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Table of Contents
CHAPTER I - ALL MEANS AND NO END
CHAPTER II - THE TASTE FOR PLEASURE
CHAPTER III - THE RISKS OF LIFE
CHAPTER IV - IN HER PLACE
The Plain Man and His Wife
First digital edition 2018 by Maria Ruggieri
The plain man on a plain day wakes up, slowly or quickly according to his temperament, and greets the day in a mental posture which might be thus expressed in words:
“Oh, Lord! Another day! What a grind!”
If you ask me whom I mean by the plain man, my reply is that I mean almost every man. I mean you. I certainly mean me. I mean the rich and the poor, the successful and the unsuccessful, the idle and the diligent, the luxurious and the austere. For, what with the limits of digestion, the practical impossibility of wearing two neckties at once, the insecurity of investments, the responsibilities of wealth and of success, the exhausting ness of the search for pleasure, and the cheapness of travel the real differences between one sort of plain man and another are slight in these times. (And indeed, they always were slight.)
The plain man has a lot to do before he may have his breakfast, and he must do it. The tyrannic routine begins instantly he is out of bed. To lave limbs, to shave the jaw, to select clothes and assume them, these things are naught. He must exercise his muscles, all his muscles equally and scientifically, with the aid of a text-book and of diagrams on a large card; which card he often hides if he is expecting visitors in his chamber, for he will not always confess to these exercises; he would have you believe that he alone, in a world of simpletons, is above the faddism of the hour; he is as ashamed of these exercises as of a good resolution, and when his wife happens to burst in on them he will pretend to be doing some common act, such as walking across the room or examining a mole in the small of his back. And yet he will not abandon them. They have an empire over him. To drop them would be to be craven, inefficient. The text-book asserts that they will form one of the pleasantest parts of the day, and that he will learn to look forward to them. He soon learns to look forward to them, but not with glee. He is relieved and proud when they are over for the day.
He would enjoy his breakfast, thanks to the strenuous imitation of diagrams, were it not that, in addition to being generally in a hurry, he is preoccupied. He is preoccupied by the sense of doom, by the sense that he has set out on the appointed path and dare not stray from it. The train or the tram-car or the automobile (same thing) is waiting for him, irrevocable, undeniable, inevitable. He wrenches himself away. He goes forth to his fate, as to the dentist. And just as he would enjoy his breakfast in the home, so he would enjoy his newspaper and cigarette in the vehicle, were it not for that ever-present sense of doom. The idea of business grips him. It matters not what the business is. Business is everything, and everything is business. He reaches his office, whatever his office is. He is in his office. He must plunge, he plunges. The day has genuinely begun now. The appointed path stretches straight in front of him, for five, six, seven, eight hours.
Oh! but he chose his vocation. He likes it. It satisfies his instincts. It is his life. (So, you say.) Well, does he like it? Does it satisfy his instincts? Is it his life? If truly the answer is affirmative, he is at any rate not conscious of the fact. He is aware of no ecstasy. What is the use of being happy unless he knows he is happy? Some men know that they are happy in the hours of business, but they are few. The majority are not, and the bulk of the majority do not even pretend to be. The whole attitude of the average plain man to business implies that business is a nuisance, scarcely mitigated. With what secret satisfaction, he anticipates that visit to the barber’s in the middle of the morning! With what gusto, he hails the arrival of an unexpected interrupting friend! With what easement, he decides that he may lawfully put off some task till the morrow! Let him hear a band or a fire-engine in the street, and he will go to the window with the eagerness of a child or of a girl-clerk. If he were working at golf the bands of all the regiments of Hohenzollern would not make him turn his head, nor the multitudinous blazing of fireproof skyscrapers. No! Let us be honest. Business constitutes the steepest, roughest league of the appointed path. Were it otherwise, business would not be universally regarded as a means to an end.
Moreover, when the plain man gets home again, does his wife’s face say to him: “I know that your real life is now over for the day, and I regret for your sake that you have to return here. I know that the powerful interest of your life is gone. But I am glad that you have had five, six, seven, or eight hours of passionate pleasure”? Not a bit! His wife’s face says to him: “I commiserate with you on all that you have been through. It is a great shame that you should be compelled to toil thus painfully. But I will try to make it up to you. I will soothe you. I will humour you. Forget anxiety and fatigue in my smiles”. She does not fetch his comfortable slippers for him, partly because, in this century, wives do not do such things, and partly because comfortable slippers are no longer worn. But she does the equivalent, whatever the equivalent may happen to be in that particular household. And he expects the commiseration and the solace in her face. He would be very hurt did he not find it there.
And even yet he is not relaxed. Even yet the appointed path stretches inexorably in front, and he cannot wander. For now, he feels the cogs and cranks of the highly complex domestic machine. At breakfast, he declined to hear them; they were shut off from him; he was too busy to be bothered with them. At evening, he must be bothered with them. Was it not he who created the machine? He discovers, often to his astonishment, that his wife has an existence of her own, full of factors foreign to him, and he has to project himself, not only into his wife’s existence, but into the existences of other minor personages. His daughter, for example, will persist in growing up. Not for a single day will she pause. He arrives one night and perceives that she is a woman and that he must treat her as a woman. He had not bargained for this. Peace, ease, relaxation in a home vibrating to the whir of such astounding phenomena? Impossible dream! These phenomena were originally meant by him to be the ornamentation of his career, but they are threatening to be the sole reason of his career. If his wife lives for him, it is certain that he lives just as much for his wife; and as for his daughter, while she emphatically does not live for him, he is bound to admit that he has just got to live for her, and she knows it!
To gain money was exhausting; to spend it is precisely as exhausting. He cannot quit the appointed path nor lift the doom. Dinner is finished ere he has begun to recover from the varied shock of home. Then his daughter may negligently throw him a few moments of charming cajolery. He may gossip in simple idleness with his wife. He may gambol like any infant with the dog. A yawn. The shadow of the next day is upon him. He must not stay up too late, lest the vigor demanded by the next day should be impaired. Besides, he does not want to stay up. Naught is quite interesting enough to keep him up. And bed, too, is part of the appointed, unescapable path. To bed he goes, carrying ten million preoccupations. And of his state of mind the kindest that can be said is that he is philosophic enough to hope for the best.
And after the night he wakes up, slowly or quickly according to his temperament, and greets the day with:
“Oh, Lord! Another day! What a grind!”
The interesting point about the whole situation is that the plain man seldom or never asks himself a really fundamental question about that appointed path of his, that path from which he dare not and could not wander.
Once, perhaps in a parable, the plain man travelling met another traveller. And the plain man demanded of the traveller:
“Where are, you going to?”
The traveller replied:
“Now I come to think of it, I don’t know”.
The plain man was ruffled by this insensate answer. He said:
“But you are travelling?”
The traveller replied:
The plain man, beginning to be annoyed, said:
“Have you never asked yourself where you are going to?”
“I have not”.
“But do you mean to tell me,” protested the plain man, now irritated, “that you are putting yourself to all this trouble, peril, and expense of trains and steamers, without having asked yourself where you are going to?”
“It never occurred to me,” the traveller admitted. “I just had to start and I started”.
Whereupon the plain man was, as too often with us plain men, staggered and deeply affronted by the illogical absurdity of human nature. “Was it conceivable,” he thought, “that this traveller, presumably in his senses” etc. (You are familiar with the tone and the style, being a plain man yourself.) And he gave way to moral indignation.