Three Blind Mice

A MAN would be a fool to attempt a complete list of the sick souls who inhabit this globe, but after one has reached middle age certain ailments begin to stand out and lead one to think that if they could be cured the most important of our troubles would be over. There are three of these maladies which I have been observing for the last twenty-five years, and I should hazard the guess that they are among our most pernicious. They are three forms of blindness.

The first is that of the people who hate to be moral. I should be the last to admit that one could tell whether a bouillabaisse is good or not by applying the standards of ethics. There is nothing right or wrong ethically about a flavor. There are obviously scores of things which we have the right to praise or blame without reference to morality. But there are other things which it is insane to judge æsthetically or logically or whatever the other alternatives are, and a person who does n’t see that simply does n’t know how to think.

But when an occasion arises on which moral standards ought to be applied the first of our Three Blind Mice begins to squirm. He will object strongly to the behavior he is judging, but will immediately add, ‘Not that I have any moral objections,’ when moral objections are precisely the kind most in order. I heard a young graduate of a women’s college recently condemning a friend for her disloyalty. ‘I don’t care what she does or does n’t do. Her life is her own. But to act like that is so ugly.‘

‘Why don’t you call it wrong?’ I asked from the heights of senility.

‘ Oh, I don’t say it was wrong. I should n’t dream of calling it wrong. Moral standards are changing and w7e must be tolerant. But it’s so ugly.‘

It is, of course, true that moral standards are changing; so are metric standards. And a change in standards is always bewildering. But because one is bewildered does n’t prove that there is nothing to be bewildered about. The point is not that moral standards are changing, but that they are bad form. It is considered more sophisticated to call a thing ’ugly’ than to call it ’wrong.’ But even if one uses an adjective from the field of æsthetics, one has simply added to its already large burden of ambiguity — unless one has robbed it of all meaning.

So radical is this blindness to moral values that some people have been known to take on a disguise of immorality though living almost puritanical lives. I know of one couple in New York who, though legally married, insist on preserving all the outward signs of living in sin, thus making life at least twice as inconvenient as it normally is. The wife wears no wedding ring, keeps her maiden name, refuses to accept mail and telephone calls addressed to Mrs. Unetelle, has her own name as well as her husband’s over the mailbox, and has a wonderful time raising Ned with what she calls ‘conventions.’ She forgets that her own little convention is as narrow as those of society at large and much more annoying.

The second Blind Mouse hates to be intelligent, having been blinded by truth, I suppose. He has a deadly fear of seeming highbrow. This afflicts men more than women in this country, where the kingdom of the mind is largely in the hands of the Amazons. ‘We are each of,’ says Plotinus, ‘an intelligible world,’ but it is considered very ill-bred to admit it. Thus, if someone is discussing a play or a picture or a book, he will avoid fine discriminations and feel it enough to distinguish between the ‘swell’ and the ‘lousy.’ There must be some things in the world which are neither swell nor lousy: for instance, the novels of Jane Austen, the pictures of Hubert Robert, the music of Gluck, the Institut de France. But the second Blind Mouse does not find them. Or, if he does, he is ashamed to say so. For the discovery of even one of the grosser nuances might be a mark of intelligence; and that would degrade him in the eyes not only of his fellows but of himself.

College professors find this individual one of their greatest problems. For to teach him is to combat the resistance not so much of an individual as of a social class. It is as if one should try to induce the football squad to take up embroidery. Just how one can mould taste on a social scale is not very well understood and is probably impossible for one who stands without the group.

Why the fear of intelligence should be so strong is difficult to understand. Intelligence, it is true, is often critical, analytical, and destructive of custom. But at the same time it is creative, solves problems, and is utilized by the very people who fear it most. Americans are very proud of their inventions, and yet inventions cannot be made without deeply novel ways of thinking. One would imagine that here of all countries intelligence would be honored. But I think it was Edith Wharton who once said that no language other than our own has a term of reproach the equivalent of our ‘highbrow.’

The third Blind Mouse is more pathetic than the others. He is the person who is afraid to be himself. By the time a person has reached maturity his character is pretty well determined and most people by then have access to their inner natures. Yet, instead of taking stock and being faithful to their real desires and abilities, most of them try to be anything other than what they are. Here again social pressure has its influence; there are certain approved occupations in every group and it is next to impossible to persuade anyone to engage in any other. Mothers, fathers, rich relatives, teachers, clergymen, friends, professional writers — everyone is ready and eager to advise the young on what they should be. But they already are. And all the advice in the world won’t turn a girl who really wants to be a woman into a happy archæologist or a highly paid secretary or a musician. In the case of girls, womanhood is definitely looked down upon; a woman who is in love with her husband and happy in educating her children feels disgraced. How often one hears remarks like these: ‘What a pity Clara has done nothing with her music!’ ‘ Poor Helen has n’t written a line since her marriage!’ ‘Mary used to be the life of the Current Events Club, but now it’s nothing but John and the children.’ No one stops to think that Clara and Helen and Mary are much better off — and society is too —• than would be the case were they playing Liszt in a concert hall or banging out short stories on a typewriter or delivering ‘reports’ on the Future of Democracy.

But women are not the only victims. Every year I have five or ten students who go into law or business or medicine because Dad would be sore if they did n’t. Good mechanics, farmers, haberdashers, are lost every year because boys are afraid to be what they are. Like Peter Bell’s primrose, they must be everything but a primrose.

Started off with so devious a push, it is no wonder that they land in strange places. I have done my share of lecturing about the country, God forgive me, and am constantly saying to myself, as my deepbosomed hostess tells me how much they all adored the lecture she thinks I gave, ‘You, dear Madame, were you true to yourself, would be in the Maison Tellier,’ or, ‘What took you out of the kitchen? ’ or, ‘If you only knew how ashamed I am to be telling you such stuff.’

When the Three Blind Mice ran after the Farmer’s Wife, she cut off their tails with a carving knife. How effective such therapy was the song does not tell. But it must have relieved the poor woman’s feelings. I have no carving knife; I have only a mirror. But, alas, these mice are blind.