IN Queen Anne’s time the traveler past Temple Bar must behold sundry ownerless heads bleaching in the mist. This dreadful show was not an impersonal exhibit. It was staged and arranged for purposes of warning. ‘Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis,’ as Goldsmith remarked to Johnson. 4 Continue your Jacobite speculations,’ these grisly heads said more plainly to the passer-by than if their mouths had spoken; ‘forget your divine allegiance — here is where you too shall come.’
In the same way, I reflected, as I slid through a closing door of the subway, missing by a hair’s margin the amœba’s fate of continuance by division, and stood for an hour in meditation upon the rows of advertisements above me, these advertisements are the daily admonition to our more civilized age, less crude but more subtly forceful than sundered heads, of what we shall, without the grace of thought, become. I study them one by one — different in what they illustrate, alike in their grinning idiocy. A man, handsome and robust, but smitten with secret madness, turns to embrace his too complaisant wife as a ten-cent can of beans comes upon the table. A child — if the small monstrosity can be called by that familiar name — lifts hands of entreaty for the cod-liver oil just beyond reach, while a viking opposite, who drank his potion long ago, gazes unstirred. My eyes move on to the right, where a well-dressed family at a prettily appointed table becomes hysterical at the appearance of baked spaghetti. Just beyond, a girl too young and sweet to deserve the hereditary curse of scrambled wits is offering a perspiring football hero, who has sunk down to rest after his exertion, a slice of bread without beverage, while beyond her a distinguished-looking man with graying hair clasps a box of buckwheat cereal with ill-concealed emotion.
Yes, I meditate as I gaze upon them, ‘all smiling and all damned,’ all are stricken with the same blight. Even the animals have not escaped. The fall of man has involved the brute creation with it. The tiger leers above a cheese, the bear grins from his quadrupedal flannels, the squirrel exhibits febrile longing at the sight of a salad dressing. There is, I admit, — as, having exhausted the illustrations upon the right, I turn leftward, — a horrible consistency about them all. It is a world remote from ours as bedlam; but, unlike bedlam, every exhibit in it bears allegiance to the same fixed rules as every other. A youth halts his courtship to thrust a bar of candy toward his love’s rosy lips. A dissipated couple, whose appearance would indicate that nothing save a judge’s injunction could hold them together, sit affectionately linked, listening to the music of a radio that relaxes their vicious lineaments. A baby’s first word, while the parents bend close expectantly, is the name of a cracker. A father and mother make no effort to conceal their enjoyment as they administer a chest cure to their beaming offspring. A grandmother grins like a ghoul at the hapless boy drinking chocolate.
The most horrible thing about them, as before remarked, is their consistency with themselves. They are all members of the same family. They may even be different ages and phases in the life of the same individual. The business man sufficiently snoopy to discover what Jones has saved will without doubt, when transported to a moonlit cliff, blow tobacco smoke into a girl’s face at her request or otherwise. The youth whose career is ruined by the fall of a fork will go mad with joy at a piece of chewing gum, both being phases of his manic-depressive malady. From humanity’s point of view they are all mad, mad as March hares; but judged within their own circle they are perfectly unified. There is even a vitality and continuance about them. Does not the baby whose infant lips breathe a cracker’s name become the youth who rushes from a play to smoke a five-cent cigar, and does not the youth, in time, with his suitable wife, produce the child who begs him to bring home a dark cathartic? The child, in turn —
Horrified at the range of my speculation, I turn my eyes to the pale grotesqueries of humanity beneath these brilliant rows, and my heart goes out to them. Worn and lethargic though they be, they do not desert a friend for embonpoint or halitosis, or neglect the wife whose first gray streak of hair is appearing, or throw over the business associate who cannot hold a dinner party spellbound by the repetition of telephone dates.
My station is near. I prepare to depart with a bound through the door, as I arrived. I gaze my last upon our grisly warnings. ‘Beware,’ say these pictures of a mindless race as if their mouths had spoken, ‘of joyance for nought. Be not tolerant. Harden your heart. Do you wish to go mad over a slice of bread, or date your life’s conversion from a change of heel? Keep on smiling — here you will come.’
I renew ray vow; I take ray warning; I free myself from the dominion of things. I look my last upon our solemn diurnal admonitions. We cannot thank too deeply the wise and subtle men who set them there.