I Have My Doubts

I

I ONCE knew a man who could bear a physical infirmity without growing garrulous about it. But he hardly counts as an exception to the general rule. He had lockjaw. What, indeed, is the solace in suffering if one may not talk about it and command respectful attention from one’s able-bodied and commonplace friends? But those of us afflicted with mental disorders seem to be more reticent about them. At any rate one seldom hears a man boast that his faculties are in a state of partial eclipse or announce with pride that his brain is becoming spongy and useless.

And yet, if I may be permitted, I should like to attempt the novelty of such a confession, in the belief that I may find a small minority of readers who share, or at least will understand, my peculiar affliction. That, of course, is the constant hope of the hypochondriac: that he may discover someone else in a like or worse condition — someone with whom he may converse in a common language of suffering and despair and arrange a pleasant camaraderie of symptoms and sensations.

My trouble, briefly diagnosed, is that I am utterly incapable of coming to conclusions, of forming sound convictions, like other people. ‘Leaping at conclusions’ is to me only a highly incredible phrase; I have difficulty even in crawling toward them. And yet I would keenly resent the implication that in other respects I am of less than ordinary intelligence.

But when I draw near a conclusion of the simplest sort an absolutely opposite conclusion announces itself, entirely uninvited, and, being fresh to the mind, instead of stale with too much consideration, beckons to me more briskly. I can, for instance, come with comparative ease to the tentative conclusion that the League of Nations is a futile organization, accomplishing little if anything in the interests of world peace. But the trouble is I can come just as easily to the opinion that, for all I really know about it, it may be functioning wisely and well in many ways and is at least the best experiment of the sort that has been tried.

Large matters or small, it makes no difference; my malady embraces them all. I have never ordered a dessert for lunch that I have not looked with envy and despair upon the superior one chosen by my companion. The donkey who starved to death irresolute between two bales of hay, not knowing which to attack first, I can understand like a brother.

Sometimes it is possible to forget my annoying complaint when I am alone, but contact with normal people brings it on at once. For example, I sat the other day in the smoking room of a Pullman, pleasantly oblivious for the moment that I was very different from other people who travel on trains. Then a soap salesman, who, appropriately enough, was lathering his face, hattered this illusion instantly. Misaking as a friendly overture my look of admiration at his skill in shaving on a moving train, he declared without further provocation that what we needed was a larger merchant marine. Violent twinges of my trouble set in. I felt that I would have given all I possessed if I could stand in a lurching train, with my mouth and ears full of soap, and come so readily to a conclusion about our merchant marine, or anything else. He passed without perceptible transition to the subject of prohibition, which he tersely denounced as a huge joke. Not knowing the agony he was causing me, he went on to inform me with some heat that the Soviet Government was a menace to the world, and said, with the air of a man who knows, that Coolidge was a fine president and that Darwinism was utter rubbish. These pronouncements, bringing so mercilessly the sense of my own deficiency, left me weak and full of self-commiseration.

For these are questions — Heaven help me! — which have revolved in my wobbling mind for years without solution. I have given some of them more than casual consideration and I have had ample opportunity — if I had it in me — to reach some intelligent conclusions. But it seems hopeless.

II

I wish I knew what kind of president Coolidge is. To know whether a man is a strong or a weak president — certainly this would seem to the unafflicted mind a matter of the most elementary sort. Of course, I read about him in the newspapers, but he does n’t seem to crystallize into a person of clear outlines. The fact that he is a singularly silent executive who sometimes rides a mechanical horse, goes fishing in the summer, and believes in the protection of American lives and property in foreign countries, does not furnish me with a real key to his usefulness to the country. These things might all be true, might they not, of good or bad presidents? Is the nation prospering under Coolidge? Or is it prospering in spite of him? Or is it prospering? I have n’t the faintest idea. He remains to me a somewhat dimly discerned figure, vague as a legend. I do not know half as much about him as I do about Achilles, Galahad, or Nero.

It seems pleasant to have in the White House such a quiet, dignified conservative, entrenched behind good old New England traditions of reserve and caution, a man who, you feel instinctively, would never be hard on the furniture. Still, would n’t it be better to have a more dynamic, explosive sort of president? Silence may betoken wisdom, or it may not. Why does n’t he do something about the farmers? Or do the farmers really need help, and why? I wish to goodness I could stand up, a convincing talker before a group of eager listeners, and announce firmly that the farmers must be helped, and to what they must be helped — and know precisely what I was talking about.

I have had more intimate glimpses of other presidents and other presidential nominees, but it did n’t seem to do me much good. I had conversations of some length with Harding and Cox, both before and after they were nominated. Here was a good chance to weigh two candidates carefully. Here at least I could stand on the threshold of a conviction with every promise of entering into it. Cox impressed me much more strongly. There was little question in my mind, for the time being, that he would make the better president.

But the moment I began to set down my impressions of these two men in writing, my madness fell upon me. In some perverse way, without any volition on my part, Harding seemed to be getting not only an even break, but almost the better of it. His endearing human faults began to eclipse Cox’s colder virtues, and, believe it or not, when I had finished I was well on the road to the conviction that Harding was the right man. Some people, kind but undiscerning, praised the fairness with which I had compared these rivals. What they mistook for fairness was only the prank of a wobbling mind. If I could have pronounced one a superman, as suited for the presidency as if divinely appointed, and the other a total misfit, I should have been happy indeed.

The Soviet Government is another matter I ought to know something about. I spent several years in Russia, observing the causes, effects, and general phenomena of the Revolution. It seemed at the outset that this wreck of the splendor of the Russian Empire, this social and economic chaos into which a great nation had been plunged, could only be regarded as a world tragedy. Gone was one of the most picturesque and imposing aristocracies of Europe, and, with it, all its traditions and culture, to be replaced by a violent social theory which worked immeasurable havoc. The Bolsheviki, obviously, were little better than cutthroats.

That is to say, I held this conviction for the brief fraction of a second. Then I was forced to admit that conditions before the Revolution were worse in most respects than they are now. Want, starvation, brutality, corruption, industrial slavery, an unjust and wicked state of affairs wherein one per cent of the population reveled in luxurious living while the rest suffered the deepest deprivation and misery — certainly these were conditions which called for a desperate remedy. For you do not overthrow despotism with mild pleas or whispered protests. Perhaps the upheaval was necessary; perhaps it will have been justified if it succeeds in awakening a public consciousness in Russia and in educating, however painfully, the heretofore unenlightened masses.

But I doubt it. I do not admit that this is the case at all. I am inclined to believe that nothing short of a millennium could excuse so great a catastrophe. An evil is an evil. Sophistical reasoning may paint it with the colors of virtue, but it remains intrinsically unchanged. Still, all great forward movements have been born out of bitter turmoil and temporary disintegration. You cannot erect a new structure without ruthlessly tearing down the old. Confound it! I wish I could come to some decision about this Soviet business.

Let us come, as one does every so often, to the subject of prohibition — the pièce de résistance of all conversational repasts. Here is an issue so controversial and inflammatory in its nature that it divides all people into sharply clashing factions. It is scarcely human to remain indifferent or undecided when a question like this is broached. To retain a shred of selfrespect, one should feel violently about it, for, unlike many of the things we argue about, this one strikes home. I feel violently about it, myself. But the trouble is, I seem to feel violently on both sides.

I am sure of one thing — or I think I am. Prohibition does n’t prohibit. But, you never can tell; perhaps in time it will. You can’t put over a reform like this in a day. On the other hand, is it not true that the prohibition of any natural or acquired taste tends to heighten our pleasure in the thing forbidden and makes indulgence in it more frequent? Or is it? Still, I know that many of us would be better off without alcohol in any form, and, since we have n’t the moral courage to abstain, why is n’t it wise to have some form of outward discipline? Has n’t it decreased crime, and is n’t that a strong point in its favor? Although I believe, on further reflection, that it has increased crime. There are certainly figures enough to support this contention. But who can attack a measure that has wiped out that pernicious evil, the saloon? Or has it wiped out the saloon? How can we say it has wiped out the saloon when there are over ten thousand of them now running in New York City alone?

Still, weighing all the familiar arguments for and against prohibition, I am of the opinion that it is a mockery and an imposition. But you would never get me to mount a platform and set forth any such argument. As likely as not, before I had gone far, I should be talking with some feeling on the other side of the question.

III

One begins to see, without my floundering further in the fogs of controversy, or inflicting upon others a torment which I must bear alone, that this is no trifling indisposition. Such frailties, as Mack Sennett once indignantly said about his motion-picture comedies, are not to be laughed at. Among sane and positive people who know precisely what they think, it is not pleasant to wander aloof and alone, a wretched outcast from the world of conclusions, without a single staunch conviction to lean upon. If I could only be sure that I preferred blondes. But brunettes —

The disease, unless I am mistaken, has an Eastern origin; for, whereas cases of it are rare in this country, in Russia, which is more than half Oriental, it is as common as the measles. Arguing with a Russian is a nimble and diverting form of mental calisthenics; for the Russian reserves the privilege, whenever the whim seizes him, of bouncing over to your side of the argument, whereupon it is only courteous of you to take up the side he has just abandoned. He loves to set up a case as solidly as he can, and then, scampering to the other end of the arena, to come charging back upon it full tilt, shivering his lances, so to speak, upon the dummy of his own creation. I always feel at home in Russia.

Many years ago Mr. Paul Milyukov, later to become foreign minister of the first revolutionary government, was spending a term in jail, as the result of a revolutionary speech delivered before Russian students. Count Witte, conservative head of the government at that time, being in some quandary over domestic or foreign affairs, decided, in true Russian fashion, to seek the counsel of a man of views radically opposed to his own. He therefore had Milyukov released from jail and brought to his house, where they enjoyed an evening of amiable controversy. After a while Witte, impressed by the political sagacity of his antagonist, and partly succumbing to his views, offered him a post in the ministry. It was precisely as if President Harding had sent for Eugene Debs, when the latter was in a federal prison, and given him a place in the cabinet. To make the incident perfectly apposite, Milyukov should have come around to Witte’s way of thinking, and they should have gone on arguing. But, as a matter of record, Milyukov said he would rather go back to jail than become a member of Witte’s government. And back he went.

But I should not be true to the character of the confirmed invalid that I am if I did not try to soften somewhat the asperity of my complaint, and claim for it certain compensations and advantages — translate it perhaps into a virtue. You cannot live for any length of time even with a weakness without becoming in a way attached to it. I suppose that the man with a cast in his eye comes in time to view it in the mirror with something like affection.

Is not, then, something to be said in favor of an honest slate of doubt, a twinkling uncertainty in the mind about many things, a pleasure more in the pursuit of knowledge than in the eager apprehension of conclusions? Is there some new Kantian categorical imperative that for the good of our souls we must go around bristling with convictions on every conceivable question?

There are compensations to be found in the unhurried mental journey, which does not race like an express train to a conclusion, but ambles slowly forward, falls into pleasant byways, loses its direction, and finally turns home without reaching its destination. It has n’t taken us anywhere in particular, but we have had a lot of fun getting lost. And we have seen many diverting spectacles that do not grow along railroad tracks. Even the sense of frustration is pleasant and stimulating, for it leads to fresh exploration. After all, when a journey is finished or a question is answered, curiosity is stilled, wonder is gone, and the fun is over.

But wait! What drivel is this? How can one seriously attempt to make a virtue out of vacillation? What indeed is the purpose of thinking, if not to take us to conclusions? What a vanity is all the travail of thought, if it bears no offspring! It would probably be better for me to have firm convictions like other people. But I am far from being sure about it.