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The Spectator at war

The Spectator at war: Driven to distraction

3 September 2014

8:30 AM

3 September 2014

8:30 AM

‘Distraction’, from The Spectator, 5 September 1914:

EVER since the world began great trouble has been surrounded by ceremonial. From age to age the ceremonial changes. It tends to become a bondage or a hypocrisy, and bold social reformers step in, as they think, to destroy it, but immediately it appears again in a new form. Modern mourning is the sackcloth and ashes of the past. The grave tone in which we address the afflicted, though their trouble touch us but little, is as much a ceremonial as was the wailing of the ancient Jewish sympathizer. The Psalmist was greatly aggrieved because, when his false friends were in distress, he “humbled himself,” and his politeness was disregarded. His vexation was natural; he had done the seemly thing with a good intention, and the levity of his acquaintances had caused them to misunderstand him. They were too light-minded to know the meaning of seemliness. Their trouble in particular was typical to his mind of trouble in general, and he showed to them a deference and respect due to distress. Again, when patriotic zeal and anxiety caused him to fast, this was “turned ” to his “reproof.” A good many people to-day are in the position of the Psalmist’s friends. The nation is in trouble and anxiety. Those whom the fact has rendered immovably grave and serious give them offence. In their minds the best thing which a man can do for himself and those about him is to seek distraction. The less civilized Englishman seeks it in the public-house. His most effectual distraction is drunkenness, and he—and his wife—have indulged in it lately to a much greater extent than those whose avocations keep them to great thoroughfares or rich residential neighbourhoods have any idea of. Men of the same mental calibre in higher walks of life seek higher distractions with an equally low motive. Of course it may be said for the loafer or unskilled workman who gets drunk that he acts from no motive at all. He is simply without self-control. This may be regarded as a sort of excuse, but for the highly civilized person none such exists. His attitude comes to this. Whether trouble, anxiety, or distress be of a public or private character, so long as it does not touch him personally, he will not, because he dare not, face it. He will not become acquainted with grief. When his friends are in trouble he thinks it “really kinder” to let them alone until such time as they are once more inclined for distraction. For the same reason, he dare not stand in the shadow of public misfortune. His gay cowardice deceives himself. No doubt be thinks himself too courageous to be grave, and scoffs at the man who thinks his levity unseemly. “What would these hypocrites have me do?” he asks. “Would they taboo till peace is declared every form of recreation, and so put honest men out of work, or would they like me to go about with a face as stern as theirs, and so add to the general depression?” To such questions there is, of course, no definite answer. It is idle to choose out some particular means of distraction and taboo it. For all that, every man knows what is seemly conduct in his own rank of life, and to observe that is all that grave men ask of him. The best manners in every class of life are equally good. No one thinks it the right thing to drown care at the public-house, though be may do it. He knows that those who are in a very true sense the best people among his own friends do not do it, and if he have the misfortune to be light-minded he can yet behave in a seemly manner. Exactly the same thing is true from the cottage to the palace. We all know what seemly behaviour is. It is what the majority of those whom we respect the most do; and, however deficient we may be in sentiment, we yet have the grace to admire and the sense to imitate.

But it may be said: Surely this is nothing but a plea for conventionality. Possibly; but while conventionality may be set at naught for long periods together without offence, there are moments when no decent man pardons its outrage. For instance, any high-spirited man may play the fool, may even make a practice of playing the fool in season, and some- times out of season, all his life, and not forfeit the respect of his friends. Up to a point he may outrage the conventions in doing it, and his action may add zest to the laughter he creates. But let him go to those in trouble and distress and add by his unseemly conduct to the burden of their woe, and his friends will condemn him utterly. They may say little about it. They will sum up his unconventionality in some slight slang phrase, differing according to the fashion of their social milieu, but no matter what that phrase is, it will mean that the speaker will never agan feel the slightest respect for the man who has in his own eyes been guilty at worst of a breach of the conventions. In the same way a man may talk atheism all his life and not alter by one hair- breadth his friends’ judgment of his character. His opinions are unconventional, they will say, but he has a right to them. But let him go to some poor woman racked by sorrow, yet upheld by her faith, and press upon her his unconventional views, and he will find his expression of opinion no longer regarded as legitimate even by those who share it. The world has determined that seemliness is next to righteousness, and they are fools who set at naught the wisdom of the ages.

No doubt there are individuals who hide pain behind laughter, and even behind excesses, by a sort of perverted instinct. We have all seen real anxiety, real grief, and even real sympathy thus masked, but not by strong people. Those who know these actors well know that this unnatural atti- tude alternates with panic and despair or hardens into cynical bitterness. Panic, despair, and cynicism are actually fostered by it, for sentiments, like diseases, can be induced by an unnatural manner of life. A certain amount of natural expression is essential to the health of the character of an individual or of a nation. This is the fact at the root of all of what we may call sympathetic ceremonial. It is in its essence an opportunity for expression. It is a ritual which it is at times a duty to reform. It is folly and worse roughly to interrupt or set it at naught. Trouble has a dignity of its own. To refuse to acknowledge and uphold it is a sign of innate vulgarity. Even if we are so careless that we can put away from us national anxiety and distress, we should salute a dignity we may not share. Let us at least conform. Certainly as a nation we want every ounce of strength we can get, and we shall not get it by meana of foolish dis- traction the sight of which creates in sober-minded men a sense both of anger and of fear. Work, while it is not technically a distraction at all, is in reality the greatest of all distractions, and there are moments when it alone among distractions is seemly. The little boys in the poor streets are picking up military terms. They cry “Eyes right” to the motor drivers whose looks they see for a moment diverted from their work. This is what we would say to the distraction-mongers who try to lessen tension at the risk of accident. But those who are not driving, why should not they gaze idly about. Uniformity and unity are not the same thing, but they have a relation to one another. This is the moment for wearing a uniform literally and figuratively, and for acting and behaving as one man.

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