Story type: Essay
Is it true that cultivation, what we call refinement, kills individuality? Or, worse than that even, that one loses his taste by over-cultivation? Those persons are uninteresting, certainly, who have gone so far in culture that they accept conventional standards supposed to be correct, to which they refer everything, and by which they measure everybody. Taste usually implies a sort of selection; the cultivated taste of which we speak is merely a comparison, no longer an individual preference or appreciation, but only a reference to the conventional and accepted standard. When a man or woman has reached this stage of propriety we are never curious any more concerning their opinions on any subject. We know that the opinions expressed will not be theirs, evolved out of their own feeling, but that they will be the cut-and-dried results of conventionality.
It is doubtless a great comfort to a person to know exactly how to feel and what to say in every new contingency, but whether the zest of life is not dulled by this ability is a grave question, for it leaves no room for surprise and little for emotion. O ye belles of Newport and of Bar Harbor, in your correct and conventional agreement of what is proper and agreeable, are you wasting your sweet lives by rule? Is your compact, graceful, orderly society liable to be monotonous in its gay repetition of the same thing week after week? Is there nothing outside of that envied circle which you make so brilliant? Is the Atlantic shore the only coast where beauty may lounge and spread its net of enchantment? The Atlantic shore and Europe? Perhaps on the Pacific you might come back to your original selves, and find again that freedom and that charm of individuality that are so attractive. Some sparkling summer morning, if you chanced to drive four-in-hand along the broad beach at Santa Barbara, inhaling, the spicy breeze from the Sandwich Islands, along the curved shore where the blue of the sea and the purple of the mountains remind you of the Sorrentine promontory, and then dashed away into the canon of Montecito, among the vineyards and orange orchards and live-oaks and palms, in vales and hills all ablaze with roses and flowers of the garden and the hothouse, which bloom the year round in the gracious sea-air, would you not, we wonder, come to yourselves in the sense of a new life where it is good form to be enthusiastic and not disgraceful to be surprised? It is a far cry from Newport to Santa Barbara, and a whole world of new sensations lies on the way, experiences for which you will have no formula of experience. To take the journey is perhaps too heroic treatment for the disease of conformity–the sort of malaria of our exclusive civilization.
The Drawer is not urging this journey, nor any break-up of the social order, for it knows how painful a return to individuality may be. It is easier to go on in the subordination of one’s personality to the strictly conventional life. It expects rather to record a continually perfected machinery, a life in which not only speech but ideas are brought into rule. We have had something to say occasionally of the art of conversation, which is in danger of being lost in the confused babel of the reception and the chatter of the dinner-party–the art of listening and the art of talking both being lost. Society is taking alarm at this, and the women as usual are leaders in a reform. Already, by reason of clubs-literary, scientific, economic–woman is the well-informed part of our society. In the “Conversation Lunch” this information is now brought into use. The lunch, and perhaps the dinner, will no longer be the occasion of satisfying the appetite or of gossip, but of improving talk. The giver of the lunch will furnish the topic of conversation. Two persons may not speak at once; two persons may not talk with each other; all talk is to be general and on the topic assigned, and while one is speaking, the others must listen. Perhaps each lady on taking her seat may find in her napkin a written slip of paper which shall be the guide to her remarks. Thus no time is to be wasted on frivolous topics. The ordinary natural flow of rejoinder and repartee, the swirling of talk around one obstacle and another, its winding and rippling here and there as individual whim suggests, will not be allowed, but all will be improving, and tend to that general culture of which we have been speaking. The ladies’ lunch is not to be exactly a debating society, but an open occasion for the delivery of matured thought and the acquisition of information.
The object is not to talk each other down, but to improve the mind, which, unguided, is apt to get frivolous at the convivial board. It is notorious that men by themselves at lunch or dinner usually shun grave topics and indulge in persiflage, and even descend to talk about wine and the made dishes. The women’s lunch of this summer takes higher ground. It will give Mr. Browning his final estimate; it will settle Mr. Ibsen; it will determine the suffrage question; it will adjudicate between the total abstainers and the halfway covenant of high license; it will not hesitate to cut down the tariff.
The Drawer anticipates a period of repose in all our feverish social life. We shall live more by rule and less by impulse. When we meet we shall talk on set topics, determined beforehand. By this concentration we shall be able as one man or one woman to reach the human limit of cultivation, and get rid of all the aberrations of individual assertion and feeling. By studying together in clubs, by conversing in monotone and by rule, by thinking the same things and exchanging ideas until we have none left, we shall come into that social placidity which is one dream of the nationalists–one long step towards what may be called a prairie mental condition–the slope of Kansas, where those who are five thousand feet above the sea-level seem to be no higher than those who dwell in the Missouri Valley.