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THE phrase “petty artificialities," employed by one of the correspondents in the great Simple Life argument, has stuck in my mind, although I gave it a plain intimation that it was no longer wanted there. Perhaps it sheds more light than I had at first imagined on the mental state of the persons who use it when they wish to arraign the conditions of “modern life." A vituperative epithet is capable of making a big show. “Artificialities” is a sufficiently scornful word, but when you add “petty" you somehow give the quietus to the pretensions of modern life. Modern life had better hide its diminished head, after that.

Modern life is settled and done for -- in the opinion of those who have thrown the dart. Only it isn't done for, really, you know. “Petty," after all, means nothing in that connexion. Are there, then, artificialities which are not "petty," which are noble, large, and grand? “Petty" means merely that the users of the word are just a little cross and out of temper. What they think they object to is artificialities of any kind, and so to get rid of their spleen they refer to “petty" artificialities. The device is a common one, and as brilliant as it is futile. Rude adjectives are like blank cartridge. They impress a vain people, including the birds of the air, but they do no execution.

At the same time, let me admit that I deeply sympathize with the irritated users of the impolite phrase "petty artificialities." For it does at any rate show a "divine discontent"; it does prove a high dissatisfaction with conditions which at best are not the final expression of the eternal purpose. It does make for a sort of crude and churlish righteousness. I well know that feeling which induces one to spit out savagely the phrase "petty artificialities of modern life." One has it usually either on getting up or on going to bed. What a petty artificial business it is, getting up, even for a male! Shaving! Why shave? And then going to a drawer and choosing a necktie. Fancy an immortal soul, fancy a fragment of the eternal and indestructible energy, which exists from everlasting to everlasting, deliberately ex- pending its activity on the choice of a necktie! Why a necktie? Then one goes downstairs and exchanges banal phrases with other immortals. And one can't start breakfast immediately, because some sleepy mortal is late.

Why babble? Why wait? Why not say straight out: “Go to the deuce, all of you! Here it's nearly ten o'clock, and me anxious to begin living the higher life at once instead of fiddling around in petty artificialities. Shut up, every one of you. Give me my bacon instantly, and let me gobble it down quick and be off. I 'm sick of your ceremonies!" This would at any rate not be artificial. It would save time. And if a similar policy were strictly applied through the day, one could retire to a well-earned repose in the full assurance that the day had been simplified. The time for living the higher life, the time for pushing forward those vast schemes of self-improvement which we all cherish, would decidedly have been increased. One would not have that maddening feeling, which one so frequently does have when the shades of night are falling fast, that the day had been "frittered away." And yet -- and yet -- I gravely doubt whether this wholesale massacre of those poor petty artificialities would bring us appreciably nearer the millennium.

For there is one thing, and a thing of fundamental importance, which the revolutionists against petty artificialities always fail to appreciate, and that is the necessity and the value of convention. I cannot in a paragraph deal effectively with this most difficult and complex question. I can only point the reader to analogous phenomena in the arts. All the arts are a conventionalization, an ordering of nature. Even in a garden you put the plants in rows, and you subordinate the well-being of one to the general well-being. The sole difference between a garden and the wild woods is a petty artificiality.

In writing a sonnet you actually cramp the profoundest emotional conceptions into a length and a number of lines and a jingling of like sounds arbitrarily fixed beforehand! Wordsworth's “The world is too much with us “is a solid, horrid mass of petty artificiality. Why couldn't the fellow say what he meant and have done with it, instead of making “powers" rhyme with "ours," and worrying himself to use exactly a hundred and forty syllables? As for music, the amount of time that must have been devoted to petty artificiality in the construction of an affair like Bach's Chaconne is simply staggering. Then look at pictures, absurdly confined in frames, with their ingenious contrasts of light and shade and mass against mass. Nothing but petty artificiality! In other words, nothing but “form” -- “form" which is the basis of all beauty, whether material or otherwise.

Now, what form is in art, conventions (petty artificialities) are in life. Just as you can have too much form in art, so you can have too much convention in life. But no art that is not planned in form is worth consideration, and no life that is not planned in convention can ever be satisfactory. Convention is not the essence of life, but it is the protecting garment and preservative of life, and it is also one very valuable means by which life can express itself. It is largely symbolic; and symbols, while being expressive, are also great time-savers. The despisers of petty artificialities should think of this. Take the striking instance of that pettiest artificiality, leaving cards. Well, searchers after the real, what would you substitute for it? If you dropped it and substituted nothing, the result would tend towards a loosening of the bonds of society, and it would tend towards the diminution of the number of your friends. And if you dropped it and tried to substitute something less artificial and more real, you would accomplish no more than you accomplish with cards, you would inconvenience everybody, and waste a good deal of your own time. I cannot too strongly insist that the basis of convention is a symbolism, primarily meant to display a regard for the feelings of other people. If you do not display a regard for the feelings of other people, you may as well go and live on herbs in the desert. And if you are to display such a regard you cannot do it more expeditiously, at a smaller outlay of time and brains, than by adopting the code of convention now generally practiced. It comes to this-- that you cannot have all the advantages of living in the desert while you are living in a society. It would be delightful for you if you could, but you can't.

There are two further reasons for the continuance of conventionality. And one is the mysterious but indisputable fact that the full beauty of an activity is never brought out until it is subjected to discipline and strict ordering and nice balancing. A life without petty artificiality would be the life of a tiger in the forest. A beautiful life, perhaps, a life of "burning bright," but not reaching the highest ideal of beauty! Laws and rules, forms and ceremonies are good in themselves, from a merely aesthetic point of view, apart from their social value and necessity.

And the other reason is that one cannot always be at the full strain of “self-improvement," and "evolutionary progress," and generally beating the big drum. Human nature will not stand it. There is, if we will only be patient, ample time for the "artificial" as well as for the "real." Those persons who think that there isn't, ought to return to school and learn arithmetic. Sup- posing that all “petty artificialties" were suddenly swept away, and we were able to show our regard and consideration for our fellow creatures by the swift processes of thought alone, we should find ourselves with a terrible lot of time hanging heavy on our hands. We can no more spend all our waking hours in consciously striving towards higher things than we can dine exclusively off jam. What frightful prigs we should become if we had nothing to do but cultivate our noblest faculties! I beg the despisers of artificiality to reflect upon these observations, however incomplete these observations may be, and to consider whether they would be quite content if they got what they are crying out for.


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