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Debasing the Moral Currency

"Il ne faut pas mettre un ridicule ou il n'y en a point: c'est se gater
le gout, c'est corrompre son jugement et celui des autres. Mais le
ridicule qui est quelque part, il faut l'y voir, l'en tirer avec grace
et d'une maniere qui plaise et qui instruise."

I am fond of quoting this passage from La Bruyere, because the subject
is one where I like to show a Frenchman on my side, to save my
sentiments from being set down to my peculiar dulness and deficient
sense of the ludicrous, and also that they may profit by that
enhancement of ideas when presented in a foreign tongue, that glamour of
unfamiliarity conferring a dignity on the foreign names of very common
things, of which even a philosopher like Dugald Stewart confesses the
influence. I remember hearing a fervid woman attempt to recite in
English the narrative of a begging Frenchman who described the violent
death of his father in the July days. The narrative had impressed her,
through the mists of her flushed anxiety to understand it, as something
quite grandly pathetic; but finding the facts turn out meagre, and her
audience cold, she broke off, saying, "It sounded so much finer in
French--_j'ai vu le sang de mon pere_, and so on--I wish I could repeat
it in French." This was a pardonable illusion in an old-fashioned lady
who had not received the polyglot education of the present day; but I
observe that even now much nonsense and bad taste win admiring
acceptance solely by virtue of the French language, and one may fairly
desire that what seems a just discrimination should profit by the
fashionable prejudice in favour of La Bruyere's idiom. But I wish he had
added that the habit of dragging the ludicrous into topics where the
chief interest is of a different or even opposite kind is a sign not of
endowment, but of deficiency. The art of spoiling is within reach of the
dullest faculty: the coarsest clown with a hammer in his hand might
chip the nose off every statue and bust in the Vatican, and stand
grinning at the effect of his work. Because wit is an exquisite product
of high powers, we are not therefore forced to admit the sadly confused
inference of the monotonous jester that he is establishing his
superiority over every less facetious person, and over every topic on
which he is ignorant or insensible, by being uneasy until he has
distorted it in the small cracked mirror which he carries about with him
as a joking apparatus. Some high authority is needed to give many worthy
and timid persons the freedom of muscular repose under the growing
demand on them to laugh when they have no other reason than the peril of
being taken for dullards; still more to inspire them with the courage to
say that they object to the theatrical spoiling for themselves and their
children of all affecting themes, all the grander deeds and aims of men,
by burlesque associations adapted to the taste of rich fishmongers in
the stalls and their assistants in the gallery. The English people in
the present generation are falsely reputed to know Shakspere (as, by
some innocent persons, the Florentine mule-drivers are believed to have
known the _Divina Commedia_, not, perhaps, excluding all the subtle
discourses in the _Purgatorio_ and _Paradiso_); but there seems a clear
prospect that in the coming generation he will be known to them through
burlesques, and that his plays will find a new life as pantomimes. A
bottle-nosed Lear will come on with a monstrous corpulence from which he
will frantically dance himself free during the midnight storm; Rosalind
and Celia will join in a grotesque ballet with shepherds and
shepherdesses; Ophelia in fleshings and a voluminous brevity of
grenadine will dance through the mad scene, finishing with the famous
"attitude of the scissors" in the arms of Laertes; and all the speeches
in "Hamlet" will be so ingeniously parodied that the originals will be
reduced to a mere _memoria technica_ of the improver's puns--premonitory
signs of a hideous millennium, in which the lion will have to lie down
with the lascivious monkeys whom (if we may trust Pliny) his soul
naturally abhors.

I have been amazed to find that some artists whose own works have the
ideal stamp, are quite insensible to the damaging tendency of the
burlesquing spirit which ranges to and fro and up and down on the earth,
seeing no reason (except a precarious censorship) why it should not
appropriate every sacred, heroic, and pathetic theme which serves to
make up the treasure of human admiration, hope, and love. One would have
thought that their own half-despairing efforts to invest in worthy
outward shape the vague inward impressions of sublimity, and the
consciousness of an implicit ideal in the commonest scenes, might have
made them susceptible of some disgust or alarm at a species of burlesque
which is likely to render their compositions no better than a dissolving
view, where every noble form is seen melting into its preposterous
caricature. It used to be imagined of the unhappy medieval Jews that
they parodied Calvary by crucifying dogs; if they had been guilty they
would at least have had the excuse of the hatred and rage begotten by
persecution. Are we on the way to a parody which shall have no other
excuse than the reckless search after fodder for degraded
appetites--after the pay to be earned by pasturing Circe's herd where
they may defile every monument of that growing life which should have
kept them human?

The world seems to me well supplied with what is genuinely ridiculous:
wit and humour may play as harmlessly or beneficently round the changing
facets of egoism, absurdity, and vice, as the sunshine over the rippling
sea or the dewy meadows. Why should we make our delicious sense of the
ludicrous, with its invigorating shocks of laughter and its
irrepressible smiles which are the outglow of an inward radiation as
gentle and cheering as the warmth of morning, flourish like a brigand on
the robbery of our mental wealth?--or let it take its exercise as a
madman might, if allowed a free nightly promenade, by drawing the
populace with bonfires which leave some venerable structure a blackened
ruin or send a scorching smoke across the portraits of the past, at
which we once looked with a loving recognition of fellowship, and
disfigure them into butts of mockery?--nay, worse--use it to degrade the
healthy appetites and affections of our nature as they are seen to be
degraded in insane patients whose system, all out of joint, finds
matter for screaming laughter in mere topsy-turvy, makes every passion
preposterous or obscene, and turns the hard-won order of life into a
second chaos hideous enough to make one wail that the first was ever
thrilled with light?

This is what I call debasing the moral currency: lowering the value of
every inspiring fact and tradition so that it will command less and less
of the spiritual products, the generous motives which sustain the charm
and elevation of our social existence--the something besides bread by
which man saves his soul alive. The bread-winner of the family may
demand more and more coppery shillings, or assignats, or greenbacks for
his day's work, and so get the needful quantum of food; but let that
moral currency be emptied of its value--let a greedy buffoonery debase
all historic beauty, majesty, and pathos, and the more you heap up the
desecrated symbols the greater will be the lack of the ennobling
emotions which subdue the tyranny of suffering, and make ambition one
with social virtue.

And yet, it seems, parents will put into the hands of their children
ridiculous parodies (perhaps with more ridiculous "illustrations") of
the poems which stirred their own tenderness or filial piety, and carry
them to make their first acquaintance with great men, great works, or
solemn crises through the medium of some miscellaneous burlesque which,
with its idiotic puns and farcical attitudes, will remain among their
primary associations, and reduce them throughout their time of studious
preparation for life to the moral imbecility of an inward giggle at what
might have stimulated their high emulation or fed the fountains of
compassion, trust, and constancy. One wonders where these parents have
deposited that stock of morally educating stimuli which is to be
independent of poetic tradition, and to subsist in spite of the finest
images being degraded and the finest words of genius being poisoned as
with some befooling drug.

Will fine wit, will exquisite humour prosper the more through this
turning of all things indiscriminately into food for a gluttonous
laughter, an idle craving without sense of flavours? On the contrary.
That delightful power which La Bruyère points to--"le ridicule qui est
quelque part, il faut l'y voir, l'en tirer avec grâce et d'une manière
qui plaise et qui instruise"--depends on a discrimination only
compatible with the varied sensibilities which give sympathetic insight,
and with the justice of perception which is another name for grave
knowledge. Such a result is no more to be expected from faculties on the
strain to find some small hook by which they may attach the lowest
incongruity to the most momentous subject, than it is to be expected of
a sharper, watching for gulls in a great political assemblage, that he
will notice the blundering logic of partisan speakers, or season his
observation with the salt of historical parallels. But after all our
psychological teaching, and in the midst of our zeal for education, we
are still, most of us, at the stage of believing that mental powers and
habits have somehow, not perhaps in the general statement, but in any
particular case, a kind of spiritual glaze against conditions which we
are continually applying to them. We soak our children in habits of
contempt and exultant gibing, and yet are confident that--as Clarissa
one day said to me--"We can always teach them to be reverent in the
right place, you know." And doubtless if she were to take her boys to
see a burlesque Socrates, with swollen legs, dying in the utterance of
cockney puns, and were to hang up a sketch of this comic scene among
their bedroom prints, she would think this preparation not at all to the
prejudice of their emotions on hearing their tutor read that narrative
of the _Apology_ which has been consecrated by the reverent gratitude of
ages. This is the impoverishment that threatens our posterity:--a new
Famine, a meagre fiend with lewd grin and clumsy hoof, is breathing a
moral mildew over the harvest of our human sentiments. These are the
most delicate elements of our too easily perishable civilisation. And
here again I like to quote a French testimony. Sainte Beuve, referring
to a time of insurrectionary disturbance, says: "Rien de plus prompt à
baisser que la civilisation dans des crises comme celle-ci; on perd en
trois semaines le résultat de plusieurs siècles. La civilisation, la
_vie_ est une chose apprise et inventée, qu'on le sache bien: '_Inventas
aut qui vitam excoluere per artes_.' Les hommes après quelques années de
paix oublient trop cette verité: ils arrivent à croire que la _culture_
est chose innée, qu'elle est la même chose que la _nature_. La
sauvagerie est toujours là à deux pas, et, dès qu'on lâche pied, elle
recommence." We have been severely enough taught (if we were willing to
learn) that our civilisation, considered as a splendid material fabric,
is helplessly in peril without the spiritual police of sentiments or
ideal feelings. And it is this invisible police which we had need, as a
community, strive to maintain in efficient force. How if a dangerous
"Swing" were sometimes disguised in a versatile entertainer devoted to
the amusement of mixed audiences? And I confess that sometimes when I
see a certain style of young lady, who checks our tender admiration with
rouge and henna and all the blazonry of an extravagant expenditure, with
slang and bold _brusquerie_ intended to signify her emancipated view of
things, and with cynical mockery which she mistakes for penetration, I
am sorely tempted to hiss out "_Pétroleuse!_" It is a small matter to
have our palaces set aflame compared with the misery of having our sense
of a noble womanhood, which is the inspiration of a purifying shame, the
promise of life--penetrating affection, stained and blotted out by
images of repulsiveness. These things come--not of higher education,
but--of dull ignorance fostered into pertness by the greedy vulgarity
which reverses Peter's visionary lesson and learns to call all things
common and unclean. It comes of debasing the moral currency.

The Tirynthians, according to an ancient story reported by Athenaeus,
becoming conscious that their trick of laughter at everything and
nothing was making them unfit for the conduct of serious affairs,
appealed to the Delphic oracle for some means of cure. The god
prescribed a peculiar form of sacrifice, which would be effective if
they could carry it through without laughing. They did their best; but
the flimsy joke of a boy upset their unaccustomed gravity, and in this
way the oracle taught them that even the gods could not prescribe a
quick cure for a long vitiation, or give power and dignity to a people
who in a crisis of the public wellbeing were at the mercy of a poor
jest.


George Eliot