work and rest: genius and stupidity

WORK AND REST: GENIUS AND STUPIDITY.

By ALEXANDER FRANCIS CHAMBERLAIN, PH.D.,
CLARK UNIVERSITY, WORCESTER, MASS.

OLDER far than the Tennysonian line, ‘Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay’ is the Chinese proverb, ‘One day is as good as three,’ i.e., if you know how and when to do the thing necessary. Scott has given the warrior’s version:

One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.

Pope speaks for the statesman:

One self-approving hour whole years outweighs
Of stupid starers and of loud huzzas.

Through the Mohammedan saying the goddess Artemis expresses herself, ‘One hour in the execution of justice is worth seventy years of prayer.’ The faith of the religious votary is voiced by the Hebrew psalmist, ‘A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand.’ The folk and the poet, the two anticipators of science, have in all ages seen the accomplishments of great things in brief periods of intense activity. There is an aristocracy of the moment, as well as of blood or brain.
    It is an interesting subject for inquiry how far the history of the individual and of the race justifies the belief that one day is as good as three, one hour outweighs whole years. In this brief paper, no exhaustive study can be entered upon, and the intention is simply to outline a theory based upon the phenomena thus recognized, and to defend the view that intense activity for comparatively brief periods alternating with longer periods of greater or less quiescence is, whatever incidents of environment, artificialities of civilization, exaggerated sex influences, etc., have at times interfered to disturb it, the normal phenomenon of work in so far as it is best and most genially productive and profitable racially and individually.
    The Animal. — From the earliest times some of the lower animals have passed for models of industry, others as examples of utter sloth and idleness. But we may be sure that man has read into his observations of animal activity a good deal of his own passing reflections, for exact scientific investigation hardly justifies some of his familiar sayings. Young animals (kittens, for example) do not play so many hours of their day as is commonly supposed, and the busy bee is far from ‘improving’ each ‘shining hour.’ The rest of young animals and children is quite as characteristic as their work or play. And we must be careful not to derive too much of our evidence from captive animals and restrained or metamorphosed children. We lack, too, authoritative delimitations of the periods of activity and of rest of animals. Groos,[1] in his discussion of the play of animals, has little to say on this question other than the remark: “Of children and young animals it is true that, except when they are eating, they play all day, till at night, tired out with play, they sink to sleep.” But there are night-animals, and to a certain extent, night-men, for the evening activities of the kitten, e.g., are often paralleled completely by those of her young mistress.
    Of the lowest stages of animal life practically continuous activity has been asserted. Dr. Hodge and Dr. Aikins,[2] in their study of ‘The Daily Life of a Protozoan,’ observe: “A Vorticella works continuously, and shows in its life no period of inactivity or rest corresponding to periods of rest in higher animals. In other words, a Vorticella never sleeps.” But this is only under absolutely favorable conditions of life, for the same authors, a little further on speak of a stage of rest or encystment: “Encystment is, therefore, of the nature of an enforced ‘rest,’ a period of inactivity imposed by exceptional external circumstances.”
    As we go up the scale noticeable activity and inactivity increase in their rhythmic alternations. The fishes and lower vertebrates sleep periodically, and alternate their rest and exertion. Professor McGee characterizes the intensified activity with long intervals of inertness exemplified by the Seri Indians as ‘simulating the habits of carnivorous and other lower animals.’ The life history of the lion and the tiger, the elephant and the camel, the horse and the buffalo, to say nothing of other and smaller animals, furnishes us with much evidence in point. The anthropoids also, though not at all studied with reference to this theory, may afford a valuable quota of proof.
    With many animals hibernation, and with many others æstivation, occupies a considerable portion of their lives, the length and broken or unbroken character of the ‘sleeps’ or ‘rests’ depending to some extent upon climate, species, individuality. How far these ‘sleeps’ interfere with or improve the physical and mental faculties of such animals during their season of real activity is not altogether clear, but since hibernation and aestivation must at one time have been factors in the survival of the fittest, they cannot have worked entirely to the detriment of the creatures concerned, even in later days. And the same may be said of the ‘winter-sleep’ of the Russian peasants.
    The Child. — It is a fact of immemorial knowledge that the child at play, in some respects nearest the animal, in others the most typical representative of our human race, takes especial delight in continuing his activity to the uttermost extreme of exhaustion. This is true likewise of intellectual pleasures in that early age when the little child has not been subdued by the pedagogues; we see both in his first attempts to speak and to listen, and often in his imitation of his elders, the same genial exertion till weariness induces rest. Groos,[3] in his ‘Play of Man,’ discusses this feature of early childhood, pointing out, moreover, that, before the school places its ban upon the child, ‘his life, apart from feeding and sleeping, is spent almost wholly in play-activities.’ Play-time remains for years the absorbing, genial period of his existence. And in its acmes of intensity he exhausts himself corporeally and mentally. Some say it is ‘complete absorption into the genius of the present,’ others that it is ‘genial repetition of self,’ or ‘delighted remanipulation of the right combination happily stumbled upon.’ Whatever it may be, enough is revealed to make it certain that a sort of inspiration so works upon children as to make them tend to use their powers of mind and body intensely to the furthest possible limit, i.e., of course, when they are moved so to do, and not interfered with by things alien to their type and mode of action. There is undoubtedly monotony in the play-intensity of childhood, but the child has not the innumerable sources of variety appealed to by the adult genius whom he so often and so much resembles. The self-imitation of the child foreshadows a similar phenomenon, broader and deeper in the adult genius, which is higher and greater than all hetero-imitation of any sort whatsoever. All things considered, these phenomena of childhood suggest that the school is on the wrong track in seeking to force upon the young lesson-restraints of several hours duration (both morning and afternoon, nay, even at night sometimes), and placing the emphasis upon a high average in all things and at all times. Ought it not rather to utilize the brief periods of intense activity fathered by heredity, perhaps, and mothered by interest? Is more than an hour really necessary for the schoolman’s art to deal with the growing child? The shortening of the school-day, advocated now in divers parts of the pedagogical world, has not at all gone far enough, if it be true that a few minutes of the child at his best outweigh the mediocre rest of his hour, or even day. As the one brilliant figure or turn of speech in the arid desert of a set composition acquits the child and condemns the teacher, so the one bright answer or genial question, not the stupidity of the remainder of the lesson, should go upon record. How often the pupil is ‘stung by the splendor of a sudden thought,’ which the routine mind of the teacher fails utterly to appreciate, nay often deliberately excommunicates! The adult, as a rule, by reason of his own artificially produced ‘normality,’ neglects or represses those ‘genial moments’ of childhood, which are kith and kin with the ‘inspiration’ and ‘intoxication’ of those greatest of the race whom we recognize sooner or later as true geniuses. Another characteristic of childhood is the rapidity with which the change from play to rest, from brilliancy to apparent stupidity, from action to inaction bodily and mental can be made, and vice versa. This is particularly noticeable in American school-children, whose power of summoning up their reserve knowledge or strength (often with almost entire neglect of regular training) is remarkable. The records of the amateur dramatics, of the young people’s associations of all kinds, religious as well as secular, of sports and games (here the English boy and girl count too) even, amply demonstrate this. Time and again has the instructor, driven to despair by the neglect, inattention and apparent stupidity of those in his charge, been moved to admiration by their performances when the critical moment arrived. This power of childhood, too, has been largely overlooked, or unavailed of, unappealed to, in our schools, where the desire has always been to make sure of the accomplishment of the task set by actual demonstration of the pupil’s parts, rather than, by indirection, to make sure that the latent genius will, in the right setting, assert itself in a fashion unattainable by the mere artificialities of hetero-persuasion and compulsion. In this respect we have still much to learn from the philosophy of primitive peoples.
    Woman. — At first blush woman would seem to be an exception to the theory outlined in these pages. The popular saying has it ‘woman’s work is never done,’ and Professor O.T. Mason[4] has shown the immense amount of labor of all sorts, from the care of the tribal religion to the merest drudgery, that has been performed by her. Says Havelock Ellis:[5] “The tasks which demand a powerful development of muscle and bone, and the resulting capacity for intermittent spurts of energy, involving corresponding periods of rest, fall to the man; the care of the children and all the very various industries which radiate from the hearth, and which call for an expenditure of energy more continuous but at a lower tension, fall to the woman.” But he admits that ‘the exceptions are very numerous.’ And woman has been so long under an artificial régime inspired by man’s belief in her inferiority that many of the phenomena of work are with her no longer naïve, natural or strictly evolutional in character. The women of the Seris, e.g., possess a good deal of the marked characteristics of the men in respect to intense activity, continued rest and rapid transition from one state to the other, and the same thing may be said of other savage peoples as well. Something of this ability to change from the commonplace to the intense is seen in the quick perception and nimble action of woman’s thought to-day:[6] “Whenever a man and a woman are found under compromising circumstances it is nearly always the woman who with ready wit audaciously retrieves the situation. Every one is acquainted with instances from life or from history of women whose quick and cunning ruses have saved lover or husband or child.” The Breton fisherman confesses to a like quality in the other sex, when he replies to his questioner, ‘See my wife about it,’ and this is largely true of the lower and ignorant classes on the one hand, and of ‘society’ on the other, in most civilized communities. In this matter, as in many others, woman probably is leading the race. Traces of the night-inspiration, of the influence of the primitive fire-group, abound in woman. Indeed, it may be said (the life of southern Europe and of American society of to-day illustrates the point abundantly) that she is, in a sense, a ‘night-being,’ for the activity physical and mental of modern women (revealed, e.g., in the dance and the nocturnal intellectualities of society) in this direction is remarkable. Perhaps we may style a good deal of her ordinary day labor as ‘rest,’ or the commonplaces and banalities of her existence, her evening and night life being the true genius side of her activities. It is an interesting fact that in acting and dancing, two professions essentially of the night, woman shows marked genius, exceeding even that of man. Singing may belong here also, in part at least. Havelock Ellis[7] finds the organic basis of women’s success in acting in the fact that ‘in women mental processes are usually more rapid than in men; they have also an emotional explosiveness much more marked than men possess, and more easily within call.’ Again, ‘women are more susceptible than men to the immediate stimulus of admiration and applause supplied by contact with an audience.’ Legouvé said:[8] “It has been reserved to the female sex to produce the marvel which we admire to-day of a young girl reaching in a few months the heights of dramatic art which Talma, Lekain and Baron only attained to after long labor and in the maturity of their age.” In fiction women have also scored marked success, because, as Havelock Ellis remarks: “What it demands is a quick perception of human character and social life colored by a more or less intense emotional background.” These things our poets have sung to us time and again. Thus, when we consider women in the fields in which her highest genius asserts itself, we find that in general she conforms to the theory here advanced. Altogether the life of woman furnishes more evidence than one would be inclined at first to suspect, in support of the theory set forth in these pages. And were her individual emotional and intellectual life given more sway the evidence would probably be even greater, for, emotionally, she illustrates the theory in its most genial form, and her best-first efforts in many lines of thought and action indicate vast possibilities in the right direction.
    The Genius. — Of the activities of men of genius we know altogether too little. But, as Platzhoff[9] has recently observed, the present is an age of personality, and there exists an intense desire to see the individual in the creative process, to catch, if possible, the personality as it metamorphoses itself into, or ‘secretes,’ the invention, the poem, the novel, the picture, the great thing of whatever sort. It is an epoch of biographies and autobiographies, of interviews, confessions and recollections, of diaries, love-letters, descriptions of private life, etc. At the two extremes we have an eminent littérateur’s account of ‘How I wrote my greatest novel,’ and the Sunday newspaper’s illustrated article on ‘How Judge X. spends his vacation.’ Out of this immense, incongruous mass of facts and fancies, by patient selection, it is possible to obtain some data at least of the highest importance for our view of the activity of genius. Many of the definitions and characterizations of genius have dealt with its relation to work, — ‘genius is mainly an affair of energy,’ “genius is nothing but labor and diligence,’ ‘genius is only an infinite capacity for hard work,’ etc. But such characterizations of genius are born of the contemplation of the necessity under which, in our present forms of society, men of genius are compelled to work hard in order to live, and to work long in order to achieve fame. The capacity of genius for persistent, intense hard work, if it really exists, is only a temporary necessity, a transient expedient, not a permanent phenomenon of human evolution. True genius seems rather to accomplish its work by brief periods of intense activity than by unceasing labor and untiring diligence, by the raptus, not by the ordo or the ratio. And, apart from the necessities of the ill-regulated social system of to-day, the genius, like the child, is marked by an extreme capacity for almost ‘lightning change’ from productivity to infertility, from wisdom and wit to ignorance and stupidity, from activity of the intensest sort to equally noteworthy inertness. And therein he really recapitulates the race to which he belongs, for, shorn of certain excrescences acquired in the making, he is the normal man, not the abnormal, as so many critics of genius ancient and modem, will have it. Lombroso[10] has a brief section on the stupidity of men of genius, the noddings of the Homers of all ages, and his school has made much of such things. But, far from proving the abnormality of genius, they are one of the proofs of its general sanity and inherent humanness. The common man does not focus upon himself the glare of investigation or his ‘peculiarities’ would stand forth in their kinship with those of the genius who is the cynosure of all. Genius, by virtue of its humanity, has a right to be stupid here and there. Talent, which is so largely artificial, abhors stupidity, as nature is said to abhor a vacuum, or the Devil to hate holy water, but genius proves its naturalness by its occasional stupidity. The keenest eye has its blind-spot, the most highly evolved brain its non-responsive cells. Says Lombroso:[11] “When the moment of inspiration is over, the man of genius becomes an ordinary man, if he does not descend lower; in the same way, personal inequalities, or, according to modern terminology, double, or even contrary, personality, is one of the characters of genius. Our greatest poets, Isaac Disraeli remarked (in Curiosities of Literature), Shakespeare and Dryden, are those who have produced the worst lines. It was said of Tintoretto that sometimes he surpassed Tintoretto, and sometimes was inferior to Caracci.”
    The Criminal. — Says Havelock Ellis:[12] ‘While he is essentially lazy … the criminal is capable of moments of violent activity.’ The vacuous lives of criminals, with whom inertia is practically normal and continuous for long periods, have their brief epoch of excitement, explosion, diversion, uproar, intoxication, exhilaration and ‘breaking out.’ Indulgence in alcohol, gambling, sexual orgies, spasmodic and emotional manifestations of personality, and the like, are the sharp peaks that rise, few in number so often, from long low stretches of commonplace inertia and quiescence, or from the imprisonment that seems the normal condition of so many of them. The monotonous lapse of prison life is dotted with those outbreaks to which the German criminologists and psychiatrists have given the name of ‘Zuchthausknall.’ The French thief, in his jargon, calls himself ‘pègre,’ or ‘idler,’ and a pickpocket said to Lombroso, “You see in these ‘moments of inspiration’ we cannot restrain ourselves; we have to steal.” In the execution of many of those acts denominated crimes the offender exhibits the phenomenon of a brief period of violent activity, extreme impulsivity, great emotionality, remarkable cunning, wide-awake personality, preceded and followed by longer (often very long) periods of inertness, quiescence, impassivity, obtuseness, subdued individuality.
    The Savage. — That the savage hates work has been a favorite theory with travelers and philosophers, and the etymologists, by pointing out the real significance of flie terms for ‘work,’ which in so many languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, etc.) are synonymous with pain and suffering, have corroborated such a view. Indeed, in English one word is still applicable to the ‘labor’ of women in child-birth, of the peasant in the field and of the man of science in his laboratory or in his study. According to Ferrero,[13] the habit of work is one of the great acquisitions of civilized man, who has left his opinion of its disagreeableness, not merely in words by which it is named, but also in myths and legends scattered all over the globe, in which the necessity to labor is represented (as in some of the Eden stories) as a result of the sinfulness of the fathers of the race. Vierkandt,[14] in his recent study of savagery and civilization, synthetizes these two stages of human progress as ‘play’ and ‘organization’ respectively. Professor Karl Bücher,[15] of Leipzig, who devotes one section of a very interesting and suggestive book to the ‘work methods of primitive peoples,’ reviews briefly the ‘horror laboris’ theory, pointing out that the latest and most trustworthy studies of savage and barbarous peoples indicate, beyond a doubt, that a very large amount of work is performed by them, though the impulses leading up to it are not the same as those which influence the work of cultured races, the technical aids are very imperfect, the work processes complicated, and a tendency to artistic elaboration and adornment is marked among the uncivilized peoples. With Ferrero, Bücher holds that the horror laboris could hardly have originated from bodily fatigue, since many of the phenomena of activity among primitive peoples, notably some of their dances, continue until utter weariness and exhaustion end them. According to Bucher,[16] it is aversion to effort of the mind and will, not repugnance to bodily exertion and fatigue, that causes the savage to dislike work. His dislike is of psychic origin, and in such performances as the dance, which are carried on to the point of exhaustion and fatigue he finds ‘an easy means of discharging, without destroying the condition of mental inertia so characteristic of him, the accumulation of nerve-force in his intellectual organs.’ That this theory can be carried too far and that the dance and cognate activities are not the only ones which the savage is capable of carrying on in genius-fashion is evident from the researches of Boas and other competent and thoroughgoing students of primitive man. The most suggestive of all recent writings on this head is Dr. W.J. McGee’s[17] account of the Seri Indians of Tiburon Island and the adjacent Sonoran coast of the Gulf of California. These Indians are not merely ‘one of the most strongly marked and distinctive of aboriginal tribes’ but ‘must be assigned to the initial place in the scale of development represented by the American aborigines, and hence to the lowest recognized phase of savagery.’ In Dr. McGee’s detailed description of this remarkable tribe of savages, the following passage is significant:

    “So the observer of the Seri is impressed by the intensity of functioning along lines defined by their characteristic traits, and equally by the capriciousness of the functioning and the remarkably wide range between activity and inactivity which render them aggregations of extremes, — the Seri are at once the swiftest and the laziest, the strongest and the most inert, the most warlike and the most docile of tribesmen; and their transitions from role to rSle are singularly capricious and sudden. At the same time the observer is impressed by the relatively long intervals between the periods of activity; true, the intense activity may cover hours, as in the chase of a deer, or days, as in a distant predatory raid, or perhaps even weeks, when the tribe is on the warpath; yet all the known facts indicate that far the greater portion of the time of warriors, women, and children is spent in idle lounging about rancherias and camps, in lolling and slumbering in the sun by day and in huddling under the scanty shelter of jacales or shrubbery by night, — i.e., when their activity is measured by hours, their intervals of repose must be measured by days.”[18]

    This is an entirely different view from that which travelers of a day have expressed concerning savage and barbarous man, and statements such as those of Eengger about the pathological slowness and stupidity of the Guarani, as Hirn[19] terms it, must be read in a new light. And perhaps we may say the same thing about Sproat’s[20] characterization of the Indians of Vancouver Island, which has been cited with approval by Spencer. Many travelers and investigators have seen the savage during the period of laziness and stupidity only and have ascribed to him these qualities alone. But while the Seri Indians are so well developed somatically, are runners in a land of running peoples (their very name signifies ‘spry’), are expert paddlers in very stormy waters, excellent hunters and warriors of high prestige, in fact possess a physical strength-reserve which makes them masters of their habitat, ‘they have been no less notorious among the Caucasian settlers of two generations for unparalleled laziness, for a lethargic sloth beyond that of sluggish ox or somnolent swine, which was an irritating marvel to the patient padres of the eighteenth century, and is to-day a by-word in the even-tempered land of Mañana.’ Moreover this inactivity is so complete that ‘the sinewy hands and muscular jaws are noticeably inert during the intervals between intense functionings, are practically free from the spontaneous or nervous movements of habitually busy persons, and contribute by their immobility to the air of indolence or languor which so impressed padres and rancheros.’ Just as complete is the transition from the manifestations of race-hatred culminating on the war-path to ‘the abject docility of the Seri when at peace and in camp.’ Altogether the Seris offer a brilliant example of intuitive relying upon reserve strength to the disregarding of the mechanical and artificial devices known to civilization, which so often make the individual absolutely dependent upon them and not upon himself, causing many a dire calamity in times of real storm and stress. The rapidity of the transition from extreme inertness to extreme activity is also emphasized by Dr. McGee. It therefore seems that the long periods of inactivity do not appreciably injure either the brief periods of activity or inhibit the swift passage from one to the other so characteristic of these savages. According to Dr. McGee the Seri have acquired a ‘race-sense’ in these matters, that never fails them.
    Generalizations are always hazardous, but we can hardly doubt that the Seris as described by Dr. McGee more fairly typify the savage and primitive man than do certain other tribes glimpsed at by incompetent or casual observers.
    The Race. — That the races of man, and perhaps all mankind considered as a whole, have their alternations of activity and inactivity is very probable. Particularly is this true when we consider some special quality, which may be said to correspond to genius in the individual. There are ‘lean’ and ‘fat’ years of racial genius. Havelock Ellis, in his careful study of ‘British Genius,’[21] notes as one of the two most important factors, ‘a spontaneous rhythmical rise and fall in the production of genius’; this is indicated in the distribution of men of genius by centuries and half-centuries, etc. The so-called ‘ages’ of English history — Elizabethan, Victorian — the Augustan period in Rome, the era of Pericles in Greece, and their innumerable counterparts in the annals of other lands afford proof of the rhythmic movement of racial genius at its best in comparatively brief intervals, while the ‘dark ages’ of much longer duration are represented in many other parts of the world than in Europe. The renaissances and revolutions of various sorts, the outbursts of political energy, invention, maritime discovery, literature, dramatic art, etc., represented in Athens by the period 530-430 B.C, in England by 1550-1650 A.D., and in America by 1783-1814, are well worth studying from this point of view. For Europe the brief period 1550-1700 is particularly glorious, since during it there came into the world Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Bacon and Lope da Vega, while during the period 1620-1640 were bom Dryden, Locke, Moliere, Eacine and Spinoza. Italian art, Semitic religion, Greek philosophy, Hindu metaphysics and Chinese rationalism are not without a like periodicity. Throughout European history especially there can be traced waves of activity and inactivity traversing every avenue of human thought and expression. For the race, as well as for the individual, the ‘magnum opus’ is performed in the ‘minimum tempus’ — a year is often more than a century.
    We have now considered in the life of the animal, the child, the woman, the genius, the criminal, the savage, the race, the theory that brief periods of work at the highest possible tension alternating with longer periods of rest or changed activity represent the best working conditions and have found not a little evidence to support it in every quarter. The experience of other than mere professional athletes, the methods of animal trainers, the results of half-time schools, the progressive reduction of the hours of labor for working-men and shop-employees will furnish many more data of the same kind. It has been argued that two hours physical labor per diem would suffice, were the product economically distributed, to keep the whole world well supplied, so great has been the advance in labor-saving machinery, methods of transportation, etc. Is it altogether unreasonable to suppose that two hours intellectual work, under right conditions and with economic distribution of the product, would suffice to keep the whole world supplied here also? Two hours of every one’s best would be something worth achieving, physically and intellectually. An end something like this is the ideal to which things are bound to tend. Some poet of the future may be able to sing: ‘Better the New World hour than the long European day.’ The racial nervousness of the American people, non-pathological in reality, is perhaps the groundwork for this achievement. Footnotes:

anthropology explains the zhus


Min Zhu before his fall from grace

Certain high Azande nobles, are permitted to wed their own daughters, and brother-sister marriages were preferred in the old Hawaiian aristocracy and in the Inca royal family. In none of these instances, however, could the general population contract incestuous unions, for these were a symbol and prerogative of exalted status. Among the Dobuans, intercourse with the mother is not seriously regarded if the father is dead; it is considered a private sin rather than a public offense. The Balinese of Indonesia permit twin brothers and sisters to marry on the ground that they have already been unduly intimate in their mother’s womb. Among the Thonga of Africa an important hunter, preparatory to a great hunt, may have sex relations with his daughter—a heinous act under other circumstances. By their special circumstances or exceptional character these cases serve rather to emphasize than to disprove the universality of intra-family incest taboos.

George Peter Murdock, Social Structure, Macmillan, 1949, pp. 12-13

honor and dignity in the american soul

In his account of “the stark, enduring figure” of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer in his 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence observes:

He is neither spiritual nor sensual. He is a moralizer, but he always tries to moralize from actual experience, not from theory. He says: ‘Hurt nothing unless you’re forced to.’ Yet he gets his deepest thrill of gratification, perhaps, when he puts a bullet through the heart of a beautiful buck, as it stoops to drink at the lake. Or when he brings the invisible bird fluttering down in death, out of the high blue. ‘Hurt nothing unless you’re forced to.’ And yet he lives by death, by killing the wild things of the air and earth.
    It’s not good enough.
    But you have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.

A recent treatment of the essential American soul in an article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker discusses murder in America within the conceptual framework of honor and dignity, in reference to work by the late Eric Monkkonen and the ongoing Pieter Spierenburg. Continue reading honor and dignity in the american soul

shame and guilt

     Otto: You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant, twerp, scumbag, fuck-face, dickhead, asshole!
Archie: How very interesting. You’re a true vulgarian, aren’t you?
Otto: You are the vulgarian, you fuck! Now apologize!



As a repressed barrister henpecked by his haughty spouse, Archie Leach is an unlikely candidate for Aristotelian magnanimity. But in his residua of upper class English twittery, he is more than capable of mimicking self-depreciacion inspired, and condescension justified, by true magnanimity. And in the great cause of his love for Otto’s girlfriend and partner in crime Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), he rises to the occasion, eventually facing, and prevailing over, mortal danger at Otto’s gunpoint with great aplomb. But in his moments as a parrhesiast, Archie’s quandary comes at odds with greatness of soul. He flouts social convention by volunteering a true opinion of Otto’s qualities. Archie’s opinion is guaranteed to be found not only unwelcome by its recipient, but also unhelpful to their interaction. As it happens, Otto is not only equally willing to do away with convention in his response, but eager to transgress the laws mandating proportionality of his response to Archie’s insult. On several occasions, he initiates or escalates violence without further ado. When Archie opines, Otto attacks.
    The disparity of human power cannot stand in the long run. In the long run, Otto’s belligerence becomes ineffectual. A momentary advantage over his superior fighting skill and guile enables Archie to prevail, and compels Otto to find his level. The fact that the film audience justly regards this outcome as just, implies that it would be impossible for Archie to make an effective apology to Otto in the normal course of events. To the extent that he retracts his imputation of Otto’s stupidity spontaneously, he cannot do so sincerely. A sincere retraction of calling a spade a spade is possible only through painstaking realignment of thought, to the extent of regarding it as something it is not.

    It is clearly possible for Archie to save the appearances for everyone involved by feigning a change of mind. The reason that enables this possibility is his moral governance by the conflicting notions of shame and guilt. This predicament was first analyzed by Ruth Benedict in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946). Benedict’s book originated part of a study of Japanese culture undertaken for the U.S. government in preparing for post-war dealings with the Japanese. It attempted to explain how Japanese thinking differed from American thinking. In Chapter 10, The Dilemma of Virtue, pp. 195-227, Benedict introduced the distinction between a shame culture based on value systems that focus on honor and shame, and a guilt culture based on value systems that focus on virtue and sin. Shame cultures flourished in feudal societies, as practiced by the aristocrats in their relations to their peers and their goals. But feudal societies also incorporated the standards of guilt cultures in their submission to the religious ideals. Man’s behavior in a guilt culture is conditioned and judged by how he would feel about himself under perfect moral insight, rather than by how others would feel about him under actual conditions of witnessing. This distinction has become a commonplace of social studies.
    E.R. Dodds applied Benedict’s distinction to the history of Classical Greek literature in The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1951). In Chapter 2, From Shame-Culture to Guilt-Culture, pp. 28-63, Dodds contrasted the shame culture exemplified in the world of the Iliad, with a guilt culture that emerged in later Greek civilization. Jews, Christians, and Moslems, as adherents of monotheistic traditions, create their guilt cultures thereby, in virtue of evaluating their actions from their impact on the soul. The same is true of godless practices of Buddhism and Platonism. The ensuing value system organizes itself around the idea of individual conscience, a faculty that countermands even undetected and undetectable wrongdoing, even when it would be socially advantageous to the wrongdoer.
    Allegiance to a guilt culture plays out as an initial disadvantage in opposing an acolyte of a shame culture committed to getting away unnoticed with whatever he can. The man ruled by honor and shame will not see the point in apologizing for sins committed in private, any more than he would take satisfaction in virtues invisible to his peers. By contrast, the man who measures his merit on the religious scales of virtue and sin defines the starting point of apology as contrition, a sorrow of soul caused by a motive of filial fear or the pure love of God, and a hatred of committed sin because of its consequential privation of God from the soul, with a firm resolve of not sinning in the future. By contrast, attrition, or imperfect contrition, is a sorrow caused by a motive of servile fear, causing the sinner to detest sin only because of his fear of punishment. According to the XIIIth century theologians, attrition, albeit of itself too imperfect to win the pardon of God, could become perfected through confession and absolution. The weaker the form of sorrow, the greater the sins confessed and absolved, the heavier are the temporal penalties demanded by the righteousness of God. Though these definitions are familiar from two millennia of Christian theology, their substance does not depend on religious faith. The corrosive effect of wrongdoing on the soul is recognized by Plato and the Buddha, without any reference to deterrence by divine punishment.
    For Marcel Mauss, the social bond that maintains the “face” is a prestation, a mutual obligation without which the individual disappears. For the denizen of a shame culture, the loss of his face entails losing his place in the intelligible world. A tacit, pragmatic rule of his society may tolerate indecent behavior, as long as it does not embarrass anyone. Thus traditional Chinese culture ignores a wide variety of sexual transgressions, from extramarital sex to incest, provided that they remain discreet. Classic Chinese erotic novels and art, utterly unrestrained in their portrayal of sexuality, are publicly accessible, despite the Party censorship. Their archaic nature renders them safe for public consumption. By contrast, personal exhibition of sexuality in Internet publications, defined as “new human writing”, retains its power to shock and embarrass its readers. Chinese culture is a shame culture. Chinese morality depends on shame. Nothing feels worse to a Chinese subject than being ashamed. Nothing liberates him more than indifference. Having lost his face, he judges that there is nothing more for him to lose.
    Residual effects of shame cultures persist within societies governed by the standards of guilt. They manifest themselves above all in pursuits that depend on appearances. Master of anonymous disparagement and vituperation, Junius summed it up best: “Private credit is wealth; public honor is security; the feather that adorns the royal bird supports its flight; strip him of his plumage, and you fix him to the earth.” Absent a sincere apology, the great-souled man beset by his inferiors, guided by virtue that is incomprehensible to them, has only one recourse. He knows that they would never admit having wronged him willingly. No matter. He speaks with Achilles: “Not if his gifts outnumbered the sea sands or all the dust grains in the world could Agamemnon ever appease me ― not till he pays me back full measure, pain (θυμαλγής) for pain, dishonor (λώβη) for dishonor.” (Homer, Iliad IX.383-386.) The man intent on regaining some measure of dignity degraded through despicable dealings with could do no better than visit reciprocal degradation upon his enemies. Trial by media works in his favor because the public applies different standards of proof to crimes by public personae, from those it maintains for private nobodies. The shameless are poised to reap its rewards in full.