will be remembered, in connection with the effects of American uniformity.
Now in this matter of the moral effects of American uniformity, two are worth noting before we leave it: an advantage, and a defect. The advantage is a universal courtesy, the defect is assurance.
Courtesy in America never fails. It is found in all states of fortune and in all degrees of haste. That it has not our forms makes it, to those of us who care to observe, the more conspicuous. The great machine of American Uniformity needs such oil and gets it abundantly. In no community I know will you find a less number of proud, or surly, or neglectful men; for pride and surliness and neglect are the fruits of isolation. On the other hand, there is none in which assurance — that is, certitude based on insufficient evidence or on mere repetition — is more rooted. And it is a weakening thing to the individual man and to the State.
For example, each latest fad in the physical or historical jargon of guesswork is accepted for gospel after a fashion far more universal than with us. With us it is a mark of intelligence and reading to ridicule the successive imaginaries which are presented to us for realities — the Cave Man, and the Nordic Race and all the rest of the ephemeral procession. To accept these things seriously and make them a basis for action, or even thought, is associated in the European mind with something imperfect in a man’s training. I have even heard them called ‘suburban’ and ‘middle-class’ by middleclass people in the suburbs; and when things get as far as that it is a wonder and a sign. For instance, such ephemeral books as these, Outlines of History and the rest, have about them, in the eyes of the cultured in Europe, something comic and absurd. The musty, belated, elementary ‘science’ and history of their authors, half of it already proved wrong and the other half guesswork, is a joke — especially with the French, who are keenly alive to the fun of such figures. But in America I found that trumped-up stuff taken quite seriously.
This assurance, doing harm within to the American, is a domestic concern of his own; doing harm in foreign relations it is the world’s concern, and in that field it might at any moment do the greatest harm. To accept insufficient or actually false stock phrases in ethnology and history is a bad thing for society, but to accept them in international politics is ruinously dangerous, both to the acceptor and the foreign object of his judgment. Words like ‘caveman,’ ‘natural selection,’ ‘psychoanalysis,’ are one’s own family affair; but ‘Anglo-Saxon,’ ‘Latin,’ ‘Nordic,’ ‘self-determination,’ and ‘militarism’ may start a war.
Luckily, two powerful checks restrain the effects of these asphyxiating tenuosities: first, the Americans have a vivid and most healthy instinct against foreign entanglements; secondly, they possess a distinct, clearlydefined tradition against the same: a tradition derived from the great founders of the American Commonwealth and fixed in memorable phrases.
I now come to a quality in the American social spirit which cannot be attached to any material cause, which is a product of — I know not what virtue or happy accident in the origins of that society. To this quality one can give only the name of candor; it is straightforwardness and unasking sincerity. It has a general effect (I know not for how long this effect may endure) of joy.
I have heard innumerable judgments passed upon the American people by Europeans. But in all these judgments, favorable and unfavorable, unintelligent (as were the great majority) or intelligent (as were a rare few), there almost always appeared with a note of envy, of surprise, of bitterness, — or of mere regret, — the statement that the Americans were happier than any people of the Old World.
They are: much happier. It is the astonishing and outstanding thing upon the spiritual side which no one, seeing that people, and telling honestly what he has seen, can hide. They are the happiest white people in the modern world.
Wherever you go, in the whole of the vast territory of the States, you discover that sort, of freedom in the soul which is the breeding soil of happiness. I have said that I could discover no cause — certainly no moral cause — for the candor which is at the root of all this happiness; but at any rate I am sure that the cause of the happiness is candor. The American people live in truth.
By this I do not mean that they have not the vices common to mankind, and the particular vices common to our Western race, and the still more particular vices which attach to their own predominant doctrines. What I mean is that the perpetual habit of repression, accompanied by an indurated falsehood of expression, which runs through and through the governing classes of Europe, is absent; and I am fully confident that to the absence of such an evil we must ascribe that other good of a light heart.
Now will this effect endure? I return to that question. About a year ago a German traveling in America for the first time, and saying what I say, that this note of joy had struck him most, added: ‘Nor is it marred by any foreknowledge of its own cessation. They do not know for how short a time this joy will last!’
I cannot pretend to this critic’s prophecy. The joy may last or it may not; it cannot last forever, it cannot last, indeed, for very many generations. Every civilization that has developed upon this earth has passed rapidly enough from simplicity to doubt, and from doubt to despair, save indeed where it has been relieved, as was Rome in the fourth century, by that one sublime philosophy which alone can redeem us from despair, but cannot give us back our innocence. Every civilization which has appeared upon this earth has either ended by accepting sorrow as a portion, or by rebelling against that human fate, and so destroying itself. But every civilization has also passed through an early phase of full expression and satisfaction, and in that phase the American people are to-day.
So true is this, that with difficulty does any European man, acquainted as he is with the numerous and accumulated moral evil of the Old World, and haunted, as he must be (if he is of any sufficient culture) by the putrescent hypocrisies of those who are still, with us, in the tradition of government, convince Americans of how false our world is.
There is still in the atmosphere of the United States — and pray God it may long so remain! — a taking for granted of certain fundamental simplicities and sincerities in motive and action which we have overlaid with I know not how many traditional silences. Here in Europe, and particularly in England, a man who knows how government is now conducted since it ceased to be aristocratic feels himself in the presence of silent men furtively beckoning one to another. In America he knows himself to be in the presence of men speaking frankly and aloud. It is the difference between foul air and fresh.
I know that there is a curl of contempt against simplicity, but upon the balance, and having seen many men in many places, I for my part will give my vote for candor; for its fruit is happiness, and happiness is the end of man.
I will conclude this brief analysis of the Social Contrast with one other of those statements which I know will sound fantastic or, in the abused modern sense of the word, ‘mystical’; and this also I am going to say because I believe it to be true. The American use of time and space is in high contrast with that of the Old World; by which I mean that the rhythm of life is other from our own in Europe; quite other.
Everything is in the mind. What men think of an hour or a hundred miles is the important thing in the making of their corporate lives. There are, indeed, modern fools who go on to tell you that what the mind holds of these things is all they are, and that they do not exist outside the mind. I will leave them at it. But without delay upon such follies it remains true that a society is wholly colored by the effect of time and space upon itself: the way in which it uses, and is affected by, those dimensions.
Now, according as you use your time and space, and as they affect you, your rhythm is produced. A man who speaks at a certain rate, who in his work works half a day at a stretch, who in a short progress feels a great sense of distance, is under one rhythm. A man who speaks or thinks rapidly but otherwise has the same habits is under another rhythm. A man who speaks or thinks slowly but can work at only one thing in short bouts is under a third. The rhythm of a diverse action spread over many activities differs in quality from the rhythm of concentrated action upon one — and so forth. Well, in every character of social rhythm, in the wave-length and the elevation of the wave, and the oscillation-ellipse of the wave, and the cross-section of the wave, and the rate of the wave, and the matter of the wave, American life and thought contrast completely with those of Europe. Nothing in all the aspects of the general contrast is more conclusive to my thesis than this. Whether that contrast proceed mainly from material conditions (as many would say), or from deeper and unseen causes (as I believe), it is clearly present. Men upon both sides of the ocean express their sense of this continually, but do not, I think, as a rule express it accurately. The American is rather proud of asking the European whether he is not ‘rattled’ and ‘hustled’ by the speed of American life. The European complains, on that suggestion, of just the things suggested to him; and the American judging Europe will (of all adjectives!) use the adjective ‘slow.’
Now, as I see the thing, these statements are not only simple but wrong. The great quality of the American rhythm is shortness of scale as applied to time and the opposite as applied to space, compared with the European rhythm. The American rhythm is more vibratory, the European more surging; there is in the one something more metallic than in the other; there is in the one something more mechanical and less organic. I hear in one the sound of a hammer, in the other wind through trees. Prolonged effort and effort spread over many fields of life are less consonant to the American air than to the European.
So much for time: but distance, space, has a different effect upon the American mind, and an opposite one. A man going from Paris to Rome, a European, has a different spiritual experience of space from that of a man going to New York from Chicago. It is not a matter of frontiers. A man going from London to Glasgow and back subtly receives quite another effect of space from one who takes the round-trip between New York and Pittsburgh.
This other-use, other-relation of space comes in by many unexpected ways. You are ‘in’ Chicago — a town of under three millions — ten miles from its centre either way, and more. I do not mean only technically or legally within nominal city boundaries, but under the same conditions urban and of Chicago. Paris is much the same. London is more than double. But in twenty miles you traverse London from countryside to countryside, and Paris in far less. You carry an American town out with you indefinitely into the country. Space is less.
And what is true of space spread out lengthways is also true, somewhat, of space up and down. American height seems less high. Height (on the east coast at least, and in the middle-west) receives, in my eyes, the same impress of reduction: why, I cannot tell.
Testimony to such influences is difficult to give: the modern world is warped by the idea that exact measurement is the only source of knowledge. But the testimony is true. Space is not to the American what it is to us. Beauvais soars higher than the Woolworth Building, and the Palace of Avignon is bigger than the Brooklyn Bridge.
This contrast in rhythm is a fundamental contrast and a permanent one. If it changes it will change only to increase. It affects the whole of life. It has all sorts of odd side effects which I perhaps exaggerate from the very fact of their strangeness, but which are certainly there.
For instance, it affects the quality of repose. The European rhythm demands longer and more absolute repose — perhaps I should say repose of a different kind. The European will say that the American city appalls him with its noise. It would be more subtle and nearer the truth to say with the quality of its noise. I have used the metaphorical word ‘metallic’ of the New World; it applies here. There is a difference between noise metallic and non-metallic, and there is no doubt whatever that the former is distressing to one sort of mind and negligible to another. Now the first kind of man is typical of our side of the sea and the second of the other side. But this does not mean that mere repose is more necessary to the European than to the American. It is a matter of quality, not of degree. There are forms of repose less necessary to us, more necessary to them.
Here I am in deeper water, for one can talk of one’s self with security, of a foreigner one must talk with hesitation ; but it seems to me that the ‘ short ‘ rhythm connotes repeated repose. If a man is disturbed by a long and complicated process of thought, and craves rather for lucidity and brevity, this, indeed, connotes a form of high activity, but it also connotes a special form of fatigue at the end of it.
Of this difference in rhythm I will give an instance that comes home to all travelers across the Atlantic. Five men, illustrating in conversation some point between them, will in America develop five full accounts and will be listened to separately and in turn. The pattern is one of five units spread over a certain short space of time, with silence for the listeners, no interruption, and an end of the affair after a few such interchanges of fixed and exactly limited expressions of thought.
The same point, debated with us over a much longer space of time, uses a much larger number of units, exceeds such limits, is filled with adventitious allusion; and this contrast I take to be a function of the contrast in rhythms of which I have spoken. For in the case of the European man, whose habit is one of lengthy concentration and correspondingly lengthy repose, the many aspects of a thing can be presented in many short statements, subject to interruption which does not mar the whole. Whereas the American man, whose concentration is intense but brief, will give all that he has to say, give it in a very limited field, but that field fully covered.
And I feel no oddity in the apparent paradox that the shorter American rhythm uses a more even intonation, a lesser vocabulary, a longer unit of expression; the longer European rhythm more inflection, shorter individual speeches, and the irruption of side aspects. The one seems to be a consequence of the other, for the European manner defers repose, the American secures it at more frequent intervals and ends the whole effort sooner.
When I hear a European saying that the Americans ‘make speeches’ at him, or an American that the European ‘talks in snatches and leaves the point,’ I think I understand them both, and that the mutual accusation is due to a misunderstanding parallel to the misunderstanding which the general contrast creates in every other activity. If we admit the contrast, expect it, make it our first postulate in analyzing this very distant world, we shall less misjudge; if we ignore it we shall have what are called ‘rude awakenings.’
- The Constitution does, in effect, often give a minority power, e.g., through the Senate. But the majority doctrine is unquestioned.↩