European Morals and Our Own
European Morals and Our Own
Scribner's
October, 1932

While in Europe last year I read the newspaper account of a rather commonplace and squalid drama of passion that ended in tragedy. A petty nobleman's young mistress had become difficult and exacting; he discarded her; she tried to force herself into his house for an interview that he had refused her; his servants called the police; she barricaded herself in a room and opened fire; the police returned the fire and she was killed.

What first would strike the American eye was that the nobleman did not appear in the incident at all, even as a material witness. The second striking thing was the extremely matter-of-fact way that the incident was reported by the press. There was no "slant" implying any moral rebuke of the relations between the two principals involved in the affair. The papers spoke of the young lady as the nobleman's amie with no more play to a sensitive public sentiment than if she were his housemaid, his niece, or his grandmother. They simply registered the fact of her status ad hoc as impersonally as if they had been listing the particulars of a tax report. Nor did they imply by any indulgence in what we call sob-stuff that the lady had gained any rights over the nobleman. in virtue of their peculiar relationship, or that the nobleman had lost any rights. In the hundreds of newspaper items that I have read concerning incidents where irregular sex-relations figured I have never yet encountered one that deviated from this pattern.

We all know what would have happened in the United States in a case like the one I have cited. We know what our press would have made of it. If instead of running amuck the lady had sought the courts, we know what the courts would have made of it; also what an uneasy and prurient "moral sentiment," appropriately stimulated, would have made of it. Barring an inconceivably rank and stupid mismanagement of her advantage, she would have been set up for life, what with offers of marriage, movie contracts, magazine rights and book-rights to the story of her life, and so on. The casual reading of our daily press must indeed suggest to any reflective person that about the surest way for a personable young woman to reach wealth and distinction in America is by such judicious adulteries and fornications as may best give substance to blackmail.

The official attitude of Europe is very strict about protecting immaturity; the age of consent is a serious matter. But being free, white, and twenty-one, as we say, is also a serious matter, exactly as serious for women as for men. In our country it is not. Curiously, with all our feminist efforts after equality of the sexes, this particular mode of equality has been lost sight of. It is not reflected in our laws and institutions, and none of our feminists, as far as I know, have been exactly what one would call solicitous about it. This, among other things, suggests strongly that our feminists, being human, are more concerned with the inconveniences of inequality than with its injustice. As a matter of fact, the American woman, while striving for a nominal equality, has managed firmly to retain and enormously to enhance all the practical advantages of being in tutelage, as far as her sex-relations are concerned. While insisting on her share of certain special responsibilities, mostly financial and political, she has in this respect been quite content to rest in a state of irresponsibility, with the law, courts, press, pulpit, and public sentiment safeguarding her most extravagantly In loco parentis.

II

We all know that "the woman story" means sudden death to a career in American public life. The only careers that I can recall at the moment as having survived it, after a fashion, are those of Henry Ward Beecher and Grover Cleveland; and those were for many reasons rather special. Whispers may go around without doing any harm; in fact, curiously, a political career is often more helped than hurt by a little judicious whispering, though this seems not to hold true of a career in business or the professions—one can hardly say why. But the woman story, brought down to cases and copper-riveted to its victim's reputation, is ruinous; there is almost never an exception to the rule; and it is therefore something which men who are in any way prominent in our public life are notoriously and even almost hysterically anxious about, whether or not their actual conduct be such as reasonably to justify any anxiety whatever.

In Europe, on the other hand, as far as I can judge, the social consequences of the woman story do not appear to be particularly serious. Journalism is not eager to fasten it on public men, which is a pretty fair sign that there would be little gained by doing so, for the European journalist is as eager as his American brother to exploit all the resources of his difficult profession. There is probably not as much done in the way of irregular sex-relations in Europe as most Americans seem to imagine, not only because they are an unnecessary expense, but because Europeans, especially after they mature a little, are usually equipped for something more interesting to do with their leisure time. Diogenes defined lechery as "the occupation of those who are destitute of other occupations," which is worth remembering, especially by those who make a great fuss about the sexual waywardness and petting-parties of our younger generation in America. But there is plenty of this sort of indulgence in Europe, as there is everywhere, and often enough among men of place and reputation.

A man of the highest importance in one country's political life, who has held the highest offices and still wields great influence, has yet found time to go through escapades that would disqualify him for the job of pound-master in an American town. If any newspaper attempted to throw mud at him in a campaign, on the strength of these incidents, it would be laughed out of business. Another man, a most excellent official, greatly beloved and highly respected, has a curious weakness, apparently quite innocent, for dancers. No one knows why he likes them; he simply does, that is all; and he is said to have some of them on his payroll most of the time. Now, the thing about such instances that is probably hardest for an American to get through his head is the absence of secrecy about them. This excellent man is joked about his dancers in public and private, newspapers print witty gibes at his penchant, and all in the merriest good temper. But a newspaper that took it seriously as furnishing effective campaign material would find itself barking up the wrong tree.

III

The difference in the organization of the two societies reaches even as far as the phenomenon described by Solomon under the name of "the strange woman." The strange woman appears to have a rather definite status in Europe, socially as well as legally, while with us she has none, her occupation being contraband from the outset. In Europe, organized society has nothing against her occupation provided she takes it up at an established age of maturity and she has therefore the social standing of a merchant. Her trade carries no great prestige, it is true, but neither do some other trades.

Not long ago I was in a medium-sized French city during a spell of summer weather which was nothing comparable to the parboiling heat of our Atlantic coast towns, but was so warm that one who perspires easily had to drink a good deal of water to keep square with the world. The only eligible water was bottled water, and hence at intervals not too far apart I would turn up for some at a large cafe that kept a great array of tables out under the trees on a boulevard. It was a fine place, and I often spent as much as an hour there in the late afternoon, listening to uncommonly good music from a small string orchestra. Half a dozen young women of the type described by Solomon kept regular office-hours at that cafe every day, always sitting in the same place at one end of the double row of tables ranged on the sidewalk. There was nothing that I could notice in their manner to differentiate them from other habitus—there they were, that is all, and one might sit down with them and chat, if one liked, with or without a view to making arrangements for further acquaintance. They seemed to be as much an established feature of the institution as the woman who sold newspapers at the other end of the line or as another merchant of the humbler sort who dealt in olives and almonds. What I observed with special interest was that the matrons of a solid and virtuous French bourgeoisie who sat with their families next or near these girls did not lift their eyebrows at them or snatch their children away from a possible contaminating contact; still less did they try to convince the proprietor that such hussies should not be allowed to brush elbows with decent women. Quite the contrary. They would as soon have thought of putting on airs about the almond-vender or the woman who kept the paper-stand.

It is one of our chief persuasions about what we call, in a snivelling sort of way, our fallen sisters, I think, that in Europe as elsewhere they come to an untimely and miserable end; and in many cases it is true. In many cases, however, it is not true; and here again their occupation presents a precise parallel with that of others. The qualities of character which tend to make their enterprise a success or a failure are the same qualities observable as determining success or failure in any other enterprise. Moreover, the characteristics which determine success gain in the long run the same social advantages that they gain in other occupations. Hence on the Continent one quite often sees a phenomenon that strikes an American as a good deal of a curiosity —a fallen sister who has saved her money, managed it into some sort of competence, and then has retired from business, going into the country, usually, and has settled down for the rest of her life, sometimes alone, sometimes with a husband acquired aboveboard and in good faith, to scratching up vegetables out of a garden, pottering with eggs and chickens, in extreme amity with her neighbors, leading a harmless, wholesome, and agreeable existence, and as a rule contriving to spin it out to a green old age. This possibility is open to her because she need make no secret of her wayward career. In an Anglo-Saxon or American civilization, as in a nineteenth-century British novel, her terrible past would be forever coming up against her. Her seclusion in the country would be regarded as penance, and the neighbors would see that she made a good, thorough job of it. In Europe she would be less troubled by the spectre of moral delinquency, her natural good qualities would have freer opportunity to recommend themselves for what they were worth, and she would have a status quite fairly comparable with that of any merchant who had retired honorably from an humble and uninviting trade.

IV

The longer one stays in Europe the harder it is to subscribe to our comfortable notion that womanhood is more respected in America than in Europe. I think that the wind-jamming congressman who butters up his constituents with this assertion would have an awkward time proving it. Even the European legal view of women in their sex-relations may quite competently, as I have shown, be taken as more nearly equalitarian and therefore more honorable to womanhood than ours.

Europeans too, I think, take a little too superficial a view of us in their frank amazement at the effeminization of our national life, its institutions and policies. A people that can carry its veneration for womanhood to the point of promulgating the Mann Act, for instance; or that is so squeamish that it disallows a classic like Voltaire's "Candide" and holds up the works of Rabelais at its ports of entry; that codifies the most inquisitorial and disgusting particularities of control over personal conduct—all this impresses the European as so novel and startling as to be past belief.

In accounting for it in terms of pure sentiment or sentimentalism, however, the European critic and a good many of our own critics as well, do not keep in view two facts that are fundamental. The first one is that forty-one per cent of our national wealth is in the hands of women. This is a much more awesome consideration than that of their having the vote, but very few people think about its implications. It is never those who vote that really rule; they are told they do, and think they do. Those who own, rule; and they rule because they own. The worst of it is that our effeminization is an effeminization by an immature and untempered womanhood; it is irrational, whimsical, bearing the marks of a ruffled, self-conscious, and zealous ineptitude.

The other fact that is usually left out of account in considering the difference between the American and European points of view is that of economic advantage. In the peculiar circumstances of our economic development it became advisable to take all moral pressure off certain categories of conduct and to tighten it as much as possible on others by way of compensation. An ostentatious austerity against drinking, fornication, gambling, cigarettes, Sunday amusements, and the like, is an extremely cheap clearance for industrial exploitation, theft of public property, legislation by purchase or a predatory economic imperialism.

V

The emotional point of view, in a word, is the mode of mind of an experienced maturity. It sees that nothing but vulgarity and unwholesomeness accrues to the conscious stressing of an artificial and perverted moral absolutism. It is aware that sound notions of conduct cannot be successfully inculcated by the medium of an unsound moral theory, or by insistence upon conventions which are flatly disallowed both by experience and by the individual intuitive sense of the natural truth of things. Still less likely are they to be inculcated by blind reliance on the arm of flesh, by compulsion and the force of law. It dissents utterly from the childish belief that if you can only get enough people in jail society will be properly moralized. It sees no regenerative power in a nagging particularity of regulation over personal conduct, whether by statute or by social inquisition, or by any combination of both.

Ours is the mode of immaturity. American society, according to all observers is, broadly, a society of children. Our chief interests, pursuits, and diversions are those of children, our sanctions of personal conduct are those of the nursery, and our reaction to them is, in spirit, the infantile reaction of unreflective bravado. This incorrigible infantilism has worked itself out at last to the very remarkable and extraordinary extreme where the most spotlessly innocent civilian's life is not safe at the hands of his own government.

It would be commonplace to dwell on the disadvantages accruing from these circumstances to the moral nature of the individual. His maturity as a responsible being is deformed by growing up in an atmosphere of stress upon moralities which in the natural truth of things he knows to be specious, and which he sees promoted at the expense of moralities that command the normal conscience. In comparison with the European this is his great disadvantage. In Europe what we regard as the path of virtue is made actually easier to follow by being merely left open. The individual naturally grows up into the attitude of the society around him. Society being relatively unpreoccupied either way with the ethics of drink, "the strange woman," Sunday observance, and so on, he too is unpreoccupied with them. He has no mordant curiosities to be furtively assuaged, nor does he need show any bravado of resentment against an officious social control. Hence he is likely to assess these ethics at just about their proper value, and according to observation, as a rule, he actually does so.

Our scale of moralities has been applied in Europe, in time past, both by church and state; it did not work. Our mode of inculcating virtue which sacrifices moral responsibility and puts a premium on immaturity has also been tried before; it did not work. They may work now; that remains to be seen; but from present appearances one can hardly believe that they will ever result in anything either interesting or commendable.


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