The Lemmings

MAN has always been advised by his prophets to meditate upon the stars that he may know the true measure of his strut and fret. He has walked by the sea when his trouble seemed larger than the universe, and in vastness he has sunk the mote of his desires. Yet these were the rare experiences, the unusual moments. For the most part he went about healthily concerned with his own deeds. Alexander, contemplating infinite space too long, would never have issued out of Macedon; the greatest of our poets would have remained dumb, in perpetual surveyal of the wind. The moralists of the past urged an occasional shuffling off of identity because every mortal was so founded upon himself.

But there are other magnitudes than those of space, not comparable in size, but almost as awful. I am thinking of the machine, and the overwhelming complication of its cogs. We know that the derangement of one of them would bring chaos upon us, and we live in their presence daily. In other words, our prevailing mood is the one formerly reserved for occasional chastisement and humility. Daily it becomes more evident that the individual counts for nothing, that the race itself counts for little, that we move in the shadow of a monster beyond any one man’s control.

Do not generalize; notice the small but unmistakable symptoms of our thralldom. Watch youth — who should be striding freely over his own earth, occupied with his own thoughts — making his way down a city street: the pausing, the colliding, the slinking, dodging, and dashing to safety and another block. If he rides, he may appear more arrogant, but he is no less distracted. He has surrendered a very ancient right — the right to collect himself, to take stock of his ideas, while he is traveling. Few occupations leave the worker time to think, and therefore the passage from place to place has been man’s prime opportunity for inviting his soul. In giving up this chance he has admitted, to all intents and purposes, that his importance as an individual is at an end.

The scoffer may well remark that the slinking and dodging arose from the highly individualistic instinct for selfpreservation. Of course; but, if that is to be our main concern, we have returned to palæolithic conditions. The mind of ancient man saw the world about him as a constant menace, partly imaginary, partly real. His identity was exercised only in self-preservation, and, curiously enough, he was thus impelled to seek his fellows and to form a herd, for he dared not face the terrors alone. As an individual, ancient man was almost negligible.

We too are living in the presence of powers which forever dwarf us, even though we have created them ourselves. All is vanity! — of that fact we need no memorandum now. We should be reminded that the human unit is of some importance. Like our remote ancestor, we dare not stand alone even for an instant. Commercial conditions may partly account for the rush to the cities, but an equally strong, though profound, cause is the panic that strikes us in the face of our ungovernable world. For, though the stars chastened the spirit of the egoist, they did not momentarily threaten to fall on him. The huge machine of our own making trembles in its place like a rocking stone, and we know that with one second of relaxed vigilance we shall be crushed beneath it.

Though the observation seem trite and perhaps ludicrous, I have noted, as a periodic visitor to New York, the increased momentum of this blind power within the last few years. Even a superficial mind must feel the horror of streets run amuck and individuals flung hither and thither like wheat beneath the flail. When the tides of traffic are held back for a minute, we feel that a miracle has occurred. They were just held back, and soon, possibly the next time, they will only pause — then, no longer answerable to any power known to man, will rush forward of their own volition, driven no more, but driving crazily forward like a migration of lemmings toward no goal whatsoever. This seems too fanciful? But watch. The motion still ceases, but ever less willingly. And ever the pace mounts.

Who are you in this pandemonium? How many hours in the last week have been your own to devote to your own interests — not to money-getting, of course, for that is the pulse of the monster, but to your own identity, without which you are only part of a species? How many hours have you spent consulting your own desires and your own ambitions? Do you even know what they are? A little while before going to sleep you have dreamed vaguely, and your fagged brain has distorted your ideas more and more and finally braided them into darkness.

The dearth of great men is generally bewailed, and eugenists write books about it. But who would dare lay hands on even the smallest wheel when by so doing he might bring down the whole fabric from continent to continent? Who can emerge to greatness when all men live perpetually in contact with forces that are only just kept in control by the mass effort of the whole race and bid fair to break loose altogether? We shudder into a herd, dressed alike, thinking alike, breeding alike, because, like prehistoric man, we know that if we detach ourselves the terror will be upon us.