Ice Caps for Egotists

I

MY friend Worldly Wiseman lives a carefully preserved life on the top floor of a Fifth Avenue apartment house and looks out over the Park as often as three times a winter. He has the view in his mind’s eye, he says, and, as he is averse to exercise, hates to disturb his recollections. He is an optimist because he thinks pessimism a bar to adventure, and he refuses to be guided by experience since it means little outside the circumstances in which it was registered.

The conversation of Mr. Wiseman has an ironic undertone that suggests openness to conviction, but he discourages attacks on his credulity by a free use of double-edged compliments. He is convinced that any statement incapable of opposite interpretation is the fruitage of a single-track mind.

Worldly Wiseman began life with a small fortune, excellent connections, and the kind of education that befits a man to keep his head in fast company and his feet in a crush. At college he made the team and the best fraternities. He spent both decades after graduation in a brokerage shop, incidentally became financial adviser to a power magnate with the Midas touch whom he had admitted to an exclusive golf club, and retired at forty, bearing millions enough to enter his name on every charitable card catalogue in the country. Thereafter he developed into a professional trustee of museums and hospitals, and he derives so much entertainment from his associations that he seldom goes to the theatre. When not serving at board meetings he reads philosophy and the newspapers, which he describes as a balanced intellectual ration for an idealist. His outstanding eccentricity is an aversion for the opera. He has no objection to music or even society, he explains, but the Metropolitan’s mixture excites his prejudices.

Almost any day after 5 P.M. Mr. Wiseman may be found at tea in his library, recuperating from the diurnal conferences and prepared to discourse on the peculiarities of life. Since his relations are confined to the eminent lawyers, doctors, and financiers who manage the more august of our institutions, he hears the gossip of the city before it gets into the papers. He insists that he never believes the worst, however good the evidence, because people are too conventional to fall from grace without grave reasons. ‘I attribute the excellence of my own morals to a low blood count,’ he once said to me. ‘Who am I, then, to condemn another for yielding to stimuli to which my nature does not respond?’ His sole intolerance, so far as I have been able to discover, is of what he calls bad manners, but he dislikes all new acquaintances, deplores parvenus, and considers an interruption the sin against the Holy Ghost.

On the occasion of my last visit Mr. Wiseman was singularly bitter. It seems that a Western millionaire, elected to the board of his favorite hospital because of the magnitude of a subscription to its latest wing, had already trespassed on the conversational preserves of the older members.

‘The fellow is a fool,’ he said. ‘We let him in because we needed the money and he put it up to be admitted to our group. Now you are not so innocent as to suppose that our conferences are merely for business. We exchange real information — the facts of the things you read about in the press. Well, this afternoon Fred Jones was halfway through the story of Brown’s divorce when this upstart brought up some petty details about finances and thereafter undertook to tell us Andy Mellon’s real views on prohibition. Everyone was disgusted. I was on that board a year before anyone spoke to me, and, though my tongue may have been in my cheek, my teeth were clinched. Only when my colleagues were convinced I was housebroke was I admitted to their scandal fests. This fellow committed social suicide by talking before the rest of us had forgiven ourselves for recognizing him.

‘I learned to-day,’ my host continued, ‘that a still newer cure has been discovered for diabetes. If I had my way our enterprising doctors would stop finicking over trivial ailments and turn their attention to that really devastating epidemic — egotism. Cancer, the boll weevil, measles, are far less destructive and infinitely easier to live with. Egotism is an unnatural passion to impose the self on its environment, a craze to extend the illusion of one’s own importance to others. The egotist is unhappy unless he is making converts to his personal god and he regards every unguarded ear as a shrine for his altar. I’d sooner meet a mad dog than an egotist, for rabies is the lesser evil. Muzzles would help, but not cure; assassination would turn us all into fratricides. There was a time when scientists moaned that the movies were making us eye-minded. The radio has left us ear-minded, and mayhem, from being the perversity of the few, has become the fashion of the many. Nowadays people believe they are unseen if you are not listening to them.

‘Don’t misinterpret me as arguing against that decent self-assertion which is the birthright of the normal man. I have the privilege of believing sound any opinion I generate, but not of thinking it sinful on the part of someone else if he refuses to agree with it. It never occurs to me I have exclusive possession of any truth or that my version of it is necessarily accurate. I am even willing to change my preferences if gently approached. Your egotist is concerned neither with the truth of what he says nor with what you think. His delusion of greatness is nourished on your attention, and while his voice holds the air he feels you are submissive to his authority. It is characteristic of the lung brain to mistake volume for intelligence and pressure for knowledge.

‘The other night, at a dinner, a pirate of this type bawled a whole table of mannerly people into silence. He had an artful trick of deferentially quoting his neighbors and extending their alleged opinions by way of reconciling them to his monopoly. It was better than a play to watch this fellow exclude an interruption by a tilt of the pitch of his voice and shade his argument whenever an eyebrow lifted. He said nothing in innumerable words, but with so much animation that we were kept keyed for disclosures that never arrived. As an exhibition it was better than tight-rope walking to the notes of a saxophone, but one never goes more than once a season to the circus.

‘It is my misfortune,’ Mr. Wiseman continued, ‘to be thrown into the company of the suppressed — doctors, scientists, curators, institutional directors, who are debarred by the ethics of their professions or the prejudices of their chiefs from expanding their personalities in the papers. Surging with facts they imagine bear on the welfare of the race or some other chimera, they are consumed by a frenzy for publicity. Each wants a wave length to himself because he is persuaded that fame and fortune turn on making someone listen in.

‘ Yet when I recall the bitter amusement I have derived from the frantic antics of rival anthropologists, botanists, art experts, archæologists, and other species of the institutional genus, perhaps I exaggerate my ordeals. In these confined firmaments we are the divinities in whose hands rests the disposition of funds. Incompetent for our task, since no scientist admits intelligence in a trustee, our awards are figured as in the realm of favor or chance. So we must be propitiated and are smothered in an atmosphere of intrigue and flattery noxious enough to set even a god clamoring for a gas mask. When a commission is conferred a new egotist raises his cry above the howls of the disappointed pack. He believes his elevation due to inherent genius. The others ascribe it to blackmail or illegitimate kinship.

‘The fact is,’ he summed up, ‘this generation has gone publicity mad. In its creed the old adage that actions speak louder than words has been superseded by the conviction that what is not advertised need n’t have occurred. Not to be in the limelight is death in life; obscurity, Procrustes’ bed up to date. It is every man his own press agent, and devil take the unfortunate who stammers. In the atmosphere of this obsession egotists mature and multiply like maggots in infected tissue.’

II

Worldly Wiseman reached for another toasted muffin, assured himself of my attention by an appraising glance, established a new centre of gravity nearer the small of his back, and resumed.

‘This decay of modesty was completely illustrated at the last of the “must” dinners through which the chairman of my favorite board thinks he promotes harmony among his flock. For some occult reason (probably because they are related to oil and a breakfast food) he had invited two internes, clean-cut youngsters who were polite enough to our wives, but, when the coffee was served, began to hamstring the conversation with their views. They proposed to reform our practices and remodel our institution. I ’m not denying merit to some of their suggestions — simply no one asked for their opinions. If either had invented an approach he might have found us receptive. But to them we were old fogies who required a jolting, and they young Daniels come to judgment. Pups who undertake to teach old dogs new tricks generally get well bitten for their pains.

‘Our host, who keeps terriers and knows their tricks, let them romp for a spell and then escorted both, still yelping, to the custody of the ladies. If one could amputate brashness as effectively as one removes an appendix, they would have been operated upon that night. I think they are learning elsewhere the first great axiom of anatomy — that a man who keeps his mouth shut can never put his foot in it.

‘In our own bodies,’ he continued, ‘cells discontented with their share of corpuscles are thought diseased. Their demand for attention is a call for the doctor. Inflamed vanity, I am convinced, is pathological. I recall a scene I witnessed the other morning in the hospital — the spectacle of an eminent surgeon, whose intellectual metabolism has been unbalanced by the germ of greatness, parading to the operating room supported by a chorus of humble juniors and meek nurses. This prodigy subsists on notes of admiration and is uncomfortable unless he is being congratulated. His egotism is psychological cancer.

‘The grip of a jealous monster is on this famous man’s throat. He writhes with envy at the mention of a rival operator’s name. He has persuaded himself he is a master of life and death and that patients should felicitate themselves on being the subjects of his mutilations. His greed knows no limit. I’d rather face a shark than the knife of one of these perverts. Less dangerous paranoiacs are in insane asylums.

' If the doctors be powerless to abate the encroachments of this fell malady,’ continued Wiseman, growing even more emphatic, ‘may we not requisition the services of our clamant efficiency experts, who tell us in their thousand house organs that they are redeeming the world from waste? Business is their clinic; yet I venture the declaration that there are more and worse egotists in Wall Street than in the ranks of the professions. Competitive “up-and-comers” and “go-getters” in all the great and little corporations apply far more energy to tripping each other up than they devote to advancing the interests of their institutions. I have seen these addicts set organizations at loggerheads and clog the give-and-take intercourse between department chiefs without which no concern can keep its speed up. Take the case of two high officials in an important firm of which I am a director. One is of the smug superiority type who carefully programmes himself for every conference; his rival, with greater vitality and a better knowledge of the game, is harried by a distrust of his own capacity. The excellent suggestions of the latter are neutralized by the imperative manner in which he advances them, while his colleague sits by adroitly tripping him up with sneers and amendments and ends by stealing his thunder. If they’d join forces we’d double our revenues. Instead, each has his party, and between them they have divided the board. It is always a battle to the death between egotists.

‘In another concern, whose president is old and weak, his two chief aides are battling for his shoes. Each is convinced that the other would wreck the institution and that only he is fitted for the job. Their wrangles have riven the organization and business is falling off. Before long both intriguers will be looking elsewhere for poles to climb.

‘Two years ago I had faith in the futures of these young men, for I knew their fathers and liked the way they had been reared. Then one discovered he was a champion salesman and the other that he could speak on his feet. The first had himself written up in a “Do-it-now” magazine; the other’s oration at a bankers’ convention was reported in the Times. From friends, they became obstacles in each other’s paths. Someone ought to chart a safe way to expand the lungs without inflating the head.

‘The other day I dropped in on X, one of the little emperors of business. He presides in a sort of feudal state high up in a skyscraper, in a large paneled sanctum which one reaches through corridors of subordinate offices. He is to be seen only by negotiation — Coolidge is less secluded. After running a gauntlet of underlings, I was admitted to a throne room bestudded with Persian rugs, red morocco armchairs, and American beauty roses. A grandiose desk was set on a dais.

‘Perched thereon, a little frog of a man, swelling with glory, in a cutaway coat and striped trousers, some sparse hairs pomaded in a Napoleonic lock on his broad high forehead, was declaiming to an awed blonde stenographer in the manner of Mussolini defying a Jugoslav. He arose to greet me with an air of cordial condescension and banished the secretary with an imperious wave of his cigar. A large Corona was conferred on me as though it were a decoration, and he relaxed on his throne with the air of the tired statesman condescending to an importunate intruder. His benignancy disappeared a moment later when the meek secretary entered on tiptoe and laid a typed message before him.

‘“How often have I told you I must not be disturbed when I am in private conference! ” he snorted, with the air of a despot reproving a slave.

‘“Mr. Josephs said it was a matter of the utmost importance and it was essential you should be consulted,” the girl expostulated.

‘ “Tell Mr. Josephs that. I know of no business more important than my own orders and that I regard his insistence as offensive.”

‘ He turned to me for approval.

“‘Discipline must be maintained at any cost,” he announced. “Josephs is an energetic fellow, — one of my vice presidents, — but if he is to stay in this organization he must keep his place.”

‘Now X started life via the newsboy, messenger route, was an excellent mixer, developed scope, and by dint of pugnacity and luck pushed himself to the top hole of this corporation, which thus far has flourished under his rule. Here he is, a diminutive man in a large place, who has decided recently that the record proves him a great personage. He has to surround himself with trappings to be assured it is really true, and all this domineering pretentiousness is to impress his subordinates — and in this instance to show me.

‘I was shown. On returning from his preposterous presence I threw overboard my stock in the institution. An egomaniac sooner or later steers his craft on the rocks.

‘I’ll admit it’s hard even for a big man to keep his nose cold amid the sycophancy and servility which is Wall Street’s tribute to the great,’ said Mr. Wiseman after a pause. ‘A friend of mine who presides over an important corporation allowed himself to be henpecked by his wife and bullied by his son-in-law, just to keep his sense of proportion normal. He used to boast that the business was run by his bunch of vice presidents and managers, who thrashed over its problems and policies in conference. No one-man institution for him. I heard he had seen a light, and the other day, meeting him exercising on Park Avenue, I accosted him with a “How’s democracy working?”

‘“Don’t open old sores,” he said. “I caught on to the fact that my bright young men were creepers, not partners. You see,” he went on, “I am an enthusiast, and I ’m always thinking of new things to do. Some are good, others are not. I’m never sure which is which. Well, when I’d have an idea I ’d summon my boys and tell them the scheme — generally at the top of my lungs. Two thirds of the bunch, the ‘yes-yessers,’ would murmur, ‘Great man, done it again!’ The ‘no-noers,’ to attract attention to their wisdom, would pick flaws. Thus I was left torn between doubt and obstinacy, and nothing happened. I decided it was more profitable to experiment than to confer. I make more mistakes, but lose fewer opportunities. It’s cheaper to cut a loss than to miss a chance! There’s only one way to stand off climbers or egotists — it’s to be one yourself. I’ve gone the limit — you can read my rules for success in next month’s Go-Getter’s Magazine!"'

III

Here Mr. Wiseman disentangled himself from the couch on which he had been reclining, stood up, and began to stride about the room. ’I used,’ he said, ‘to have a modest friend whose native worth resisted the corrosion of a large fortune until in an evil day someone made him president of a suburban board of education. The grasp of the gavel altered his personality. Now he insists on taking the chair whenever four men are gathered together, because he says he has discovered in himself a genius for ordering debate.

‘There is something in the mere act of presiding that upsets equilibrium. A man exposed to the hot high winds that beat around the speaker’s table becomes infected with the deadly germ of authority, and thereafter, when he opens his mouth, imagines he is broadcasting. I have noted that chairmen invariably register superiority to the orators of occasions and patronize the issues propounded in their presence.

‘An amateur neurologist I know has a theory that any large expenditure of air, as in oratory or the exercise of authority, disturbs the normal functioning of the brain cells. He says these cells require a definite supply of oxygen, and if an excess is burned in the mouth the red corpuscles are deprived of their due ration and the centre where the sense of proportion is located suspends function. The optic nerve is thrown into reverse and the individual’s own image is interposed between him and reality.

‘This explains why speakers so often shout — they are trying to regain balance through their ears.’

Mr. Wiseman smiled at his conceit, but went on bravely: —

‘The psychological basis here is sounder than the anatomical, I’ll admit, but one is safe in concluding that egotism originates in the lungs and intoxicates the mind. It lurks in elevated places, and promotions or victories dispose the system to its attack. It inflates its dupes, induces acute self-sensitivity, and distorts their points of view. Instinctively they usurp foregrounds, prerogatives, heroic rôles, and speaking parts. Actors, salesmen, executives, editors, judges, and professors, — in fact, anyone whose business it is to talk down to someone else, — are liable to catch it. It is the most subtle of diseases: unlike sufferers with cancer or tuberculosis, its victims enjoy their symptoms, and the pain attendant on the malady is borne by the community. Ascribe egotism to the worst of braggarts and he takes on the air of a martyr and attributes the charge to envy.

‘If one is careful, however, one may check the infection before it invades the tissues. During my term as chairman of the A B Board I noted that my blood pressure increased whenever I decided a controversy or ruled on a point of order, and, knowing exactly what that portended, I donned an ice cap after every meeting. A doctor who does a good deal of lecturing at the Academy of Medicine tells me that he takes five minutes under a cold shower each night before dinner and spends his vacations mapping glaciers in Alaska.’

It seemed time to intervene and I interrupted: —

‘Your massacres are always good spectacles, but, as in the case of those Chinese executions we read of in which two or three hundred suspected Bolsheviki are shot at a swoop, one wonders if all who perish are equally guilty. Publicity is no more a crime than advertising. I have in mind the instance of a retired professor of mathematics from an inland university who in his leisure worked out some radio innovations that yielded him a million. He seeks a few breaths of the public admiration he deserves and to be asked out to dinners by persons who would be charmed to meet him if they were aware of his existence. He has an accurate mind and has told me his life’s history twice in the same terms, so it is time his circulation was widened. Now I have suggested a few devices which may get him talked about — to wear white spats with his dinner jacket, to offer the mayor a solution of the traffic problem in the terms of conic sections, to lease the top floor of the Ritz Tower and to finance a play on the Second Coming. If he carries through one of these projects and makes the front page, his mail will be full of invitations, but you’ll be parading him as the latest upstart. Yet the unfortunate will only be adopting reasonable means to escape from his own ego, which he finds bad company.

‘Further, I contend that every man who believes he has something to say is entitled to crash the communal eardrum. If it’s worth hearing and he fails to catch the pitch, he is guilty of contributory negligence. I’m persuaded that much of what is paraded as modesty is inarticulateness, and a retiring disposition often represents a previous conviction or fatty degeneration of the heart. That erstwhile hero who forced the world to beat a path to his wilderness shack after the supermousetrap undoubtedly invested the proceeds in phony oil stocks. The bore who excited your scorn was no more than a virtuoso beating his wings, and the conversation he excluded I’ll bet would have been far less entertaining than the sense of outrage he inspired in you.

‘If, after due examination of the person, conversation, and accomplishment of any of my fellow men, I decide that a jury would concede my superiority, why should I conceal the verdict? The public is entitled to the best and likes to be shown. Nature enters into no conspiracy of silence when her purposes are served by attracting attention. No retiring bird ever caught a worm or won a mate. There are color and vocal competitions in the feathered world in springtime. The vivid hues your flowers wear are assumed to catch the flirtatious eyes of passing bees and not to win your gardener blue ribbons at suburban flower shows. ’

Mr. Wiseman inspected me critically.

‘If I remember aright,’ he said, ‘you played football in your college days.’

‘Yes, ’ I replied with a touch of pride, ‘centre, Dartmouth, 1919.’

‘That explains,’ he concluded. ‘You pushed your way through three subway jams in Times Square recently and now you are rationalizing a superiority complex based on the breadth of your own shoulders. Try an ice cap. Good night.’