A Still Small Voice
I AM one of those men who think ‘Yesterday’ a beautiful word; who love change only in its aspect of slow and imperceptible decay. To me, the present is but raw material for the making of the past, and I measure experience largely in terms of its value as stuff for memories.
Such a complexion of mind and temperament is an unfortunate possession in these swiftly moving times; nevertheless it must be accepted along with the shape of one’s nose, the color of one’s eyes and hair. It is a characteristic as unalterable, seemingly, as stature or the composition of the blood. Lacking it, an octogenarian will march eagerly in the front rank of the wildest revolutionaries. Having it to excess, a child of live muses dejectedly in his high-chair over ‘the good old days’ of babyhood. If this fact were more widely recognized, past-minded and future-minded men would, I believe, make greater allowances for each other and live together more amicably.
But I am beginning to fear that there are no past-minded men any more in America, so rarely are they heard from. The winds of change, howling over and around them, seem to have buffeted them into complete submission, and the occasional voice of some robust survivor, shouting defiance into the teeth of this awe-inspiring gale, is of no more effect than the squeaking of a rat in a hurricane.
I am one of these survivors, but I cannot say that it is by dint of an heroic and defiant attitude toward the mighty monster, Change. I am no Saint George to slay this modern dragon. On the contrary, I flee from it, fast and far, and remain in hiding beyond the scope of its influence for long periods of time; and when, at rare intervals, I emerge with rabbit-like timidity from my retreat, I do but glance briefly around, and then, my head turned apprehensively over my shoulder, scurry back to safety.
To safety? I must qualify that statement. Where is one to go in these days to escape the ravages of the, to me, appalling beast that clutches a continent in its iron talons, whose tail lashes the waters of the Atlantic, whose forepaws defile the surges of the Pacific? The most tranquil and mirrorlike backwaters of the world are flawed at times by gusts of its noisome breath that send shivers of apprehension up and down my spine by reason of their increasing frequency and violence. But comparative safety may still be found by those who seek it diligently. It is to that I flee.
I have but recently ventured forth again from my refuge into the complete realization of a melancholy fact. Men of my reactionary kind, who would, if permitted, cling to the past, now have nothing more than the name to cling to. Small wonder that they are easily swept from so tenuous a hold, and engulfed. I doubt whether, in the history of mankind, it has ever before happened that the material links and associations that usually bind generations together, giving each of them a strong sense of continuity, of relationship with the past, have been so quickly destroyed as here in the United States of America.
One gazes with bewilderment and dismay upon once-familiar haunts altered in the space of two decades out of all semblance to what they were. The valleys and meadows of one’s boyhood are now littered with towns and the refuse of towns. Lonely marshlands where wild ducks abounded only a few years ago are heaped with mountains of tin cans and discarded motor cars; or they are drained, filled in, and divided into factory sites. Even the meanderings of rivers have been abolished, and the age-long freedom of roads to wind up hill and down dale is no longer recognized. Cities which have grown beautifully and naturally for generations, even for centuries, have been all but destroyed by the future-minded men to fulfill their nightmarish utilitarian dreams for that future. Remote villages and rural communities have lost their identity, and their charm and peace have been sacrificed to that worst of abominations, the automobile.
There are those who believe that this cannibalistic feast upon the material past was, and is, a desirable thing. To me it seems a misfortune of the first magnitude. Ours, they say, is a nation in mid-course of a vigorous healthy growth. What they consider health seems to me, rather, an evidence of disease, which has its vigor, too, like the galloping consumption which brightens the eyes and flushes the cheeks of its victim, giving him an illusion of well-being not at all in accordance with the facts.
Future-minded men of a new and formidable kind are in the saddle everywhere, and their ecstatic voices, preaching, exhorting, and prophesying, drown even the mechanical noises that all but split the eardrums of pastminded men, striving vainly to catch faint echoes from the world of Yesterday. Only this morning one of them, Mr. Arthur Brisbane, whose voice is heard daily by millions, shouts thus from a mountain eerie, to which, I fancy, he ascended that his voice might carry the farther: —
This is written in the Catskill Mountains where Rip Van Winkle had his long sleep, and where, some day, many millions will find a glorious summer playground. Here are 1000 natural landing fields, 40 minutes’ flight from the 10,000,000 that live in and around New York City. Groups of little mountains, 2000 to 3500 feet high, beautifully green, and waiting for the millions that will come, etc., etc.
Poor Rip Van Winkle — a pastminded man after my own heart! Is even his sanctuary to be violated? And when these millions do come, most of them not because they love such quiet leafy places, but merely because a mechanized civilization has made swift effortless movement an antidote for boredom; when the thousand natural landing fields are in being, and service stations, refreshment booths, and the like are opened to the other millions who come by motor, ‘the groups of little mountains, beautifully green,’ will no doubt still be havens of midsummer peace.
Men like Mr. Brisbane believe with every atom of their minds and hearts that machines are the benefactors of mankind — that automobiles, aeroplanes, electric dynamos, power machines, and appliances of every sort, by adding to the convenience of life (and even this is debatable), are therefore bound to add enormously to the sum of human felicity. Their desire is to see society so organized that machines may have unlimited scope for their further development. They would have the world grow smaller and smaller, all of its empty spaces teeming with ant-like humanity — ant-like in numbers and ant-like in instincts, and every step taken toward that end stimulates them to renewed and increasingly vigorous efforts in the propagation of their faith.
What chances have past-minded men against such powerful fanatics as these? They know they are right, and that what is right for them must be equally right and desirable for all mankind. The least doubt, even in the face of appalling evidence to the contrary, never seems to assail their minds. They are the joyously willing confederates of the mechanical monsters they have helped to create, which spawn their kind over the face of the entire globe; and they love them with such devotion that they teach them new and subtle ways to increase their dominion over the human race.
A mechanized society is, I suppose, heaven on earth for those who really believe in it, and more particularly for those who enlarge and direct its destinies. It offers them unlimited opportunity for the employment of their peculiar talents and brings them power in undreamed-of measure. They are worshiped by the multitudes who see what appear to be immediate benefits showered upon them from every side, but who do not see the ultimate price they must pay for them. They are called hard-headed, practical men, but in my opinion the poets and dreamers who care little for such benefits have a clearer vision of what constitutes human happiness, and a surer knowledge of how it may be obtained. They are called wizards, but their wizardry — in effect, at least — is of a kind which confers small material blessings with one hand while conjuring away priceless spiritual ones with the other. They arc called seers, but their powers of seeing are so atrophied on one side that their idea of a fortunate human society is such as we have at the present time in the United States.
Why, I often wonder, have these men such unwavering confidence that they are on the right road? That they are the servants and not the betrayers of mankind? From what evidence do they deduce conclusions so different from my own? Many of them may be merely cynical opportunists. But there are others — men of the highest integrity, whose sincerity of conviction cannot be doubted. Among the first of these, surely, in ability, in unselfish devotion to an ideal of human progress and power to approach it in practice, is Henry Ford.
He believes implicitly in our industrialized civilization — not as it now is; as he thinks it must and will become. Those who have read his book, My Life and Work, know what a plausible argument it presents for this kind of civilization. I have read it and reread it, now torn by a feeling bordering on conviction that his views of life must be right and mine all wrong, now swung to the opposite opinion; but never since I read the book have I doubted that his ideas are truly beneficent in intent. But the more I think of them the more clearly I see that he is interested only in the food-andthing producers, carriers, and purveyors, of both high and low degree. It is true that these comprise the bulk of the population, but there is a minority whose future is important to themselves, at least, and what place can they find in this industrialized world of to-morrow where every individual is to become a disciplined, regimented, perfectly working cog in the machinery of life? What place would they wish to find in it? Mr. Ford’s reward for such disciplined service is an assured abundance of material blessings. Considering the future, he says: ‘We believe it possible, some day, to reach the point where all goods are produced so cheaply and in such quantities that overproduction will be a reality. But as far as we are concerned, we do not look forward to that condition with fear — we look forward to it with great satisfaction. Nothing could be more splendid than a world in which everyone has all he wants.'
This materialistic view of what constitutes human happiness is dictated and enforced by the machines which have warped his sanity of outlook just as they do that of every man who serves and believes in them to the same extent. Nothing, it seems to me, could be more deplorable than a world in which every man has all he wants, even of the material things of life. We are fast reaching that point now, and I can see no splendor coming out of the situation. On the contrary, I see tens and hundreds of thousands of people in a state of lethargic misery because their lives are so dominated by the possession of things most of which they neither need nor really want that they have scant time for the true pleasures of living. And still they are urged, begged, cajoled, tempted, all but threatened into buying more and more, by the future-minded men of the present era who are — who have to be — the sworn enemies of simplicity of living.
Having made Business in all of its ramifications the end of life, whatever pertains to its monstrous growth is, to their way of thinking, of the first importance. They would have us all become mere gluttonous consumers of more food, clothing, furniture, motor cars, radios, books, magazines, newspapers, cigarettes, perfume, confectionery, toothpaste, amusements, and the like, for the sake of the machines which spew them out at such vertiginous speed. And with what tireless and implacable energy do they carry on their work of propaganda! I saw this sign in a street car yesterday: ‘When is the time to push your product? Every day and all day — week after week — month after month — year after year.’ And so they do, each and all of them. East, west, north, and south, they have made a continent hideous with innumerable placards and billboards. Turn the eye where you will, by day or by night, there is no escaping the work of these desecrators of beauty who would prevent you from thinking of life, even for a moment, except in terms of its material requirements, or so-called requirements.
To me it seems a self-evident fact that whatever tends to accelerate the tempo of life beyond a certain point is wrong. There is room for difference of opinion as to what that point may be, but I cannot understand how anyone, looking about him at life in the United States, can doubt that here we have long since passed it. Nor can there be any doubt, I think, that mechanisms of all sorts have carried us beyond it. It is true that they have provided us with leisure of a sort — leisure to enjoy, if we can, a world speeded up in their interests, and arranged for their own comfort and convenience; a world so devoid of color and interest and beauty, from the human point of view, that even the future-minded men themselves flee from it, disguised as tourists, to the as yet unindustrialized lands where there is still something to enjoy besides contemplation of the mere ingenious machinery of life. But it must be admitted that these are the weaklings and faint-hearts of their class who lack the courage of their convictions. One admires more and respects more their strong, bleak-minded brothers who stay at home and work; whose energies never fail and whom doubt never touches.
And perhaps their confidence is justified, and their energies directed to good purpose. Perhaps life as they would have it is life best suited to the desires and needs of the great majority of men. Should this prove to be the case, nothing remains for men of my kind except to emigrate into interstellar space. And granted that, by means of ether waves and the strength of our own desires, we might be wafted to some distant lonely planet, remembering the recorded dreams of the future-minded men and their power of fulfilling prophecy, I am by no means certain that we should remain for long unmolested, even there.