Mandrakes And Modernism
( Originally Published 1916 )
THERE is a vast deal of the world's learning that is pure waste.
I have seen libraries in Europe, books of precious vellum, hand printed, many of them by the lifetime labor of anchorites, and not one of them containing an ounce of wisdom useful to-day.
Many of our public and private book collections at the present time are for the most part junk heaps.
The worship of books has become a blind cult. We esteem any aggregation of bound volumes a mark of learning.
As a matter of fact, perhaps nine-tenths of the knowledge men accumulated up to a hundred years ago is useless, except to show how much is not worth while.
As a sample of the amazing non-facts men swallowed whole on the word of savants, take the literature of the mandrake.
This plant, the mandragora officinalis of the Mediterranean region, was from the most ancient times endowed by superstition with strange powers. Read the story of Leah's mandrakes in the thirtieth chapter of Genesis.
The reason for the crazy beliefs that attached themselves to this plant was doubtless the shape of its root, which is forked and crudely resembles human legs. The upper part is not unlike a man's body, and with a little skill one can cut the top to look like a head, while if grains are imbedded in the crown they will sprout and give a fair imitation of hair.
Here are some of the "facts":
The mandrake can be used as the basis of a love philter. It will also cure childlessness.
When pulled from the ground it utters a human cry, as in Longfellow's "Spanish Student" :
Teach me where that wondrous mandrake grows, Whose magic root, torn from the earth with groans At midnight hour, can scare the fiends away And make the mind prolific in its fancies.
To uproot a mandrake was dangerous business. Pliny advised first drawing three concentric circles around it with a sword. Theophrastus recommended jumping three times around it. The approved method in the middle ages was to tie a hungry dog to the plant and offer him a piece of meat; he gives a lunge,' and there you are! No one hurt with a curse except a dog.
Greek, Latin, and Arabic literature abound in mandrake information. The plant was an inter-mediate creation between the vegetable and animal kingdoms, as the ape comes between animal and man.
The mandrake is part demon in its powers, part plant in nature, and part human in form.
It doubles the treasure of those who own it.
It knows the future. Ask it a question and it, shakes its head.
Boccaccio and Machiavelli, La Fontaine and Caliban make use of it in drama and story.
The best mandrakes are those pulled under a gibbet where hangs a fresh corpse.
Mandrake leaves shine like stars.
All this may serve to show the method of minds before the modern era.
People did not want to know what was true, but what was interesting.
Historical truth is a modern discovery. Scientific truth had no particular value up to a few generations ago.
People then were children, with all a child's credulity, a fact no book has brought out so vividly as Mark Twain's "A Yankee at King Arthur's Court."
The tendency today is to accept learned men's statements for nothing, except they be proved. No authority goes. The most famous scientist in the world would be laughed at if he wrote a book of assertions without facts to back them up.
Furthermore, the learned are learning that their sayings have little weight unless they can strip them of long words and technical terms and put them into plain English, understandable of the people.
The wonderful eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw more than the downfall of the irrational tyranny in government; they saw the beginning of the downfall of all humbug authority in every realm of thought the first step in the emancipation of mankind.