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- Nonsenseorship - 4/23 -
the back of the room. If somebody begins to sing, "P. H. Theopold is a good old soul," it is not likely to carry conviction. Not once during the evening will any speaker confine himself to saying, "To Hell with Yale!" and falling off the table. Probably the magician will not be able to find anything in the high hat except white rabbits.
Although we have seen no first hand report of that freshman smoker, we feel sure that it was only a crowded self-conscious gathering of a number of young men who said little and went home early.
Even from the standpoint of the strictest of abstainers there must be some regret for the passing of rum. What man who lived through the bad old days does not remember the thrill of rectitude which came to him the first time he said, "Make mine a cigar."
Though they have taken away our rum from us we have our memories. Not all the days have been dull gray. Back in the early pages of our diary is the entry about the trip which we made to Boston with William F---- in the hard winter of 1907. It was agreed that neither of us should drink the same sort of drink twice. Staunch William achieved nineteen varieties, but we topped him with twenty-four. Upon examination we observe that the entry in the memory book was made several days later. The handwriting is a little shaky. But for that adventure we might have lived and died entirely ignorant of the nature of an Angel Float.
In those days human sympathy was wider. F. M. W. seemed in many respects a matter-of-fact man, but it was he who chanced upon the 59th street Circle just before dawn and paused to call the attention of all bystanders to the statue of Columbus.
"Look at him," he said. "Christopher Columbus! He discovered America and then they sent him back to Spain in chains."
He wept, and we realized for the first time that under a rough exterior there beat a heart of gold.
LITERATURE AND THE BASTINADO
[Illustration: Ben Hecht chopping away at the ever-forgiving and all-condoning Bugaboo of Puritanism.]
Surveying the trend of modern literature one must, unless one's mental processes be complicated with opaque prejudices, wonder at the provoking laxity of the national censorship. I write from the viewpoint of an aggrieved iconoclast.
It becomes yearly more obvious that the duly elected, commissioned and delegated high priests of the nation's morale are growing blind to the dangers which assail them. If not, then how does it come that such enemies of the public weal as H. L. Mencken, Floyd Dell, Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Dos Passos, Mr. Cabell, Mr. Rascoe, Mr. Sandburg, Mr. Sinclair Lewis are not in jail? How does it come Professor Frinck of Cornell is not in jail? Bodenheim, Margaret Anderson, Mr. John Weaver are not in jail.
Were I the President of the United States sworn to uphold the dignity of its psychopathic repressions, pledged on a stack of Bibles to promote the relentless pursuit and annihilation of other people's happiness, I would have begun my reign by clapping H. L. Mencken into irons forthwith. Mr. Cabell, I would have sent to Russia. Sherwood Anderson I would have boiled in oil.
But what is the situation? Observe these gentlemen and their kin enjoying not only their bodily liberty but allowed to prosper on the royalties derived from the sale of incendiary volumes designed to destroy the principles upon which the integrity of the commonwealth depends. The spectacle is one aggravating to an iconoclast. There is no affront as distressing as the tolerance of one's enemies.
Mr. H. L. Mencken is, perhaps, the outstanding victim of this depravity of indifference which more and more characterizes the enemy. Mr. Mencken, hurling himself for ten years against the Bugaboo of Puritanism--a fearless and wonderfully caparisoned Knight of Alarums, Prince of Darkness, Evangel of Chaos--Mr. Mencken pauses for a moment out of breath casting about slyly for fresher and deadlier weapons and lo! the Bugaboo with a gentle smile reaches out and embraces him and plants the kiss of love on both his cheeks, strokes his hair wistfully, and invites him to sit on the front porch. Alas, poor Mencken! It is the fate that awaits us all. Zarathustra in the market-place feeding ground glass to the populace is gathered to the bosom of the City Fathers and gleefully enrolled as a member of the Guild.
This is no idle rhetoric. Dissent in the Republic has come upon hard ways. Ten years ago the name of Mencken would have stood against the world. Today no college freshman, no lowly professor, no charity worker, or local alderman too puritanical to do him homage.
Whereupon the argument is that an era of enlightenment has set in, that this same Mencken and his contemporary throat-cutters have vanquished the Bugaboo, and that, as a result, a spirit of high intellectual life prevails through the land. The proletaire have risen and are thumbing their nose at the gods. Brander Matthews has sent in a five years' subscription to the Little Review. The Comstocks overcome with the vision of their ghastly complexes are appealing to Sigmund Freud for advice and relief. But the argument is superficial. "Victory!" cry the iconoclasts grinding their teeth at the absence of a foe.
But it is a victory that rankles in the soul. The foe is not vanquished but, seemingly, bored to death has fallen asleep. It is, in any event, a phenomenon. Many generalizations offer themselves as solace.
The first paradox of this phenomenon is that Puritanism, beaten to a pulp by an ever-increasing herd of first, second, third, and fourth rate iconoclasts, has triumphed completely in the legislatures of the country. With every new volume exposing the gruesome mainsprings of the national virtue, further taboos and restrictions crowd themselves into the statute books.
In a sense it would seem as if the _bete populaire_, becoming increasingly drunk with the consciousness of its own power, is elatedly preoccupied in cutting off its own nose, tying itself up into knots, and kicking itself in the rear, proclaiming simultaneously and in triumphant tones, "Observe how powerful I am. I can pass laws making ipecac a compulsory diet."
Whereupon the laws are passed and the noble masses with heroic grimaces fall to devouring ipecac, to the confusion of all free-born stomachs. In fact this species of ballot flagellatism, this diverting pastime of hitting itself on the head with a stuffed club has gradually elevated the body politic to the enviable position occupied by the all-powerful king of Fernando Po. This mysterious being lives in the lowest depths of the crater of Riabba. His power is in direct ratio to the taboos which hem him in. Convinced that bathing is a crime against his dignity, that sunlight is incompatible with his royal lineage; convinced that his prestige is dependent upon a weekly three days' fast and a cautious observation of the taboos against all variants of social intercourse--piously convinced of these astounding things, the all-powerful monarch of Fernando Po sits year in and year out motionless on his throne in the lowest depths of the crater of Riabba, awed by himself and overcome with the contemplation of his all-powerfulness. We have here, I trust, an illuminating analogy.
The Republic, like this King of Fernando Po, imposes daily upon itself new taboos, new rituals. Yet there is the phenomenon of its tolerance toward the idol breakers. From the lowest depths of the crater of Riabba in which he sits enthroned the monarch of the Laongos condemns to death with a twitch of his brows all who seek to question the sanctity of the taboos. But this other occupant of the crater of Riabba-our Republic-raises gentle eyes to the idol wreckers, to the taboo destroyers. An occasional, "tut tut" escapes him. And nothing more.
Whereupon the argument is that our monarch of the pit is an impotent fellow. Again, a superficial deduction. For behold the censorships with which he belabors himself.
Censorship, almost extinct in the restriction of the national literature, thrives in every other field. Censorships abound. Food, drink, movies, politics, baseball, diversion, dress--all these are under the jurisdiction of a continually aroused censorship. The pulpits and editorial pages emit sonorous hymns of taboo. Every caption writer is an Isaiah, every welfare worker fancies himself the handwriting on the wall. Unchallenged by the vote of the masses or by any outward evidence of mass dissent, the platitudes pile up, the nation is filled from morning to morning with stentorian clamor. Puritanism in a frenetic finale approaches a climax.
But, and we tiptoe towards the crux of this phenomenon, the Bacchanal of Presbyterianism is an artificial climax. Unlike the day of the later Caesars, the populace does not abandon itself in imitation of its Neros and Caligulas. Instead, we have the spectacle of a populace apathetic toward the spirit of its time.
The Puritan debauch is the logical culmination of the anti-Paganism and backworldism launched two hundred centuries back. The Christian ethic, to the bewildered chagrin of its advocates, has triumphed. Not a triumph this time that offers itself as a cloak for Jesuitism, colonization, or empire juggling. But an unimpeachable triumph entirely beyond the control of the most adroit of the choir-Machiavellis.
In other words the body politic finds itself betrayed by its own platitudes. A moral frenzy animates its horizon. But it is a frenzy of idea escaped control, an idea grown too huge and luminous to direct any longer. The moral frenzy of the war was the moral frenzy of such an idea--virtue become a Frankenstein. This virtue--the Golden Rule, the Thou Shalt Nots, the thousand and one unassailable maxims, adages, old saws invented chiefly for the protection of the weak and the solace of the inferior--this virtue has taken itself out of the hands of its hitherto adroit worshippers. A snowball rolling uphill toward God and gathering furious dimensions, it has escaped the shrewd janitors of orthodoxy who from age to age were able to keep it within bounds.
Thus in the war, confronted with the platitude that the world must be made safe for democracy and with the further platitude that democracy and equality were the goals of Christianity and with a dozen similar platitudes none of which had any authentic contact with the life of the nation, thus confronted, the proletaire was forced to lift itself up by its boot straps and rise to the defence of a Frankenstein idealism of which it was the parent-victim. Disillusionment with the causes of the war has, however, served no high purpose. The
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