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Social Sickness.


SINCE THE DAYS when the cave-man of the earliest ages went out and slew the mammoth, bringing his tusks home as merchandise, and the steaks of his gigantic body to make on the hearth the pleasant smell of bake-meats, down to the present day, there have been two quests which, above all others, have occupied the souls and minds of men. The first of these is making love, the second is making money. Their feminine counterparts, with which we shall also to some extent concern ourselves, are equally universal, and are being made love to and spending money.

Two great quests: we make love, and we make money, and the questions we propose here to consider are how far we have advanced from the methods of barbaric days, and what use do we make of money, the second quest, when we have attained it.

In the first days of the world both of these quests which men pursued were exceedingly simple and uncomplicated operations, and required merely superior physical strength. The object of a man’s love was, if possible, seized and carried off, and money or its equivalent in ivory, flocks and herds and what not, was seized and carried off likewise. Then by very slow degrees some system of moral codes and ethics began to be evolved out of the straight and simpler ways of barbarism, and that evolution of conduct which we call civilisation, combined and taken in conjunction with various religious creeds, has, in the course of centuries, produced the world of to-day which differs very much indeed in details from the world of the cave-men. But the two great quests remain absolutely unaltered; we still make love, and we still make money, and the questions we propose here to consider are how far we have really advanced from the methods of barbaric days, and what use do we make of money, the second quest, when we have attained it.

Now there are a great many people in the world whose sole and only creed seems to be “The world was made to amuse me. Nothing else matters. Amen!” And it is exactly because the present writer does not at heart believe that the world was made to amuse either him or anybody else that he writes this short contribution to a subject that is, perhaps, of perennial interest, and is certainly interesting at the present moment, particularly with regard to America. For it is only those who have already made enough money to enable them to amuse themselves (if they have the wit), or at any rate to command the world in general to exercise for them and their cheques its utmost powers of entertainment, who can really hold this creed. On all others, the great sane gospel of the worker is binding ; they must use their limbs or their brains on most days of the year. They are tired, maybe, they must still work; they have heartache or toothache, but they must still work, because they have not yet realised the second of the universal quests to their liking. Herein, they are most heartily to be congratulated, for they are at present immune to the germs of the most acute attack of Social Sickness that the world has probably ever seen. When the day comes that they have as much money as they want, but not till then, will they be liable to an attack. Then, unless they are very strong, so charged is the air with the bacilli, so hard is it to escape infection, they will be “down” with the worst sickness that ever happened to them, a sickness that destroyeth in the noonday, and at morning and at night, that corrodes and spoils all pleasure, that extinguishes happiness with a jolt and a jerk, even as the lamps in an electric car down Broadway are extinguished as it bumps over the points that mentally and morally will be their ruin. But if they are sufficiently strong to resist infection, then they will find that they have had given into their hands an instrument for happiness as potent as are warm suns in spring for growing plants, and showers of early summer for the rising blades of corn.

It is a most extraordinary and common phenomenon to see a man who is possessed of brains capable of making money quickly and perhaps even honestly, prove himself the veriest dullard when it comes to spending it.

It is a most extraordinary and common phenomenon to see a man who is possessed of brains capable of making money quickly and perhaps even honestly, prove himself the veriest dullard when it comes to spending it. His inventive faculties, it seems, are often wanting, and in his hands the spending of money de generates into a mere vulgar and stupid display. Nor, on the whole, are the wives of such men one whit cleverer in such matters. More especially is this the case when they or their husbands have only lately become the possessors of great wealth. They may, it is true, sit in impeccable Louis XVI rooms (not of their own choosing), they may eat their dinners off priceless Sèvres, the silken prayer-rugs of the East — how much degraded from such uses — may receive their noiseless footsteps, and frescoed vaults their far from noiseless laughter. But if culture — to use the term in its broadest sense — is absent, the Genoese velvets, the frescoed ceilings, the Louis XVI suites, simply do not fit their bastard owner.

She and her friends are no more suited to the sort of room which the wit, the breeding, the culture of the great ladies of France and England, with five hundred years of familiarity with such things behind them, caused to be made for their gatherings, than they are suited to dresses of other figures. Such inhabitants are as discordant to such rooms as would be plush brackets on the walls. And more than anything else the sort of entertainment which is given in these misbegotten palaces betrays the illegitimacy, so to speak, of their occupants. Wealth in such cases has given its possessor the power of possessing beautiful things; what it never has given and never can give, is the power of being in drawing with those beautiful things, the art of living beautifully. That, unless it is a hereditary gift, has to be learned, slowly and patiently ; but instead of attempting to learn it — the effort, it is true, would probably be futile — instead of studying and being slowly tuned to that note which in the beginning caused these beautiful things to be made, the nouvelle riche of our day travesties and degrades them without seeing that she makes herself pathetically ridiculous by her deplorable antics in her transplanted palaces. Are gardenias out of season ? She has two continents ransacked, and the walls of the ballroom are papered with them from ceiling to floor. The smell is overpowering, and no one can dance, but so many thousands of dollars have been got rid of with senseless ill-taste. Later there is a cotillon, where each guest receives a present worth five hundred more. Or she gives a fête champêtre, and has a salt-water lake dug down by the sea-shore, and stocked with real pearl oysters. Then her guests take off their shoes and stockings — this is sure to be popular — and wade in with real naked feet to pick up the pearls.

For the mere display of wealth, the beautiful house, the gem-like garden, it would seem nowadays, is not enough; it is necessary also to squander money, even to give the guests presents of value (to induce them, must we suppose, to come to the house?) as if hospitality, the desire to see one’s friends at one’s house, together with their desire to see their friends, was no longer a sufficient motive to bring them. And, indeed, it probably is not. Half of them, perhaps, or even more, have not come because they want to see each other, but because they wish to witness some extravagant display of money-spending, and because the cotillon presents are sure to be valuable. But in such cases surely it would be much simpler to make out a list of guests, and send them each a five-hundred dollar bill. It would also be less vulgar. That is why it is not done.

All mere ostentation is vulgar, all wealth spent for mere purposes of display is vulgar also.

All mere ostentation is vulgar, all wealth spent for mere purposes of display is vulgar also. That is the object of such entertainments. In the good cause, then, if the distribution of five-hundred dollar bills is not thought satisfactory, why not invite your friends to see you burn bonds for an hour or two? On the whole, more money could be got rid of in this way with less expenditure of time and less exposure of your very feeble inventive powers. Such entertainments as the purely imaginary one sketched above are mere vulgar misuse of wealth, and considering what admirable things money can procure, those who give them are criminal lunatics.

Now those who in America and elsewhere have not the inventiveness to spend money less idiotically, do far more harm by their example than by the mere puerile exhibition itself, for they encourage others to go on the same lines, and make such folly — save the mark — fashionable. Of course mere dulness of mind, though often accompanied by great apparent vivacity, is partly accountable for their displays; like the cuttlefish, which blackens and clouds the water round it, so that it can see nothing beyond the grossness of its own making, so the wealth that surrounds such people so envelops and encompasses them that they can see nothing through the yellow fog of gold. Nor have they the wit to perceive that the greatest boon that wealth has brought to them is leisure, that priceless gift by means of which a person has time to devote himself to the knowledge and pursuit of charity or beauty. Instead, those who by reason of their superfluity of worldly goods have leisure, are very often those who most feverishly of all shun it, owing to the intolerable burden of their own stupidity. Every minute of the day must be somehow expensively occupied. The flying automobile whirls them to the lunch they do not want to eat; a little racing or a little feeble gallantry called a mixed foursome at golf follows, and they tear back to dress for dinner. Bridge succeeds dinner, and to the accompaniment of scandal or pursuits even less innocent, the large hours grow small, and the small begin to grow large again. The morning is passed in affairs of toilette, and again the day repeats itself. All autumn is taken up with a series of house-parties, and then, perhaps, succeeds a month on the Riviera, or two in Egypt; about Easter, London wakes up, and the pace grows faster, though the nature of the occupations varies not one whit, and a fortnight at Carlsbad repairs some of the damage of the year. Month in, month out, the shower of gold, as in the fable of Danaë, pours thick, and by degrees Danaë grows old. Then, mixed with the shower of gold, rouge and hair-dye and alien tresses lend their aid to make a grizzly kitten of her.

Indeed, it seems as if there never was an age in which so much money was spent with so little result in the way of real enjoyment or beauty, or when the creed, “ The world was made to amuse me, ” was so fanatically believed in with so little justification for the faith. Has, indeed, what we call the “woman of the world” grown so stupid that with all that wealth can buy at her command, she can find nothing more amusing to do than to dress expensively, play bridge, and fling the rest of her money into idiotic entertainments ? If, indeed, the custom of routine has so deadened any other tastes she may once have had, that like a squirrel in a cage she can do no more than keep on turning in her gilded wires with these insensate gyrations, she is truly pitiable, and the State should take cognisance of her sad case, and have her taught plain sewing or something which may conceivably do good to somebody, and perhaps rescue her from the encroaching atrophy of her mind. For there is no manner of doubt that such a mode of life as this woman of the world often indulges in, soon produces an unutterable ennui, a tædium vitæ which is among the saddest things that can happen to anybody. If she did really amuse herself by her foolish and feverish mode of life there would be something gained, viz., amusement. But in many cases she does not; before long she has ceased to take pleasure in her gyrations, but she knows not how to do anything else except gyrate. Her time of child-bearing, maybe, has come and gone, the memory of it is to her now repugnant, even as at the time the fact was horrible. And if this is the case she is worse than a mere butterfly, and one day she will be asked a question before which she will be dumb. Her children at an early age will probably have seen but little of her, but as the daughters grew up they saw more. They saw the senseless extravagance, the feverish pursuit of pleasure, the brainless struggling to keep in the swim. They saw, perhaps, things more dubious, then they guessed, and then they knew things that were vile. They themselves were married to men of wealth and position, from ambition on their parts, or, more likely, from ambition on the part of her who ought to have saved them from this. Then by the light of that smoky and foul lamp which the mariage de convenance brought, they understood why their mother stayed so often at certain houses, why a certain man was so often there. And what shall the mother answer when she is asked, “What have you done with your girl?”

That the ‘Monks of Medmenham Abbey were wicked is deplorable; in that they were witty, though it does not in the least degree excuse their wickedness, they had some justification for existence. But it is sheer damnation to be wicked without being funny.

Here, then, comes in the first quest. Money has been made, let us say, and the second quest realised, and there is more leisure to deal with the first. Frankly, when so many unhappy marriages are paraded in public courts (and the world perhaps would have been better for more of them), it is not a very pretty subject. For the fact remains that in certain sections of society there is as much “flirting” among married folk as among unmarried. Either this is right and decent, or it is not. If it is, of course there is nothing whatever more to be said on the subject. But since it is in truth neither right nor decent, the subject matter of such scandal supplies in certain sets a source of conversation as perennial and much more piquant than the weather, and seems to be far less visitable with censure than a rainy day. There it is, discussed freely, commented on; a human comedy, the natural sequence to “The world is made to amuse me.” The words “good,” and “wicked,” in fact, among such people are obsolete, and it is worse than obsolete to use them, it is simply ill-bred. “Fay [fait] ce que voudras,” was the motto of Medmenham Abbey.1 It is also the motto among such folk to-day. The difference, however, between them and the “monks” of Medmenham is very great, for the “monks” anyhow were witty and cultured people, who would no more have thought of spending their money on sham pearl fisheries or equestrian dinner parties than they would have thrown it into the Thames. That they were wicked is deplorable; in that they were witty, though it does not in the least degree excuse their wickedness, they had some justification for existence. But it is sheer damnation to be wicked without being funny.

Ten thousand people in the days of Louis XVI were housed under the roof at Versailles during the royal fêtes. Let us assume that, take it all round, three servants waited on each, what hostess or host to-day could make anything but a hurly burly out of over two thousand guests ? Yet there were then no pearl fisheries, no banquets of delicacies out of season to tickle the palate jaded with pleasure, and form the comble of the entertainment. What did they do to prevent themselves being hopelessly and entirely bored ? It was not so much what they did, but what they were. For they were the flower of an old and noble civilisation, men and women of wit and culture, to whom the splendour in which they lived was the natural milieu of their lives, to whom the sculpture of Jean Goujon, the canvases of Watteau, of Lancret, were vivid and interesting things, not merely to be hung up because “my husband paid a hundred thousand pounds for the set at Duveen’s.” The minds of the guests of Louis XVI were alert, artistic; wit was theirs, and the laughter that rang through the gardens the tribute of cultivated intelligences to the quick challenge and riposte. Cards were a diversion to them, not the serious occupation of eight hours a day, and though it would be idle to deny that there was artificiality — witness the milkmaid parties of the Queen at Petit Trianon — the gaiety redeemed it, and the esprit of the guests flashes still through the volumes of a hundred memoirs. But what volume could be written, even one, and that how jejune, of the cotillons of to-day, or of the equestrian dinner party? All the accessories and more are here, wealth unlimited, the most beautiful women, the most distinguished men. What then is lacking? All. For to sign cheques for the building of a house does not confer on you the power of living in it in the way it should be lived in: to give a party is not to be able to give that nameless distinction which alone makes pomp enjoyable or even endurable. For, to put it briefly, a woman without culture cannot walk across a finely furnished room without looking ridiculous. Once a jackdaw got some jay’s feathers to wear. They did not secure the success their pilferer anticipated.

Now, no one would hold up the times of Louis XVI, of the Medicis at Florence, of Tiberius and Nero at Rome, as a sound moral example for our younger civilisation to follow. But a certain section of our younger civilisation seems to desire to take all that was bad and vulgar from each period, dress it up in the modern trappings and accessories of luxury, and serve up the horrible compound to an admiring world as an example of the enviable life. Therefore this is what it comes to — since Neronian Rome was luxurious, and millions of sesterces were squandered over a single banquet, let us do the like; let us build houses like Versailles, and pour into them the treasures of the Borghese palaces, and the times of Louis XVI will return; let us adopt the morals of the Borghias — that is easy, for they had none — and sunlit Italy will rise again, and that exquisite life blossom and be renewed on most northern shores. But never was there attempted a more hopeless task, and never was a task more illogically set about, for the splendour and glory of these epochs as well as their shame were the natural expression of those who made them, even as vulgarity and shrill, harsh voices are the natural expression of those who try to ape them. The Medicis surrounded themselves with beautiful things, and brought the great sculptors of the world to their courts, because beauty was to them a passion, a part of their life, bequeathed to their blood by a hundred ancestors, part of their atmosphere and environment. But the man who has yesterday, so to speak, made his millions in a shambles in Chicago, is as much out of place if he apes the extravagance of French kings, buys by the yard books which he does not read, and tapes tries which he does not like, as would Louis XVI be on the floor of the Stock Exchange. Give him and his wife an electric car, or a drawing-room furnished with a telephone. That is their proper equipment: it is not beautiful, nor are they.

Extravagance, unhappily, is in the blood of some people, and such, though we do not commend them for it, will be naturally extravagant without effort, and produce as a result of their expenditure something which we cannot but admire for the artistic quality of its profusion. But there is nothing whatever to be said for the extravagance which spends merely in order to spend, particularly when up till yesterday or the day before all the man’s wits have been devoted to saving. The result is forced and awkward; money is firmly grasped with both hands and thrown away with dogged determination. In the same way also immorality was unfortunately native to Neronian Rome. But to the Puritan blood it is not native, and to force one’s self to be wicked against the inclinations of one’s nature is a very ugly and wooden proceeding.

There is no doubt that in the last twenty years, and with in creased acceleration in the last four or five, a certain recklessness of living, of which mere stupid extravagance is only a small example, has increased enormously among English-speaking people. But this stupid extravagance in certain sets of the upper classes in England and America led the way, and in the desire to be completely up-to-date many have thrown overboard all those things which sober and honourable people, who are still the majority as they are also the backbone of the nation, consider to be worth preserving in the social fabric. Indeed, they have gone far, and across the Channel even Paris, that meat market of sensuality, holds up its hands in wonder when it sees, as it has had opportunity of seeing, a husband acquiescing without a word in his wife’s dishonour. Paris can stand a good deal; it can stand also a good deal which we cannot, but that particular grossness is beyond it. It is absurd for us to shut our eyes and pretend that such a thing does not exist among us ; for there are husbands who, knowing beyond a doubt that their wives lead other lives, shrug their shoulders and think what a convenient institution matrimony is, since it leaves both parties so free. Their friends know it, their world knows it, and calls the dishonour of the two mere good sense.

But if such a state of affairs becomes common, then God help the nation. For the base and foundation of national life is soundness in the home, and if the home be built of rotten and corrupt structure, the time will not be long before, with a crash, the whole fabric totters and falls. Then, if it is ever to rise again, the very foundations must be made anew. But even as the danger is near and imminent, so, too, is the remedy near, ready to the hand, in the keeping of the wives and daughters of our nations.

Recklessness of living is not confined to any one of the relations of life; where it exists, it exists in all.

This recklessness of living is not confined to any one of the relations of life; where it exists, it exists in all. Nothing matters, so runs the horrid gospel; let us therefore do at this moment what amuses us most, and take no thought for what bill the accumulation of such days will send us. A merciful Providence, it is hoped, will continue, in exchange for our gold, our time, perhaps our honour, to supply us every day with a nice new packet of amusements. That is all we ask, and if, like Faust, we have to sign a certain bond on it, why, with pleasure. Let us take “the cash and let the credit go,” as the honeymouthed cynic of Persia bids us. For, if we have no scruples at all, there is a vast amount of amusement which may be extracted from life. But, unfortunately, surely by a most unfair arrangement, the more recklessly we live, the more feverishly we pursue such a course of life, the more addled we get. Things which a year or two ago amused, amuse no longer, even the enchanting pearl-fishery does not bear repetition, and again and again we have to cudgel our wits, often fruitlessly, for something new. And gall is left unto us at the end, and our gold is the colour of ashes.

Culture does not spell corruption, and though some of the most cultured ages of the world have been corrupt, it is false to think that the one in any degree implies the other. Still more false and futile is it to attempt to recapture the glory of any such age by imitating its vileness. Society need not be dull because it abhors adultery, while (incidentally) it will be clean, and its foundations, which are home, will be built on rock. Nor, though beautiful things are expensive, does ostentation or extravagant display ever do anything but vulgarise. If, as is sincerely to be hoped, and as material conditions would seem to indicate, we are on the threshold of an age that will surpass in magnificence any that has gone before, the door will never swing open to a society that is impure in its nature, and vulgar in its aims. Struggles go to the making of wealth, but if struggles accompany its spending, we may be sure that there is something wrong in the mode of expenditure. It is not by riches that the bourgeois lifts himself out of the bourgeoisie, but by intelligence, by culture, and by the love of beauty. These no riches will give him, but without them the golden age, Social Health, will still hold aloof from the earth.

E.F. BENSON (1867-1940) was an English novelist, essayist, biographer and archæologist best known for his Mapp and Lucia series of novels and nearly 100 other titles, including the Dodo series. His father was Archbishop of Canterbury, his brother, Arthur, wrote the lyrics for “Land of Hope and Glory”, and he attended Marlborough College, Cambridge University and the British School of Archaeology in Athens. He was also a childless figure-skater and lived discreetly. This essay first appeared in the Fortnightly in September 1904 (Vol. LXXVI. N.S.). The transcription was made by hand with very minor corrections of punctuation.


  1. Renowned, after the Dissolution (1547), as the site of Sir Francis Dashwood’s notorious Hellfire Club. For more, consult Geoffrey Ashe, The Secret History of the Hell-Fire Clubs: From Rabelais and John Dee to Anton LaVey and Timothy Leary (Bear and Co., 2019) and Evelyn Lord, The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies (Yale University Press, 2010) Ed.
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