The Complex Life
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
AT the home of the Blanchards everything is in confusion, and with good reason. Just think, Mademoiselle Yvonne is to be married Tuesday, and this is Friday !
There is an interminable line of visitors, loaded with presents, of furnishers bending under their loads. The servants are in a state of collapse. As to the parents, and the young couple, they do not exist, and they are no longer of any fixed habitation. During the day they are at the dressmakers', the milliners', the paperhangers', furniture dealers', jewelers', or in the apartments, now delivered into the hands of painters and cabinet-makers. From there a rapid race to the offices of the business men, where they await their turn while watching clerks engrossing papers in the semi-darkness.
After that there scarcely remains time to hasten, each to his and her abode, to dress for the series of ceremonious dinners, dinners of betrothal, dinners of presentation, the dinner of the contract, receptions and balls. About midnight they return harassed, only to find the last arrivals of packages ; a deluge of letters. Among them congratulations, compliments, acceptances and regrets of bridesmaids and ushers, and excuses from belated tradesmen. And then the annoyances of the last moments—a sudden death that disorganizes the bridal procession, a wretched cold which hinders an actress, a friendly star, from singing at the church service. It was all to do over again ! Those poor Blanchards ! They would never be ready—they who had thought they had foreseen everything.
This had been their existence during one long month. No means of stopping for breath, to have one hour's quiet for reposeful thought, nor to exchange a peaceful word. No, this is not living !
Fortunately there is the grandmother's room. Grandmother is nearly eighty years old. Having toiled and suffered much, she had reached a plane where she could look at things with that calm surety which comes to the lives of those who have high intelligence and loving hearts. Almost always seated in her easy chair, she loved the long, silent hours of meditation. So the busy whirlwind which swept the rest of the house calmed itself respectfully at her door. At the threshold of that retreat voices were softened and footfalls were made light. And, when the young lovers felt the need of a quiet moment, they flew to the grandmother's room.
"Poor children !" she said then. "How unnerved you are! Repose here a little, and belong to each other. That is the principal thing. All the rest counts for nothing, and does not deserve that you should be so absorbed in it."
They knew it well, those young people. How many times in the last few weeks had their love not been obliged to cede before all sorts of conventionalities, ex-actions and futilities. They suffered from that fatality, which at this decisive moment in their lives ceaselessly detached their minds from the only essential thing, to thrust them against a multitude of secondary preoccupations. And willingly they approved of the opinion of the grandmother when she said to them between a kiss and a smile :
"Decidedly, my children, the world is growing too complex, and it does not make people any happier—quite the contrary."
I am of the same opinion with grandma. From the cradle to the grave, in his needs as in his pleasures, in his conception of the world and himself, the modem man struggles through a maze of numberless complications. Nothing is simple now, neither thought nor action, amusement or even death. We have with our own hands added a train of difficulties to existence and cut off many pleasures. I am persuaded that at the present moment there are thousands of my fellow-beings who suffer from a too artificial life. They will be grateful to those who seek to give expression to their discomfort and encourage them in the regret for the simplicity which works in their mind oppressing them vaguely.
Let us enumerate first a series of facts which put into relief the truth we wish to show.
The complexity of life appears in the multiplicity of our material needs. One of these universally conceded phenomena of this country is that our needs have kept pace with our resources. That is not in itself an evil. The birth of certain needs mark, in fact, a progress. It is a sign of superiority to feel the need of bathing, to wear fresh linen, to inhabit wholesome houses, to eat healthful food, and to cultivate the mind. But, if there are certain needs whose birth is desirable and which have a right to live, there are others which exercise a harmful influence, and exist at our expense, like parasites. It is the number and the imperious character of these which preoccupy our minds.
If our forefathers had been told that one day humanely ¬ would have at its disposal all the engines of which it is possessed to maintain and defend its material existence, they would have concluded at first that there would be an augmentation of independence, and in con-sequence happiness. And, in the second place, a sensible decrease in the competition for the necessities of life. It would even have been permitted them to think that the simplification of existence, resulting from these perfected means of action, would bring the realization of a higher morality.
Nothing of all this has come to pass. Neither happiness, social peace, nor power for good has been increased.
In the first place, does it seem to you that your fellow-citizens, taken as a whole, are better contented than their ancestors, or surer of tomorrow?
I do not ask if they would be right to be so, but if they are. To see them as they live, it appears to me that the majority are discontented with their lot, before all being preoccupied with their material needs, and under the obsession of cares for the morrow. Never has the question of food and shelter been sharper, or more absorbing than now, when we are better nourished, better clothed and better lodged than ever before. He deceives himself who believes that the question of, "What shall we eat, what shall we drink, and with what shall we be clothed ?" is presented to the poor alone—those who are exposed to anguish of tomorrow
without bread or shelter. With those it is natural, and yet it is just there that it presents itself most simply. One must go to the homes of those who have begun to enjoy a little prosperity, to learn how much the satisfaction with what they have is troubled by regret for that which they lack. And, if you would see the anxiety for the material future in all its luxurious development, observe the people of "comfortable means," and above all the rich. The women who have but one dress are not of those who ask oftenest what they shall wear, nor is it those reduced to the strictest economy who ask the most frequently what they shall eat to-morrow. By a necessary consequence of the law that needs increase by their satisfactions: The more goods a man has the more he thinks he needs.
The more he is assured of tomorrow, according to the view of ordinary good sense, the more he concerns himself with the question of how he shall live, he and his children, how he will establish them and their descendants. Nothing can portray the fears of a man of means, their number, their reach and their refined shades.
Of all this has resulted, across the different social orders, and according to the conditions, with a variable intensity, a general agitation, a state of mind most complex, which can but be compared to the humor of spoiled children, at once overwhelmed with gifts and still discontented.
If we have not become happier, neither have we grown more peaceable or brotherly. The spoiled children dispute often and viciously. The more needs and desires a man has the more occasions he finds for conflicts with his fellow-men, and these conflicts are more hitter in proportion to the lack of justice in the cause, That they fight for bread, a necessity, is the law of nature. It may seem brutal, but has an excuse even for its hardness, and in general it is limited to rudimentary cruelties. All other is a battle for the superfluous: for ambition, privilege, caprice, and for material pleasure. Hunger alone never caused man to descend to the baseness which ambition will cause him to commit, or avarice, or thirst for unhealthy pleasures. Egotism becomes more maleficent as it becomes more refined. We have, therefore, in these days beheld an aggravation of the spirit of hostility among our fellow-beings and our hearts are less at peace than ever.
It is useless to ask if we have become better. Does not the "nerve of goodness" lie in the capacity of man to love something besides himself ? And what place would remain for the neighbor in a life sacrificed to material cares, to needs mostly fictitious, to the satisfaction of ambitions, hatreds and fantasies? The man who gives himself up entirely to the service of his appetites makes them grow and multiply so rapidly that they become stronger than he. He is delivered to an internal anarchy, from which is born at last an outward and visible anarchy. Moral life consists in the government of one's self. Immorality consists in the government of ourselves by our needs and our passions. Thus, little by little, the bases of the moral life are displaced, and the rule of judgment is deviated from.
For a man, slave to numerous and exacting needs, to possess is the greatest good, source of all other good things. It is true that, in the fierce struggle for possession, we come to hate those who possess, and deny the right of property when that right is in the hands of another, and not our own. But the ferocity in attacking the possessions of others is a new proof of the extraordinary importance which we attach to possession itself. Things and men end by being estimated at their selling price, and the profit to be made there from.
That which brings nothing is worth nothing, and he who has nothing is nothing. Honest poverty risks passing for shame, and even unclean money has little difficulty in passing for merit.
"Then," some one objects, "you condemn modern progress by wholesale, and you would lead us to the good old times, to asceticism, perhaps?" Not at all. It is the most sterile and dangerous of Utopias to wish to resuscitate the past, and the art of right living does not consist in withdrawing oneself from life. But, we are seeking to bring to light, with the aim of finding a remedy for it, one of those errors which weigh heaviest on social progress, and that is, that man becomes happier and better by increase of his outward well-being. Nothing is falser than this pretended social axiom. On the contrary. The diminishing of the capacity for being happy, and the debasement of characters by material well-being without counter-weight, is a fact which a thousand examples are at hand to establish. A civilization is valued by what the man installed in its center is worth. When that man lacks moral direction, all progress but serves to make the evil worse and to further embroil social problems.
This principle may be verified in other domains than that of well-being. We will mention but those of instruction and liberty. We remember the time when prophets who were believed announced that to trans-form a barren land into an abode fit for the gods it would suffice to overthrow those coalescent old powers: misery, ignorance and tyranny. Other prophets today repeat the same predictions. We have just seen that the evident decrease of misery has not made man better nor happier. Has this result been achieved in a certain measure by the praiseworthy efforts of instruction? It does not appear so at the present hour, and this is the anxiety—the despair of those who have consecrated themselves to our national education. Then we must brutify the people, suppress universal instruction—close the schools? By no means ; but instruction, like the assemblage of the inventions of our civilization, is after all but a tool. All depends upon the workman who makes use of it.
It is the same with liberty. It is sinister or salutary, according to the manner in which it is employed.
Does liberty still remain when it belongs to malefactors or even to the capricious, the disreputable, or even the stupid blunderer? Liberty is an atmosphere of higher life that one grows capable of breathing only by slow and patient internal transformation.
There must be a law to all life; to that of man more necessarily than for inferior beings, for the life of man and his associates is more precious and more delicate than that of plants and animals. This law for man is at first an external one, but it may become an internal one.
As soon as a man has recognized this inner law and bowed before it, he is ripe for liberty, by respect and voluntary obedience. So long as he has not that inward law, strong and sovereign, he is incapable of breathing the air of liberty. This air will intoxicate him, madden him and kill him morally. A man who guides his life by that inner law cannot longer live under that of external authority—more than a grown bird could live closed in the eggshell again ; but the man who has not yet gained the moral point where he governs himself cannot live under the regime of liberty any more than could the embryo bird without the protection of his shell. These things are terribly simple, and the series of their proofs, old and new, never cease to grow under our eyes. And, yet, we are always unable to understand even the elements of so important a law. In our democracy, how many are there, great and small, who have understood, who know, from having verified it, lived and sometimes suffered it, this truth without which a people is incapable of governing itself ? Liberty is respect. Liberty is obedience to the inward law, and this law is not the good pleasure of the powerful. nor the caprice of mobs, but the higher impersonal rule, before which those who command bow the head first of all. Shall we say, then, that liberty must be suppressed? No, but we must make ourselves capable and worthy, otherwise public life becomes impossible, and a nation proceeds through license and lack of discipline to the inextricable complications of demagoguery.
When one passes in review the individual causes which trouble and complicate our social life, by whatever names they are designated—and the enumeration would be long—they all lead back to one general cause, which is this: the confusion of the secondary with the essential. The material well-being, education, liberty, all the whole of civilization, form the frame of the picture, but the frame does not make the picture more than the frock makes the monk, or the uniform the soldier. The picture here is the man with what he has, the most intimate of his possessions, his conscience, his character and his will. And while elaborating and embellishing the frame, they have forgotten, neglected and disfigured the picture. Thus we are surcharged with external goods, and miserable in spiritual life. We have in abundance things which we could, if needful, do without, and we are infinitely poor in the only thing necessary. And, when the depths of our being awaken, with its need of loving, of hoping for the realization of its destiny, it feels the anguish of a living being whom they have buried alive. He stifles beneath the mass of secondary things which weigh upon him and deprive him of air and light.
We must seek out, set free, and restore to honor the real life: assign all things to their proper places, and remember that the centre of human progress is in moral growth. What is a good lamp? It is not the one most ornamented, the best carved or that which is made of the most precious metal. A good lamp is the one that gives good light. And so, also, we are men and citizens not by the number of goods or pleasures that we procure for ourselves, nor through our intellectual and artistic culture, nor by the honors or the independence we enjoy, but by the solidity of our moral fibre. And this, after all, is not a truth of today, but a truth of all times.
At no epoch have exterior conditions, realized through his knowledge or industry, exempted man from care for the state of his inner life. The face of the world changes about us, the intellectual and material factors of existence are modified. No one can hinder these changes whose brusque characters are often not without peril. But the important thing is that man, in the center of these shifting circumstances, should remain man, live his life and march toward his goal ! Now, whatever be the road he has to traverse towards his goal, the traveller must not lose himself in the cross-ways, nor load himself with useless burdens. Let him watch over his direction, over his forces, over his honor, and that he may better consecrate himself to the essential, which is to progress, he simplifies his baggage, even if it must be at the price of some sacrifices.