WANTED, by all the seekers for success who make it possible for all the HowTo-Get-On Institutes to advertise in every monthly magazine. Wanted, by all the paid-up enrollments in the Charm Classes of the Y. W. C. A. Wanted, by all the book buyers who have fostered the boom in biography. Wanted, by all those who have changed the word ‘it’ from an impersonal neuter pronoun to the symbol of personality. Wanted, by all America.
What have they, the people to whom we refer as ‘real persons,’ that causes us to feel as though we had missed some essential possession and impels us to resort to these means of recapturing it? Our work does not make us real persons. In the factory where we form one of the interminable links in the chain of production, in the office where we put through the orders for the product, we do something in itself quite easy at the rate of so many times a day. And when we go home we go to standardized houses quite easy to manage in standardized means of transportation quite easy to run. But we believe profoundly in all this. We believe in the reduction of manual effort by mechanical means, and in the widest possible distribution of the means. In order to achieve this we willingly accept standardization and the type of production which it involves. We ourselves wish to have and to do the same things as everybody else. And yet, when we come right down to it, we don’t quite like to be the same thing as everybody else. We like groups. We like constantly to belong to more and better groups. And yet the ‘life stories’ which seem to us to have the happiest endings are those which deal with getting beyond groups to stand alone. In the lonely figure there is mystery, and in the sense of mystery we feel an answer to our half-conscious lack.
The type of production whose results we approve is steadily diminishing the number of people who can feel a sense of mystery in their work. The pioneer years were an epic of facing the unknown: they have their heroes. The agricultural period was less stirring, but the seasonal march of the crops gives to the man who follows it an independence, a sense of certain things infinitely understood by the man himself — what we mean when we say ‘weather-wise.’ It puts a touch of envy into the summer tourist’s voice even while he shows his city contempt for the farmer by calling him a ‘quaint character.’ He acknowledges the character in spite of the qualifying adjective.
But what sort of wisdom is coming to the farmers’ sons who to-day are going to work in the city? The passing of the apprenticeship system has meant the end of any mystery of métier. Skill, in the old days, was a sense of the mystery of the inanimate. It was the adaptation of one’s own movements to the stuff of one’s own trade. It was an adaptation only possible with patient practice; it ended in the creation of a new sensitivity, developed through one’s body and spirit, and this sensitivity became a part of one’s personality. A father apprenticed his son to learn the mysteries of a trade. To-day it is a question not of skill but of speed. The foreman can show the boy how to set screws in half an hour. The boy has no problem of how this thing can best be done. There is only one way to do it, an obligatory way which has been worked out by the time-study man. All that the boy is to think of is, How fast can I do it? The central fixation of his life becomes, How fast can I operate the numberless rather simple devices around me?
We read an enormous amount to the effect that the mysteries of science are known to-day to the common man. The mystery of science does not lie in knowing what to do to secure a certain result; it lies in finding out what to do. The radio which arrives with a clearly printed set of directions does not mean the introduction to science of its owner. The mystery of science is known only to the man who dreams and tries and dreams again in his laboratory. The Steinmetz myth, the Pupin myth, the Einstein myth, show our fundamental appreciation of such men. We believe in them. We also believe in the strange people, mostly with foreign names, whom we engage to give us our opera, our movies, and our art. We believe that art and science are hard. We respect them. Vicariously, we live a great deal through the personalities of the artist and the scientist. But what of personality in ourselves, in us who form, after all, the great mass of people?
When we come to ourselves we relinquish the old spiritual meaning of the word ‘mystery.’ We allows it to represent the fatuous factual mysteries of the tabloid: on the grave of its old significance a cross (X) marks the spot where the body was found. Deep down, unadmittedly, we question whether the conditions in which we live offer a milieu in which to grow the fibres of personality. Furthermore, we know to what extent the conformity which we have so rigorously demanded has made our neighbors like ourselves; if we are seeking personality, then are not they also?
Our mechanical democracy has cried for normality, has set the mean before us as a model — in these latter years of our prosperity, perhaps the golden mean. Our hero of the market place is consequently a Platonic idea, for the norm is an abstract; no living being was ever quite like it. We therefore confer honor on ideas, not men; our assumptions do not permit any real living man to embody our ideal. The wreaths of our war epic do not crown the foreheads of Roland and Oliver; they are laid on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We seek for personality, but we do not dare to bestow the dignity of being a person upon the men and women whom we know, upon This Woman and This Man, unless we first make of them a disembodied Embodiment of All. The British press, when Lord Asquith dies, speaks of his life in terms of an outstanding manifestation of the statesmanship of the first quarter of the twentieth century. We dare not; we excuse our public men on the ground that they are individuals, ‘just one instance.’ We refuse to admit that the instances are the only possible concretions of the ideal, that beyond their mortal persons there is — nothing. And thereby we reject the very personality we seek.
Our view of life must change radically before we shall be able to do otherwise. We shall have to realize the partial character of the conquest we have sought so whole-heartedly, the conquest which has brought this impersonal uniformity upon us. Part of the tragedy of life is removed by possession of the material things which we have multiplied, by what we have done to disease, to the worst of the slums, to the length of the working day. But part, the greater part, remains. We have not recognized it. In the midst of the Dark Forest we have made for ourselves a little clearing of security. Around it is still the unknown, the unpredictable, the mysterious, the empty scene awaiting the manifestation of the person who is a man. We can treat it in two ways. We can turn our backs on it and face each other in a comforting circle, concentrating on the wheels of our facility, turning them faster, faster, shouting to each other above the noise that everything is for the best, that it will all come out all right, that if something from behind enters our midst it is an accident, an unmentionable, which our system requires us to ignore. If we shout enough we can perhaps even anæsthetize the sting of death by group discussion. Or we can turn around, and each, on the periphery of the circle, face his unique segment of the unknown. Turned inward, we feel our uniformity, our emptiness. It takes great courage to face the other way. So mostly we stand looking without admiration at one another, and buying vicarious personality from the hawkers on the street.