James Branch Cabell

But it is not merely that our private lives are given over to mental anarchy. . . . We live under a government which purports to be based, actually, on the assumption that one man is as good as another. No human being believes this assumption to be true, of course, nor could any form of polity that took it seriously survive a week: but the imposing statement serves well enough as the ostensible cornerstone of democracy. And we must all regard the laws of this government, since to one or another of these laws must be amenable every action of our lives. Thus you may well spare time to visit a legislative body in session, and to listen to the debates, and to conjecture whether each participant is really an imbecile or for ulterior ends is consciously making a spectacle of himself. However, it may be an excess of modesty which induces the self-evident belief of every public speaker that the persons who have assembled to hear him cannot possibly be intelligent. And if you will attend a State Legislature, in particular, and look about you, and listen for a while, and reflect that those preposterous people are actually, making and unmaking laws by which your physical life is ordered, you will get food for wonder and some perturbation. But of course, poor creatures, they too are trying to do what seems expected of them, very much as Sheridan attacked Warren Hastings: and many of the most applauded public speakers conserve an appreciable degree of intelligence for private life.

When you consider that presidents and chief-justices and archbishops and kings and statesmen are human beings like you and me and the state legislators and the laundryman, the thought becomes too horrible for humanity to face. So, here too, romance intervenes promptly, to build up a mythos about each of our prominent men, — about his wisdom and subtlety and bravery and eloquence, and including usually his Gargantuan exploits in lechery and drunkenness, — so as to save us from the driveling terror that would spring from conceding our destinies in any way to depend on other beings quite as mediocre and incompetent as ourselves. . . .


Yet perfection graces few human subterfuges. Thus very often does the need arise for romance to preserve us yet further, from discovering that this protective talk of “statesmanship” and “policies” is nonsense clamorously exploded. For sometimes nations come to fisticuffs, just as inconsequently as the plumber and the baker might do, and the neighbors take part, very much as a street-row intensifies, until a considerable section of the world is devastated. Then romance prompts us, in self-protection, to moralize of one or the other side’s “aims” and “plottings” and “schemes,” and so on, as the provokers of all this ruin, rather than acknowledge the causes to lie disconcertingly deeper, and to be rooted in our general human incompetence, and in our lack of any especial designs whatever. . . . Never at any time is man in direr need of disregarding men as they are, than under the disastrous illumination of war: for then actually to face the truth would forthwith drive anyone of us insane. We are then all shuddering through a disrupted Vanity Fair of mountebanks who have come to open and ignominious failure: and our sole hope of salvation lies in pretending not to notice. For it sometimes happens that among these so cruelly exposed mountebanks are our own chosen overlords, chosen as such, for the most part, on account of their real superiority to the run of men: and when this happens, the more perspicacious among us prefer not to recognize our overlords’ incompetence, because we know that these pathetic muddlers and blusterers represent, upon the whole, the best our race is yet able to produce. . . .

So it is rather sad when war breaks out, and honored subterfuges unaccountably collapse. Everyone was letter-perfect in what seemed expected of him under the old order: but when that is upset overnight, and there are no standards to conform to, nobody anywhere has any notion what to do. It breeds a seizure of dumb panic which is unbearable. So — kings and cabinets and generalissimos being at a nonplus, and even presidents (in Mexico and other Southern republics) falling a shade short of omniscience, — the nations flounder, and gabble catchwords, and drift, and strike out blindly, and tergiversate, and jostle one another, and tell frantic falsehoods, and hit back, like fretful children; and finally one by one fling aside the last trammeling vestige of reason and self-control, and go screaming mad (with a decided sense of relief) in order to get rid of the strain. And so spreads steadily the holocaust. . . .

Yes, it is rather sad, because you cannot but suspect that whatever befalls a race of such attested incompetence cannot very greatly matter if the universe be conducted on any serious basis. Yet even in war-time men worry along somehow, desperately endeavoring still to live up to notions derived from romantic fiction, such as is provided by public speakers and newspaper editorials and the censored war-news, — and liberally ascribing “plans” and “policies” to every accident of the carnage, and revising these explanations as often as seems expedient. We play, in fine, that human intelligence somewhere either has the situation in hand or at least foresees a plausible way out of it. We are thus never actually reduced to facing the truth: for however near we may blunder to the verge of such disaster, the demiurge protects us by means of that high anaesthesia which we term “patriotism.”


Now patriotism is, of course, something more than a parade of prejudice, so flimsy that even at the height of its vogue, in war-time, anyone of us can see the folly, and indeed the wickedness, of such patriotism as is manifested by the other side. For with our own country’s entry into war, it is generally conceded that, whether for right or wrong and in default of any coherent explanation by our overlords as to what we are doing in that fighting galley, we can all agree to stand together in defence of our national honor. In large part, this is another case of doing what seems to be expected: and the vast majority of us begin by being patriotically bellicose in speech out of respect to our neighbor’s presumed opinion, while he returns the courtesy. So we both come at last unfeignedly to believe what we are saying, just as men always find conviction in repetition: and a benevolent wave of irrationality sweeps over towns and cross-roads, with the most staid of us upon its crest excitedly throwing tea into Boston Harbor, or burning effigies of Lincoln and Davis (severally, as taste directs), or trampling upon Spanish flags, and organizing parades and passing resolutions, and even attempting to memorize our national air. . . . Doubtless, all this is grotesque, upon the surface, and is of no especial use in settling the war: but it prevents us from thinking too constantly of the fact that we are sending our boys to death. . . . The demiurge, in fine, to soothe bewilderment and panic administers patriotism as an anaesthetic. And as has been pointed out, elsewhere, we find that ardent patriotism can even be made to serve as an exhilarating substitute for lukewarm religion whenever the two happen to be irreconcilable. . . . Each war, in short, with its attendant outlets for new energies, arouses a fine if not quite explicable general sense of doing something of real importance, in all save the emotionally abstemious, to whom any war must perforce appear in its inception a gloomy error, and in its manifestations a nuisance.

And probably these thin-blooded people are wrong. Aesthetically, at any rate, there is a deal to be said in favor of patriotism, and of this quaint-seeming faith in the especial merits of one’s own country and in all the curious customs of one’s country, however inexplicable, even though this faith occasionally convert Earth into a revolving shambles. For patriotism is, of course, not merely an anaesthetic: to the contrary, it is, like all the other magnanimous factors in human life, a dynamic product of the demiurge. Thus patriotism (as Paul Vanderhoffen has put it) can ascend to lofty heights without depending upon logic to give it a leg up. To prefer your country’s welfare to your own is rational enough, since it is but to assume that the whole is greater than the part: but when we proceed to prefer our country’s welfare to that of any and all other countries in the world, — as we unanimously do, with tho glowing approval of conscience, — we must progress by high-mindedly reversing the original assumption. So that patriotism is undefiled by any smirch of “realism” or of that which is merely “logical,” — and must always be kept thus in order to stay vigorous, since patriotism is a product, and one of the most generally commended products, of the demiurge.

And I, for one, find nothing unreasonable in the irrationality of patriotism. . . . The other animals munch grass and paw at unconsidered dirt, where man not all unconsciously gets nourishment from his mother’s bosom. For we know ourselves to be born of that coign of Earth we cherish with no inexplicable affection. Not only in spirit does our habitat conform us, since the land we love, that soil whereon our cattle graze, goes steadily to the making of plants, and thence becomes incarnate in our bodies: until we ourselves seem but a many agglutinate and animated particles of that land we love, with such partiality as we may not rouse toward those cool abstractions, equity and logic, but reserve for our corporal kin. Thus patriots may rationally justify the direst transports of their actions, if not the wisdom of their public utterances. For in battling for the honor of one’s birthplace each hand is lifted in defence, not merely of opinions, but of the very field in which it once was dust: and he that is slain does but repay through burial a loan from his mother. So it is with actual and very profound reason, that we are not reasonable about the display of our patriotism: for no man, of whatever nationality, is called on to be reasonable where his mother’s welfare appears concerned or, to however small degree, her honor seems impugned. In such a quandary he strikes. The merits of his cause he will defer for later consideration. And meanwhile wisdom and philosophy may speak with the tongue of angels, and be handed to them: for the noble madness of patriotism pleads at quite another tribunal, and addresses the human heart, whereover neither ear nor brain has jurisdiction. Our mother seems to be molested; and we strike to requite all those who trouble her, no matter what be their excuse. That only is the immediate essential: long afterward, when there is nothing better to do, we may snare time to reason. Meanwhile we know that, here also, the romance is of more instant worth than the mere fact.

James Branch Cabell

Beyond Life (1919), “The Mountebank” (VII, last three sections)

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