There are occasions when you simply can’t credit even The New York Times. It isn’t that you have any evidence to the contrary; the refusal to give credence is purely emotional and can be accepted neither by science nor law.
One of the occasions on which you refuse to credit even the Times is when it reports the sudden death of a young, healthy and vital person whom you have entertained at your home only a few days before, with whom you have broken bread, fought out differences of opinion and shared points of view. And how can you believe that it’s anything but a clumsy and yet plausible misprint wnen several days later you read that that very person has met death because the automobile in which he was riding suddenly left the road. And your emotion tells you: “Why, that’s no reason for a person’s dying!”
Every minute recalled of a full evening’s recollection is another emotional argument against the veracity of The New York Times. Print can’t make it any the less unveracious than it would seem a mutual friend to say over the telephone: “So-and-so is dead.” It isn’t that you don’t believe the person over the ‘phone or your morning daily; what you don’t believe in is death, the death of a young person, of a healthy person, of an animated person who had the power almost to wear you down with the pressure of his convictions and the glowing faith he had in the life around him. And because the death of such a person doesn’t seem right, and doesn’t seem fair, you have to say, and you do say, “It isn’t true because it shouldn’t be.”
WE MUST ACCEPT
But of course it is true and the Times is right, but you weaken the shock of death by denying it for the time required to absorb into the consciousness the fact that there is such a thing as death and that it has a way of seizing upon the young and the vital while it passes by the aged, the infirm and the ailing who seem to put off the consequences of their ailments, infirmities and years through their small vigilances, while the young, not thinking of death or disfigurement, leap heedlessly into all kinds of chances and dangers. War accentuates this reversal of the selective process, by wiping out the generation of vital youth and leaving the cautious young and the cautious aged.
But when, finally, you reconcile yourself to accepting the fact of death, you recall reasons for self-reproach; you should not have said this and not have done that. You should not have argued so hotly with the person now so rudely cut down in the prime of life, and, you think, the evening would have been just as bright if you had refrained from those devastating wise-cracks. The benefit of these self-reproaches accrues to the living and you are more temperate and kinder to others whom you know; others who, you fear, Death suddenly may take from you. But after a time you forget to be someone other than yourself, for you can’t always be thinking of death and of the sharp phrases spoken in anger with which you may have to reproach yourself, later. Which is as it should be, for you cannot maintain contact with the living, with the image of death as an unbidden guest all the time.
And you resume being yourself, for, God help you, you can be no other, and then you resume your faith in the credibility of the Times, especially when it reports the death of men and women whom you never knew, or men and women to whom you were indifferent, or men and women among the aged, the infirm and the ailing.
PARODY OF MANNERS
It is curious in how many ways savage life offers us burlesques of civilized conduct; or, I suppose, I should say so-called savage life and so-called civilized conduct. Recently I heard about the dread and the fear of leadership expressed among the Samoans and the Zuni Indians, of how among them election to the chieftainship was equivalent almost to the passing of sentence in court among us. Now, there is another tribe, in Northwest Canada, which offers a curious commentary on the social ambitions prevalent among so-called civilized members of society here.
The cost of bringing out a debutante has been set at between $25,000 and $50,000. It has been estimated that you cannot get into the Social Register, for example, on an income of less than $20,000 a year. Rich men and women who want to get into society must be prepared to scheme and spend on a large and sustained scale. And this is what a Northwest Indian has to do, if he is to be acceptable to other members of his tribe.
Up to the age of forty he must scrimp and starve, eat dirt or nothing, or as little as is conceivably possible enough to maintain life. He is, however, like the beetles, building a pile. At the age of forty, he throws a big feed, a big party. All the substance which he has saved up is dissipated in a night’s Saturnalia and gift-giving. The more costly the gifts the better. The night after the party he is as poor as he was the night before. There is something symbolical about such a life, organized for one wild night of magnificence, and thousands of days and nights of misery.