'The Hardship of Anticlimax'


JEAN KENTON MACKENZIE, in a paper, ‘Of Luxuries and Hardships,’ tells graphically of the tangible difficulties for which young missionaries are assiduously prepared by those who have preceded them, and those who have not. ‘But,’ says the writer, ‘the last thing such a one looks to see is a reed shaken by the wind. And yet there you are — the woods are full of them — reeds shaken by the wind! And this is the hardship of anticlimax!’

‘The hardship of anticlimax’ is a phrase to conjure with. Or, rather, it does the conjuring, and will not quite let one go. The words seem widely applicable. They may describe most poignantly a problem faced by young missionaries in foreign fields shut off largely from their own kind. Certainly the words are also to be applied to most of us wherever we be.

Of all the explanations, from the war to ‘jazz,’ of the younger generation and its apparently erratic behavior, what could be more smoothly said than that it can’t stand ‘the hardship of anticlimax?’ It simply must be leaping from climax to climax like the traditional mountain goat. Unlike the mountain goat, it does not choose its peaks with unerring discretion. It seldom measures the distance between them. Dancing becomes anticlimactic. Youth adds an after-dance supper, the much-talked-of after-supper automobile ride, and then perhaps a country-club breakfast at six-thirty, before It ‘calls the night off.’

Nobody ever prepared the younger generation at play for anticlimaxes any more than young missionaries are prepared. The climaxes — oh, yes! these have been talked bare, worn smooth by many tongues. They have been explained and discussed. They have been proscribed and prescribed, diagnosed, and analyzed. Take scientifically dissected ‘ love, I he original thriller.’ Anyone who has his second teeth knows all about it, how it attacks and gets in its work even as the ‘flu’ germ. But we are not so well instructed in regard to the time when it seems banished by the antitoxin of poverty or worry, of temporary boredom or the ‘desire to snap into something different’ — the anticlimax, when all the best one can do is to ‘sit tight’ and hang on. One wonders if any of us know much about how to manage that, even the all-knowing youth.

There is teaching. Most earnest teachers do have dreams of accomplishing something real. They leave normal schools keen for the children who are their responsibility. Then, one Friday night, they are very apt to find that children cease to be children. They have become, for the time being, papers to mark, tests to prepare, attendance records to make out. The human rapport is not. The high purpose on Friday night has become — an anticlimax. Methods, subject-matter, theory and practice, they know in varying degrees, but this insidious hiatus between them and accomplishment is not accounted for in any normal-school curriculum. Like engines, these teachers on this Friday night have reached the dead centre, all unprepared.

There is also the boy home from the front — the World Climax. Training camps made him ready for it. Governments equipped him for it. Continents cleared their tracks, and oceans were swept free, that he might reach it. He did. Then he returned. There is waiting for him a wire cage in a bank, a job in a garage, a field to plough. After the home-coming is over, he is forgotten in the round of daily living. Over there they are lighting the fuse of the Ruhr, and putting Greece and Italy in the ring like a couple of gamecocks— without him. Over here they are canning peaches in the kitchen and putting new gutters on the porch roof — without him. He is nothing — who was the Hope of the World. He does not face an anticlimax. He in one. No one ever drilled him for this. ‘Strange that young men are so restless these days !’

There are young women at work, yes, millions of them. Youth and hope and coquetry, loyalty and instability, behind counters, operating typewriters, doing an endless number of things. They are in differing measure trained for their work, or they could not hold positions. But the end of a clamorous day, the night in a small room, boarding-house meals, — an endless number of nights in a small room, of boardinghouse meals, — no one has nerved them for these. ‘The temptations they lead to’ — what we don’t know of them! Literature is infested with them, with directions for and against. But the quality of anticlimax which these things are is a factor little known. The young women meet it in the dark.

Even motherhood and fatherhood do not seem exempt. ‘Holt’ will tell just how to feed a baby and will answer all known questions; but one is told that even Holt cannot always maintain the morale of parenthood, life’s immortal fulfillment does, at times, seem such a full schedule of bottles, such a scant schedule of sleep. Rapture becomes daily care, close to the round of other daily cares. At times it is even — an anticlimax. This, in spite of the fact that what old maids know about infants to-day mothers never knew in the world before. Maiden ladies read of the latest Valelock safety-pin in the newspaper advertisements at breakfast. Bachelors, smoking late into the night, learn all about ‘buttonless undershirts for the newcomer’ from the same source. What a mother must know is encyclopædic; but that a baby can descend to the daily norm of existence, and even pull on her nerves like a telephone bell that won’t stop ringing, seems to be a fact for which she is totally unarmored.

There is no one who welcomes these periods of anticlimax unless it be he who has been battered and shaken and bruised out of his senses by some real tragedy. For a time he may lie gasping in relief at any cessation of necessary reactions. But just let him stagger to his feet, and his taut nerves will clamor for a new experience, different in character, but above all one that is big enough to fill his enlarged capacity for living.

Of all the anticlimaxes, old age seems the most cruel and complete. Millions of recipes have been given for winning the battles of maturity, but very few for enduring the long bivouac that follows. Preparation, college and professional training, is planned for work in the world, none for the time when that work is no longer possible. I have known one or two people, and these earth’s wisest, who have so consistently schooled themselves in vital introspective possibilities that, when physical limitations inevitably set in, they could fill the vacuum with richness. On the whole, man shrinks like a whipped dog from the lessening of his powers.

The hardships of many an anticlimax lie before everyone, a long gray road. Like most roads, you can walk it better if you know it is there. Doughboys say they have walked roads they could not feel beneath their feet — so gone were they for sleep. They stumbled over every rut. Awake, they could have swung along jauntily. Perhaps a sign for youth, for all, ‘The Road is There — Wake Up!’ might help. And if that long straight pull were stressed more and the climactic hills given less publicity, the results would, at least, be interesting.

Crises one meets with the sum total of one’s fibre, nerved and, to a degree, exhilarated by the newness of the experience. The daily lack of crises wears out that fibre unless one is geared for the pull. One wonders where the mechanician in human adjustments is, who can help with the gearing. Probably that goes back primarily to one’s self. Not one’s job, one’s friends, one’s room or countryor boardinghouse — one’s self. Possibly it. consists in the cultivation of one’s own personal interests, so that they can be spread out, however thinly, along the monotonous places of living. This cultivation could hardly be for cultivation’s sake or art’s sake, or society’s, but simply toward the definite end of making it possible for the individual consciously to see that he is ready for a clearly realized difficulty — ‘the hardship of anticlimax.’