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An essay by William Cowper Brann

As I Was Saying

Title:     As I Was Saying
Author: William Cowper Brann [More Titles by Brann]


How small of all that human hearts endure
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!
Still to ourselves in every place consigned,
Our own felicity we make or find.--Dr. Samuel Johnson.

There is something admirably rugged and encouragingly practical in the sentiments and philosophies of the older writers that acts on the mind as a potent tonic when wearied and weakened by the monotonous and anaemic outpourings of the so-called philanthropists of the present day. There is something energizing, thew-developing. This is the age of pulling literature, of crocodile tears, of simulated tenderness, of counterfeit sympathy, of cry and clamor and plaint and protest. In politics we call this practice calamity-howling, whether in tornado-swept Kansas, blizzard-bitten Iowa or boss-ridden New York. in literature it is mere charlatanry, mere scagliola, made for sale. Hamlin Garland makes imaginary journeys over "Traveled Roads" to tell us of the utter and intolerable miseries of the Western farmers who live in sod houses. Raising dollar wheat is not so bad, even in a sod house. George Cable and Albion Tourges write sentimental lies about the Southern negroes. Those at all familiar with the facts know that no people on earth are happier than the Southern negroes. Arthur Morrison writes about "The Child of the Jago" and draws tears from our eyes. Those who have seen the children of the Jago fight and play, romp and riot would probably be willing to trade health and peace of mind with any of them. The list is too long or it might be interesting to name others who write for the purpose of making people discontented, to inflame jealousy or arouse envy. It will be no trouble to recall a host of others. The politician seeks to "remove the inequalities of life by wise and salutary laws," meaning that he wants office. The "literary feller" seeks "to educate the public mind and raise the public conscience to a higher plane," meaning that he wants to do the educating, incidentally, and to sell his books, objectively. To complain that life is "often more than sad enough, with its inequalities confronting us, its gilded prizes and its squalors side by side, its burdens and its trivialties pressing in upon the soul," as does Marguerite Merington in a late and otherwise excellent magazine article, is to strike a popular chord, but the note is false and scabrous, the philosophy less than commendable. Men are but children of a larger growth and, like children of a smaller growth, they like to be petted and pitied and told that the world is not treating them fairly. No man, rich or poor, is contented, and he enjoys being told that his failure to reach the goal of his ambitions and fill to the brim his cup of pleasure is because of the great impersonal world, or untoward and oppugning circumstances have prevented him. He enjoys this sort of thing so much that he will pay handsomely for it and the charlatan finds a market for his wares. He does not like the plain truth bluntly stated. No one does. We do not admire those who wrestle and strive with us. Nevertheless, they alone strengthen our muscles and, hence--

. . .

Verily I say: "Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantom of hope--who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow," need not attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, except for the passing pleasure of the reading, because the story can be told in fewer words, to wit: Happiness is a personal equation--"what is one man's meat is another man's poison." Rasselas found the Happy Valley irksome and intolerable. There never has been a Happy Valley since that could furnish continuous content to any one. The nearest approach to happiness comes with juxtaposition to one's tastes and aspirations. The simpler the tastes and the less discursive the aspirations, the nearer happiness comes and the longer it remains. Happiness does not come from conditions or surroundings, nor are these conditions or surroundings always understood. Actual conditions do not reveal themselves to perspicacity much less to casual observation. The multi-millionaire in his mansion or the king on his throne, surrounded by all the comforts and conveniences, all the marvelous treasures, all that is pleasing to the eye and to the senses, may not be happy--may be unhappy. The rustic who follows the plow through furrowed fields, unkempt, clownish, toil-stained, weary and overworked, may brawl raucous roundelay at even-tide and enjoy the fullness of earthly bliss. His neighbor similarly situated may suffer agonies because his tastes and ambitions are higher. Those who imagine "plow hands" have no ambitions to gratify know little of life. Sometimes they aspire to be presidents, and sometimes they gratify those aspirations, but they never know happiness. They may be as wise as a dozen Solons, but they can not provide happiness by legislation. They may reach the summit of earthly glory and strive to seize the fulgurant prize that lured them on, only to find a penumbra--the shadow of a shade. And if conditions are actually known they prove nothing, generally. Each case must be specialized. Children and grown people, for that matter, are subjected to involuntary fasts and oftimes go hungry, in fact are always hungry, but they suffer less and are healthier than those who are stuffed and pampered and sated. The joy of eating when food comes compensates for the previous scantiness of the fare. There are deaths from insufficient alimentation; ten to one are the deaths traceable to over-feeding. There is suffering for lack of food. There is ten to one more suffering by gouty and dyspeptic gourmands. The beggar shivers in the cold for lack of clothing; there is ten to one more suffering from over-swathing. For pain, actual, excrutiating; for pain invincible, somber and unutterable, one proud woman reduced to a last season's frock suffers more than twenty arrayed in customary rags and tatters. God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, but not to the dowdy woman. The occupant of the cottage or cabin as he hurries home on Saturday night with his hard-earned store perhaps envies the occupant of the mansion where lights burn brightly and music fills the air, but the master of the mansion may be driven to the verge of insanity in an unequal contest to keep up appearances and a style of living that is grinding his heart into dust. Gladly, he thinks, he would court the modest shelter of the cottage or cabin but, alas! sorrow and suffering, want and wickedness might follow him there. From natal bed to mortuary box happiness escapes us--the faster, the more we pursue it.

We mistake appearances for realities and misbestow our sympathy. Had some of the more tender-hearted met Audubon when he returned from one of his trips in the forests, his clothing in shreds, his shoes gone, travel- stained and unkempt, alms would have been unhesitatingly bestowed. And how amused would the great man have been! He was too great to have been irritated. If, as it is claimed, human happiness is the aim and object of philanthropists, they seek the unattainable and destroy that which they would save. A sudden wrenching from the one condition to another is misery. The eagle would rather starve in his native forests than feast in a cage. The Indian maiden who graduates at Carlisle and who captures all the medals, returns to her blanket and the dirt, dogs and squalor of her tribe as soon as she reaches the reservation. There is a strain of the Huckleberry Finn in all natures that resents a too sudden metamorphosis and which will return to its rags, its back alley and empty cask. Charlatans of the law and of literature inculcate the idea that a change in conditions means the acquisition of unqualified bliss, and they assume that the poor are necessarily unhappy and endeavor to convince them--not a difficult task, that it is the fault of someone else that they are not rich! Folly! The hod-carrier and helot who works from dawn to dusk, who goes in rags, who fares on coarsest food, whose wife and children live in squalor, may be considered unhappy, but they never experience real suffering, acute, unasuageable, poignant grief, until they become possessed of money and mansions and modern grandeur, only to find themselves coldly isolated. Sudden wealth has made them too grand for their former friends, it cannot secure them entrance into the society which they would affect, or, if it does, they find themselves ill at ease, out of place, miserable. Those who imagine that all bliss comes from lucre or legislation know little and are "ignorant of their own ignorance." They do not know that "our own felicity we make is final, and that through the cultivation of individual inherency and personal sufficiency. They listen to the charlatans who, on the plea of bringing balm, inflict incurable wounds; who would bring happiness by sowing the dragon's teeth of discontent. "Coal-Oil Johnny," who threw away hundreds of thousands of suddenly acquired dollars, was a philosopher. The money put him out of harmony with himself. It was to him a curse. And he wisely rid himself of it. There is peace and pleasure in the jangling discord and in the pains of effort, a peace which, otherwise, the world can not give, a pleasure found nowhere else; and this peace and pleasure are not to be sought by effort; are not to be attained by effort; but are found in the effort itself. There is pleasure in dressing a field or in painting a house, but not in the dressed field or in the painted house. In other words, there is pleasure in individual assertiveness and not in inertia. No doubt either Calypso or Circe was more attractive than Penelope, but Ulysses was not content. He had to continue his wanderings even to his own home, and when he had killed of all the suitors and was restored to his diplomatic spouse, there were doubtless days when he wished himself back with the enchantress on the lovely isle--days when he would have changed places with his father, Sisyphus, and rolled the ever returning stone with will and energy. Ease and passivity were a torture to him.

A picture of life is painted by that wonderful artist, Gabrielle d'Annunzio, in "The Triumph of Death." Yes, I hear the hurtling of such missles as "decadent," "obscene," "vulgar," "impious." Nevertheless d'Annunzio is one of the great masters. His pigments may be mud or muck. His brush is the brush of an Angelo. His finished product is life itself, breathing, pulsing life, through which the blood rushes loud enough to be heard. Life in all its phases, from the loftiest to the lowliest. Demetrius, wealthy, scholarly, meditative, one would suppose needed no legislation or literature to make him happy. He possessed all the world had to give. "A mild, meditative man, with a face full of virile melancholy, and a single white curl in the center of his forehead among the black hair, giving him an old appearance." He sought earnestly and sedulously for the secret meaning of life. He tried to reach and unravel its symbols and allegories; he tried to interpret the furtive gestures which he beheld in the shadows, and he passed into deeper shadows and more oppressive silences through the ghastly gates of suicide, while his idiotic sister remained to chatter and grimace. Jaconda remained gibbering and pleased with the world and with herself. George saw this and he saw many other things which he could not understand. He saw "Oreste of Chapelles" firing the simple minds of the people to fanaticism as he went up and down like a fury. He saw the pilgrims at the sanctuary and the beggars and cripples on his return from the sanctuary to Cassalbordino--horrible monsters, not fashioned, or scarce fashioned in God's image, and he saw that they had their families and their belongings with them, that they piteously plead for alms and that they danced and sung, cursed and caroused, made merry over the deformities of each other, and presented a phase of life wholly incomprehensible. Laws or literature could not increase their happiness. Their apparent miseries were not real. He saw Colas, ignorant, stupid, superstitious, but content. He saw Candia, proud of her fecundity, slaving, singing. He saw Favetta, the young singer with the falcon-like eyes, the idol of her friends, simple, modest, happy. He saw the peasants in their mysterious rites "consecrating the nativity of bread" in the harvest field. They needed neither laws nor literature to improve their condition. They were the happiest of mortals. And he saw the dark tragedies of this remote world. Liberata carrying her dead child on her head to the burial place. No laws or literature for her, poor woman: her baby was dead and her reason was gone. He saw Riccangela, the widow, on the beach, with her large rough hands, pouring forth her heart in a wild monody over the remains of her puny boy, who was drowned, while the homicidal sea chanted a lugubrious accompaniment or mocked the agony of the song. George sought the meaning and the key to life's mysteries and found them not. Subjective study and spiritual contemplation drove him mad. They had driven his uncle Demetrious mad. He recoiled from them and plunged into life as he found it, endeavoring to extract from it the honey of happiness, or at least, immunity from misery. If carnalism could furnish content, one would think George would have found it. Rich to opulence, young, idle, he met Hippolyte, "a compound of pale amber and dull gold in which were mingled perhaps a few tints of faded roses." He won her and subjected her, "the bloodless, wounded creature who used to submit with profound astonishment, the ignorant and frightened creature who had given him that fierce and divine spectacle--the agony of modesty felled by vicious passion." He idolized her and idealized her in the struggle for perfect bliss. He took her to the deserted abbey and placed on "the summit of the high marble candelabra which had not heard the voice of the light for centuries," where she burned before his eye in the inextinguishable and silent flame of her love, and, as he believed, illuminating the meditations of his soul. Folly! His apotheosis was a farce. She developed, but not spiritually. What he supposed was a pure flame of love proved to be a base erotic fever. The bloom of pudicity was brushed off. She acquired a strange power over him; she, the once innocent and frightened creature. "She possessed the infallible science and knew her lover's most secret and subtle sensibilities and knew how to move them with a marvelous intuition of the physical conditions that depend on them and their corresponding sensations and their association and their alternatives." And from the thing of beauty and light, seen with enraptured eyes as she stood "on the summit of the marble candelabra which had not heard the voice of the light for centuries, she became a loved and hated thing, "the flower of concupiscence," "an instrument of low lasciviousness." The union of these two, perfect in all outward appearances, blessed with love and leisure, beauty and youth, and all that wealth could buy, was a mocking and a delusion because lacking in spirituality, because unsanctified and unholy. It was a monstrous tragedy, this union, presented on a stage of ashes over a volcano. (Unions in polite society, where forms are observed, laws obeyed and customs followed, but where the moving impulse is sordid, where the marriage is for money or for social position, do they, too, not drift toward mutual hate and abhorrence, to divorce or death? I only ask the question. There may be more Georges and Hippolytes in the world than we care to admit). When at last he discovered his true condition, when he realized that he was in her power that he could not live with her or without her, that she obstructed his way of life and his way to death, he caught her in his arms and hurled both over the precipice upon the rocks below, making a ghastly ending for a ghastly tragedy. No law or literature could have brought happiness to him. He sought it in the various ways, in every way but the one, simple and only right way--the effort to confer happiness on others. Frantic intoxications, the culminations of carnal pleasures, which amount to unspeakable ecstasies, are mere temporations which are followed by lassitude, exhaustion and disgust, and these soon turn to a fiercely implacable hate. The search for happiness, when carried to the extreme, becomes a torture. The desire for happiness is selfish, and selfishness is never happy. Happiness dispensed is like bread cast upon the water, and will return after many days. Those who seek it stray from it. All laws and all literature that arouse the spirit of discontent, of selfishness and of desire for happiness, are vicious because they defeat the very object which they seek to accomplish, and make people more miserable than they were by increasing their capacity for suffering without a coexistent power to gratify the desires aroused. What is this George Eliot puts into the mouth of the radical, Felix Holt? "This world is not a very fine place for a good many of the people in it. But I've made up my mind it shan't be the worse for me if I can help it. They tell me I can't alter the world--that there must be a certain number of sneaks and robbers in it, and if I don't lie and filch somebody else will. Well, then, somebody else shall, for I won't--I will never be one of the sleeks dogs--I would never choose to withdraw myself from the labor and common burden of the world; but I do choose to withdraw myself from the rush and scramble for money and position. Any man is at liberty to call me a fool, and say that mankind are benefitted by the push and scramble in the long run, but I care for the people who are alive now and will not be living when the long run comes. I prefer to go shares with the unlucky."

Irrefragible philosophy! The true and the wise proceed not to stir up the lees of passion and greed and avarice and ambition. They remain with the world, go with it in its devious ways and through its torturous windings, removing the thorns and briars from before naked feet, shielding the weak, sheltering the naked, encouraging and dispensing light and hope and love. The true and wise who love their fellows avoid strife and carnage, and conflict with the ineluctable, but they meet the inevitable calmly and courageously. They are superior to laws and literature. They are supremely blest. Memphis. Tenn., November 10.

[The end]
William Cowper Brann's essay: As I Was Saying