The Morals of Europe


[This was written eight years ago. Since then the morals both of Europe and the author have been considerably modified.]


Ladies and gentlemen, who have followed me so far, are you not astounded at my conservatism? I am. I described myself once as a conservative Anarchist. I am afraid there is little of the Anarchist in my composition today. Europe has transformed and converted me. I have set my face toward order. I fear that a suspicion of respectability always lurked in my heart. Of course, people will never believe me. They imagine that I live the life of an aesthetic tramp, break up homes, and am continually in debt, merely because my name is attached to certain passional studies. A bank account, it seems, is irreconcilable with a poet of passion.

Dear souls, I am really a Philistine. I am scrupulously honest, and, as for wild oats, I have never sown them. Poets, like the comets, those celestial Bohemians, are privileged to deviate from their orbits. My actions may at times contradict my words. Do not, therefore, question my sincerity. I certainly must refuse to live up to all the things I am preaching. At the present, however, I believe in them. I have forsaken my radical affiliations. I have returned to the fold. But, alas, no fatted calf is in sight. I made more money when I was supposed to be wicked.

Having thus disposed of my morals, let us now examine the morals of Europe. I see a look of quickened interest in your eyes. You will be terribly disappointed. In America we are accustomed to associate morality pre-eminently with sex. Don Juan is to us the devil incarnate. We regard a sexually continent man as a moral man. We have no objection to his “correcting luck” in financial affairs. Measured by American standards, Atys must have been a paragon of Virtue. And the Sultan, too, is surrounded by virtuous men.

Sex has really nothing to do with morals. It belongs to the sphere of passion; being natural, it is unmoral. Loving, like dining, is not an ethical function. The eunuch may be moral or immoral. The Mormon likewise. There is no justification for confusing ethical problems with physiological problems. Love is never immoral, because it necessarily implies mutual consent. Only where that is absent, an erotic question becomes an ethical question. Within the Golden Rule no amorous experience can possibly be immoral. Thus, except in loveless marriages or in rape, ethical problems rarely arise in the realm of passion. I shall not, therefore, discuss Europe’s sexual morality under this heading.

We, in America, regard Europe as immoral because of a curious notion that sex, in itself, is immoral. With the elimination of the sexual factor, the morals of Europe are superior to ours. The European’s integrity in business, his sense of social duty, and his firm adherence to an intangible code of professional honor, thrown against our American background, endow him with the halo of saintship. I wonder if the insistence on ethical and religious training abroad in public schools is not, like militarism, a blessing in disguise.

We abhor the idea of injecting religious instruction into our educational system, although, absurdly enough, we approve of indiscriminate Bible-readings in schools, irrespective of the children’s religious persuasions, and expect even the atheist to swear in court on the Book.

You are a church-goer presumably. But I am sure your religious notions are hazy. Perhaps you go to church as to a social function. If you had been brought up in Germany you would know exactly what you believed and what you did not believe. For one thing, you would have had systematic religious training in school. And you would have learned to apply your religion daily, as you apply the multiplication table. Both Gentile and Jew are instructed by special teachers of their own faith in the elements of their creed, as they are instructed in geography and spelling. When they grow up they will have to pay taxes in support of the State Church or the Synagogue, unless they formally declare their dissent from the faith. They will not take this step without serious reflection. They are thus forced to think clearly for themselves. They may ultimately blast the Rock of Ages with intellectual dynamite, but at least they will know for what it stands.

American children are often curiously ignorant of even the most beautiful Biblical stories, things they should know as matters of general culture. Already the Sunday School despairs of itself. It reaches only a comparatively small percentage of children. It cannot hammer religion into them as a part of their general education. It is an outside thing in school. And an outside thing it remains in life. We take our religion on Sundays as one takes medicine. If conscience calls during business hours, we aren’t in. Sporadically, however, we experience religion with hysterical intensity. The corruptionist suddenly discovers that he is wicked, and, like the newly-converted savage, he suffers from violent ethical cramps. With this difference: the savage, in sudden religious fervor, may inflict harikari upon himself; the reformed American millionaire vents his religion on others. He plays Jack the Ripper to Personal Liberty. He makes large donations to the Anti-Saloon League. He deprives the little ones of their Sunday.

We in America are Supermen in our glorious disregard of others, but without the excuse of the Superman. We are like children badly brought up. Our lack of sensitiveness is amazingly revealed in the comic supplement of our newspapers, the weekly glorification of horse-play. The comic press is an unfailing detriment of a country’s morals. I am prepared to admit that the coarse reflection of the life erotic in French and German comic journals points to a similar lack of sensitiveness on the Continent in matters relating to sex.

We are, perhaps, most barbarous, most unethical, in our attitude toward age. We lack that tact of the heart for which white hair in itself is an object of veneration. The wonder is that we don’t eat up our parents when their physical powers decline. I am sure that certain exponents of strenuousness would have something to say in defense of this practice. We would have heard such a measure urged from the White House if our chief executives were not themselves already beyond the Oslerian age-limit.

The fathers of the Republic have, indeed, shown their wisdom when they placed the highest gift beyond the grasp of a boy. The cult of Oslerism could flourish only in the youngest land of the world. We value youth above brains. I may state so frankly, having both. We yield our seats in a street railway gladly to young girlhood; with reluctance to an elderly woman; never would we dream of sacrificing our convenience to an elderly man. In Europe I have seen young ladies charmingly offer their seats to their elders of either sex. . . .

We forgive the man of action every sin except the one forgivable sin. We countenance a Senator’s political corruption, but rise in anger over his indiscreet note to some questionable female. We boil over with indignation, where Paris or Berlin would shrug their shoulders and smile. Uncharitable, I say, and un-Christian. Christ drove the moneychangers from the Temple, but He forgave the Magdalen.

We are rather proud at heart of our financial robber barons. We expect art to be moral. We never question the morals of Wall street. We apply the penal code to the artist, but we have only regard for the virtuoso in manipulating the ticket. We set up monuments to grafters. Personally, I have no objection to graft. On the contrary. But I am afraid that it is a vice typically American. There are grafters abroad, naturally. But one does not speak of them with sneaking admiration. They aren’t “the thing,” socially. They are not regarded as models for the young. In Europe the day of the robber baron is over; in America it has only begun.

We do not interfere with the big thieves, except by calling them names. But we interfere actively with the personal freedom of our humbler citizens. We forbid them to play or to drink beer on Sunday. I never play athletic games, and I hardly ever drink beer. But I sometimes burn with desire to soak myself with rum as a protest against the fanatics. I believe, to paraphrase Wilde, that it is not immoral for a prickly thistle to be a prickly thistle, but that it would be frightfully selfish if she wanted all the flowers of the field to be both prickly and thistles. I have nothing to say against the teetotaler. I respect his individuality. But let him respect mine. We continually sin against individuality. Ours is a country of ready-made morals and ready-made clothes. Abroad no one meddles with personal liberty, and nobody wears ready-made clothes.

Conformity is our catchword. We suppress subjective forces in politics and in art. We eliminate the personal note in the press. The day of the Greeleys was brief. Journalists abroad have certain convictions which they are not prepared to sacrifice at any price. We have no such convictions. One evening I had dinner in Berlin with a celebrated professor of political history. His name is on everybody’s tongue. He is a man who hobnobs with Emperors, and his weekly reviews of the political situation are regarded as final. All the newspapers of the world come to his library, and he reads them all in the original languages.

The conversation naturally drifted to journalism, and I interpreted for him the status of the American editor. The policy of the paper, I explained, is prescribed by the proprietor and reversed at his pleasure; the editor’s personal opinion is of no consequence, even if his salary may be that of a king. He is a living automaton, paid for his dexterity, not his views. He might write Democratic editorials in the morning, and Republican editorials at night. In private life he might be a Socialist or a Mugwump. Yet no one would think the less of him, or brand him as an unprincipled rogue. I did not pretend to be better than others. I even admitted that to be such an intellectual Jekyll and Hyde might be a delightful sensation. As long as my articles were unsigned, I would not regard myself as responsible for their tenor. I should look upon my job as an exercise in political dialectics.

The professor was very much shocked by this lack of principle. His wife, a delightful woman, looked upon me as one looks upon a leper. A German journalist of standing would refuse to write a line, signed or unsigned, of which he disapproved in his heart. Those who sacrifice their convictions are regarded as pariahs by the profession at large. Journalists abroad take themselves more seriously than we. They have finer ethical standards. The professor, being not only a learned, but also a wise man, realized that the views I expounded were the logical growth of our peculiar culture — or the lack thereof; but I am afraid he looks upon them as cancerous. Which, perhaps, they are.

We play the game to win. We have little of the sportsman’s joy in the game as such. Not for us the subtler victory of courageous defeat. As money is the stake, we despise the poor — not because they are poor, but because they have not “made good.” We make compromises, permissible in journalism, but fatal in art. Literary geniuses of the old world are prepared, for the sake of their vision, to live on a crust. Schiller was a man of small means. Indeed, I probably got more for my English version of his Maid of Orleans from Maude Adams than he ever did for the original. Chatterton “perished in his pride.” I, Le Gallienne says, perish in my conceit. Honorable poverty had no terror for the great English poets. We barter dreamland kingdoms for real estate.

Our greatest living author is actually a corporation. We may speak of “The Mark Twain” as we speak of “The Standard Oil.” That opens amusing vistas of “The John Milton, Limtd.,” and “The William Shakespeare, Inc.” For all we know, this may be the solution of the Shakespeare problem. William Shakespeare may have been merely the trademark for a stock company, of which Francis Bacon was the chief stockholder, and the gentleman usually referred to as the author of the plays merely a dummy director! If John Keats had been an American he might have been incorporated under the laws of New Jersey. His name, instead of being “writ in water,” would be writ on watered stock! The genius of Poe, alas, was antipodal to the American spirit. If he had capitalized his brains at five hundred thousand dollars, he would surely be in the Hall of Fame. Let me state right here that I refuse ever to have my name there engraven. I prefer to roam through the spirit world unindorsed by smug nobodies, a vagabond ghost, with Whitman and Poe.

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