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Home | Library | Alas, Poor Yorick! An Apology for the Human Race

Alas, Poor Yorick! An Apology for the Human Race

February 22, 2010

Tags Media and CultureWorld HistoryPhilosophy and Methodology

[From Snoring as a Fine Art]

The most charming city on the Rhine — one of the most charming in all Germany or in the whole wide world for that matter — is the city of Bonn. Tourists usually manage to miss it, and thereby miss a good deal, though their loss is Bonn's eternal gain, probably; so in the general balance of things one can afford to be philosophical about it. Yet it is strange that Americans who have a sense of history and an eye for quiet, cultivated, and rather opulent loveliness are not oftener attracted to Bonn; especially since it happens to have (with one exception — the Straubinger, at Gastein) the most pleasant and beautifully situated hotel that I have ever seen in a long lifetime of pilgrimage from one hotel to another.

Touring is a hard business, and when one has done just about so much of it there is clear profit to the spirit in dropping off at Bonn for three or four days, to rest and think it all over — maybe to wonder whether a maximum of mileage in a minimum of time is really a dividend-paying proposition.

Three days in Bonn is sure to breed doubt of it. One feels the steady, slow tempo of German life, the life that has plenty of time for everything. It has plenty of time even for living; you perceive this as you stroll along the beautiful river promenade on a late summer afternoon or evening, and you also perceive how the art of living is practiced — you get a technical lesson in this fine art if you keep your eyes open, and it makes you wonder whether it may not be an art worth cultivating.

As you sit on the hotel terrace you have a superb river view, or panorama, from the Seven Mountains down to the handsome bridge that carries a vivid reminiscence of Julius Caesar. This enterprising marauder improvised a pretty good bridge at almost the exact point from which the present bridge springs.

The Germans, with a vast respect for this achievement, have put up a fine bust of Julius at the bridge entrance, with a Latin inscription stating that he was the first person to bridge the Rhine. It brought back to my mind an idea I have had for twenty years — that some technical expert with imagination and a turn for good writing could make an interesting book about Caesar's engineers.

To a layman, the engineering problems involved in his campaigns, from end to end, seem to show that he must have had some experts on his payroll in the engineering line, whoever they were. I should like to see those problems dissected from a professional point of view and expounded in a popular style that I could understand.

The whole region of the Rhine's left bank is replete with antiquities of Frankish and Roman times, and earlier. Bonn has its share. The Provincial Museum contains no end of relics of the Roman occupation. Among other interesting items, an attendant showed me a counterfeiter's outfit for the manufacture of bogus Roman coins, remarking sagely that even the Romans had their Spitzbuben.

I was immensely interested in the vast number of luxury products in the Museum: jewelry, fancy combs and hairpins, mirrors, perfume bottles, vanity boxes — go through the whole modern apparatus of personal adornment, and you would hardly turn up an item that was not there in counterpart.

It was the old story of good commercial enterprise; trade following the flag. The moment the legions had the region pacified the rascally Roman go-getter swarmed in to corrupt the natives with his trumpery; no doubt he had all the latest wrinkles on how to "break down sales resistance." As a good American, with proper pride in the ideals of Mr. Ford and Mr. Hoover, I duly mustered up a few tears to shed on this unknown pioneer's grave if I could find it; but no one seemed able to tell me where it was.

His works, however, live after him, and he has contemporary mention from one who knew him well and knew all the ins and outs of his pitiful little game — Julius Caesar. Years ago, when the Germans invaded Belgium, all our newspapers, I believe, carried Julius's estimate of the Belgians in standing type. "Of all the Gallic tribes, the bravest are the Belgians." Well, that was all right as far as it went, but I was amused to notice that nobody ever cited the reasons that Julius gives for the Belgians' ability to keep up this fine spirit. He gives three.

The first one is that the Belgians are farthest removed from the Roman Province and the apparatus of its civilization! The second is even more striking, "because salesmen very seldom get through to them with a line of goods that tend to weaken the character." To a person who knows what wars are for and how they start, there was a vast unconscious humor in our quoting Caesar's praise of the Belgians. A tourist going through the Rhineland with Baedeker in one hand and Caesar's Commentaries in the other, will learn a great deal about the whys and wherefores of war, and thus save himself the wear and tear of getting worked up over the nostrums proposed for abolishing it.

II

The museum at Bonn contains the skull and a few bones of the oldest inhabitant. This veteran is known as the Neanderthal Man, and he is quite a celebrity in his way, being one of the earliest known specimens of our human race. He was discovered at Neanderthal, a village not far from Bonn, in the course of some commercial excavation, I believe; and savants have calculated his probable age by the estimated aggregate age of the geological formations which covered his remains.

There is a chart in the museum that shows just how all this was worked out. The savants have also "reconstructed" him in plaster of Paris by conjecture, according to the hints given them by his bones. If their efforts are to be trusted, he was no great beauty, apparently, judged by our present standards, though to a professional eye like the late Mr. Tex Rickard's, for instance, he probably had points. His skull was shallow; he was a low-brow. His legs were short, his body long in proportion, and his arms very long. His eyes were uncommonly deep-set, and his lower jaw protruded like a bulldog's, whereby his countenance took on a sinister expression that would have marked him out even among Chicago's best assorted. All in all, one would say he was probably bad medicine, and if one met him redivivus in the middle of the road one would not argue with him about the right of way.

Nevertheless, I got a great deal of highly valuable "orientation" as I believe the logothetes call it, out of looking at him. I do not know how many years ago he lived. I did not notice what the estimates were, nor have I since boned up on any of his vital statistics. I only noticed that he was one of the two or three earliest known samples of my race, and the one succeeding thought interested me so much that it promptly extinguished any curiosity about figures. The thought was this: that my race — the race of man — has been on earth so short a time that I can still look at a few fragile survivals of one of the earliest. A frail human skull, a trifle of lime molded up by nature's processes into a highly perishable shape, has outlasted the whole development of civilization up to date.

Probably no one can make a very sound guess at the age of the world. A scientific gathering was discussing it in New York a few weeks ago, and their conclusions summed up to something like this: that this earth, for every year it had existed since animal life appeared on it, had existed nearly a thousand years before animal life appeared. This throws animal life relatively late. Then, relatively much later in the course of animal life, man suddenly appeared. Expressed in figures, the earth is perhaps nine hundred million years old; animal life has been on it for perhaps nearly a million years; and man has graced the scene for some thirty or forty thousand years, possibly. But aside from figures, the fact is that the Neanderthal Man lived so short a time ago that his frail bones are still here and still in such shape as to give us a pretty good idea of what he looked like and of his grade of development towards what we should call nowadays a civilized being.

III

One might say, I suppose, that civilization may be roughly measured by the distance — not in time, but in culture — between this lowly brother and ourselves. The sight of his remains suggested very forcibly to me that civilization has really done fairly well to get as far along as it has got, considering the relatively brief time that has elapsed since it started.

Some of us are dissatisfied with our civilization, complain about it, and are discouraged by it. I have done my share of all three. The first two are quite all right; our civilization is certainly a poor enough affair, anyone who is even half satisfied with it ought to be ashamed of himself, and everybody ought to kick about it as hard as he can, poke fun at it, ridicule and satirize its shabbiness, meanness, childishness, and spiritual poverty. Especially should everyone throw mud and bricks at the disgusting airs it puts on when it goes on dress parade. There cannot be too much of this sort of thing done. When there is any letup in the steady exercise of hard-boiled self-appraisal it is a sign that the progress of civilization has stopped for the moment, and that something had better be done to start it up again.

But to be discouraged, sullen, or sour over the situation is another matter; it indicates that one is expecting more of civilization than it can possibly give him — which is impracticable. All of us are strongly tempted towards that frame of mind, I think, at one time or another (I know I am), and the best specific that I have discovered against this temptation is an hour's spiritual communion with the vestiges of the Neanderthal Man.

There cannot be too much social criticism or too many critics. We cannot have too many Upton Sinclairs, Menckens, Villards, Lewises. For every one we have, we could easily do with a dozen. I am all for frying Babbitt over a slow fire; and I would joyfully pillory all the Rotarians and all the energumens of service from Duluth to Baton Rouge.

When Mr. Villard digs up the tomahawk and goes after some rascally politician's scalp, I rejoice; also when he kerosenes the Daughters of the American Revolution, and applies a match. The more "Middletowns" are picked on to be surveyed, and the more thoroughly they are surveyed, the better I am pleased. When Mr. James Truslow Adams trains his guns on Fordismus, Hooverism, and the theory and implications of mass-production, I would be proud to tote ammunition for him.

But a social critic ought to have some training in the perspective of his job; and if I had my way, I should round up all these earnest and disinterested promoters of our spiritual welfare, convoy them to Bonn, and give them about two weeks of monastic life in the Provincial Museum, in prayerful contemplation of the remains of our poor departed relative.

It is the world's best preparation for the exercise of social criticism, for, when all is said, the essential, the really significant difference between the first-class and second-class critic let us rather say, between the effective and the less effective critic — is in a temper, a frame of mind. Figuratively speaking, Swift and Juvenal never trued up their critical spirit by the spectacle of the Neanderthal Man, while Socrates, Rabelais, and Cervantes did. Socrates knew the Athenian politicians really a little better than Mr. Villard knows those of Washington, because he measured them instinctively by Athenian society's general relative distance from the Neanderthal Man. He knew that they were mountebanks and scoundrels, and that Athens was in for a bump, but he also knew that nothing could be done about it for another twenty or thirty thousand years, because Athenian society at large was simply not up to the point of doing anything or wishing anything done. Hence he did not behave like another Jeremiah or Solomon Eagle, crying "Woe to this wicked city!" He did not denounce the political situation, or — as a current word alone expresses it — bellyache about it. He simply drew a picture of the situation, colored it with exquisite unruffled humor, and hung it up to stay as long as the world lasts.

Rabelais sized up sixteenth century Babbittry-plus-ecclesiasticism about as completely as Mr. Lewis and Mr. Mencken have sized up the Baptist-Methodist-Elk-Rotarian Babbittry of our land and time; and some little Babbitts there were, loose in France in his period. But he was aware that human development had got just about that far, so he took a good picture of it at that stage, and left it as a permanent exhibit. He was raised in the country, and knew there was no sense in raging around an apple tree in August because the apples were green, when they could not possibly be ripe before September.

Since the Neanderthal Man's frail skull has not disintegrated yet, it is a good deal to suppose that his leading characteristics, good and bad, can have been very largely washed out of his offspring.

IV

This prehistoric brother used tools and, such as they swere, he depended on them mightily. His mind, what there was of it, was highly practical, as much so as Mr. Ford's or Mr. Hoover's. It was centered on his tools and on what tools would do, and he knew that the better his tools were, the more and better they would do. He was not a reflective person; his intellect did not habitually range beyond the immediate purpose of his tool using. He had what we now call the short-time point of view. Results — immediate results — were what counted with him; and when his mind focused on the immediate thing it did so with all its strength.

The other day I passed through that marvel of engineering skill, the New York Central yards, on an outbound train. I remember well when the new station was built at Forty-Second Street, and how the building was completed and the yards rearranged without error or accident and without stopping a single train. Traffic went on as usual.

Such a performance in tool using was probably never seen in the world. I amused myself with thinking, as I always do when I go over that intricate trackage, how an adult human society will estimate that achievement several thousand years hence, assuming that a complete record of it will somehow be available.

I venture to say that the man of the future will marvel at it as sincerely as we do, and that he will then proceed to laugh his ribs loose, as any reflective person must do today, at its inconsequence. What is it for? To help get people, say, from New York to Chicago; that is, to transport them from the kind of life one lives in New York into the kind of life one lives in Chicago. Also, to help transport materials in order to sustain the kind of life one lives in both places.

It will strike the man of the future as the oddest and most laughable thing in the world that here were people with intelligence enough to create this marvelous mechanism of transportation, intelligence enough to operate it, but without intelligence enough to create a better collective social life for themselves than the life lived at either end of this railway system.

The man of the future will laugh at this, but he will understand it. The fact is, probably, that the power and habit of reflection have developed down from our old relative in Neanderthal in a pretty fair ratio to our development in tool using. One cannot expect much better. Life in New York and Chicago is first rate as a matter of mechanics; it is satisfactory to anyone who is chiefly a tool user — which is what most of us are. The immense mechanism of railways, banks, finance companies, factories, export trade, automobiles — the Neanderthal Man would look all this over with great approval, once he got used to it, and he would say that his progeny had done very well by themselves. The fact of its being devoid of other satisfactions would not trouble him especially. He would not be in the least impressed at hearing that Plato, Virgil, Dante, or Rabelais had voted the life of Chicago and New York utterly odious. Well, then, why should those to whom he bequeathed the immense preponderance of the tool-using power over the reflective power be more impressed?

The Neanderthal Man, again, had a turn for being predatory. He took what he wanted when he could get it, and the idea that he was taking it: away from someone else — if indeed it ever occurred to him — caused him no pangs. He was out for himself; his number was number one. If he were abroad in the world today he would soon feel quite at home among the devices that his progeny has invented for the same purpose.

He would be charmed, for instance, with the superiority of a tariff over his old-fashioned knotted club, and of poison gas over his hand-to-hand war weapons. He would see whole nations, as well as individuals, acting pretty regularly as he used to do, and he would have no trouble about recognizing the great predominance of the instinct for spoliation that he left as one of his special legacies. He would see this instinct organized with a thoroughness that he never dreamed of, and large bodies of men planning and conniving day and night to make it effective.

In all this he would see the working of the short-time point of view, and he would like that, because it was his own. The long-time point of view, largely established by the history of past events, meant little to him. In his estimation, "history is bunk"; it throws no valuable light on the future. In short, our old friend would be quite in his element in contemplating the aims and ideals of our industry, commerce, and politics.

V

Alas, poor Yorick! — we know him well. It will take the race a long time to breed out the little characteristics that he ingrained into it. A good many generations of "practical minds," morons, captains of industry, financiers, opportunists, and robots must come and go before that takes place. It might seem that all the machinery we have developed might aid humanity's higher qualities to make a better showing than they do; but these qualities have not yet had time even to make a start.

Ever since the old days in Neanderthal, man has been a creature of action and invention and, only very lately and very fitfully, a creature of thought and reflection. Even now he thinks only as the force of circumstances drives him to it; he does not enjoy thinking and never does it when he can get out of it, even to his own loss and damage. He will be a long time developing his reflective powers up to the point of interesting him in their exercise as much as he is interested in exercising his powers of action and invention.

What do the educational ups and downs of a few thousand years amount to in a line of development that is reckoned in hundreds of millions? All Western Civilization, the civilization of action and invention, informed by a glorified predatory Neanderthalism, could go by the board overnight without furnishing even a colorful incident in a march of events laid out on such an august scale.

Nor is this a depressing reflection. The sight of our defunct kinsman should not put on us the wet blanket of an inert fatalism. It only shows us clearly what we may and may not expect. It connects our criticism properly with both the past and the future, and thus insures its balance of judgment. It keeps us from the short-time point of view in criticism, from an unduly close preoccupation with the present.

Mark Twain was one of the ablest second-rate critics of society, and it was only the Neanderthal bent towards the short-time point of view that kept him from being a first-rate critic. There is a strong flavor of Neanderthal in the maxims of Pudd'nhead Wilson, in Mark Twain's fits of rage against "the damned human race," and in his project for exterminating the whole breed by withdrawing the oxygen from the atmosphere for two minutes.

Perhaps, too, one can see the short-time point of view, an imperfect connection with the future, in the critical efforts of Mr. Villard, Mr. Lewis, and Mr. Mencken. The bulk of the first-rate critic's business is with the future; he sets a mark for the race to grow up to, using the present only as a point of departure. That is what Socrates, Rabelais, and Cervantes did; and because they did it their works are still with us.

After all, our sturdy old friend at Neanderthal did about the best he could, and if one gets at him right, he may have been to a certain degree suggestible. He was no doubt wary and suspicious, but it is not inconceivable that he could have been worried into some sort of momentary and fitful introspection by the wise, calm, playful, urbane, tolerant, disciplined superiority of the first-rate critic. He might, and very probably would, have subsequently treated the critic much as his spiritual progeny treated Socrates, but, nevertheless, one can imagine that he had his moments of self-examination.

Something like this is the only service that the first-rate critic can hope to render the present, and in serving the future it thus sometimes happens that casually, occasionally, and without premeditation, he serves the present too.

For Babbitt, the hierophants of Service, the Baptist-Methodist-Elk-Rotarian denizens of the Bible Belt, are also doing about the best they can, and so are Mr. Ford and Mr. Hoover with their salvationist doctrine of mass production. The future will have its own opinion about them, and the first-rate critic's business is to anticipate the future, work with it, and look exclusively to it for his dividends. Nevertheless, out of all these there may be some who are not wholly inaccessible to the suggestion that their best is pretty poor and that it might be better.

So, quite incidentally, the first-rate critic, through the tone and temper which the very absence of preoccupation with the present gives his work, may do his own time, as well as the future, a useful service.

While, therefore, as I said, I am always exhilarated by our contemporary critics' lively mode of attack, I am always conscious that it is the Neanderthal survival in me which responds to it, and that such a mode really serves neither the future nor the present. I would wager that the French politicians were much more uneasy when Anatole France was around than when they were listening to the diatribes of the reddest communist in the chamber. The communist was for the moment only, but they knew that Anatole would last a long time and that his sapping and mining of the ground they stood on would increase in efficiency with the passage of generations. Meanwhile his easy and imperturbable superiority probably nagged some of them, at least, into a self-conscious sense of their own spiritual poverty.

I doubt whether Mr. Villard moves his Neanderthal state mongers to self-examination, or Mr. Mencken his Neanderthal sectarians. I doubt whether Babbitt ever suspects that Mr. Lewis has the future on his side, for indeed Mr. Lewis's tone would seem to show that he himself is none too certain of it.

$22 $18

 

Alas, poor Yorick! — his leading traits are doomed to extinction, and he never got very far with the traits that are appointed to supplant them. Only lately has the race begun to have a glimmering of how interesting the newer traits are, and to suspect that they are worth cultivation; only lately has humanity made any room for them. It is advantageous to realize just how much we are justified in expecting from so recent a development.

Touring parties are all the go just now, and so I suggest one, somewhat in the nature of a pilgrimage, for the dissatisfied, discouraged, disbelieving, for the vigorous, second-rate social critic, for those obsessed with the present and its shortcomings, for the perfectionist advocate of this-or-that social nostrum warranted to cure overnight. I suggest that they charter steamships and, as soon as the fine weather comes on, repair to Bonn.

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