THE HYPOCRISY 0F PURITANISM

THE HYPOCRISY 0F PURITANISM

SPEAKING of Puritanism in relation to American art, Mr. Gutzon  Borglum said: "Puritanism has made us self-centered and hypocritical for  so long, that sincerity and reverence for what is natural in our  impulses have been fairly bred out of us, with the result that there can  be neither truth nor individualality in our art."

Mr. Borglum might have added that Puritanism has made life  itself impossible.  More than art, more than estheticism, life  represents beauty in a thousand variations; it is indeed, a gigantic  panorama of eternal change.  Puritanism, on th other hand, rests on a  fixed and immovable conception of life; it is based on the Calvinistic  idea that life is a curse, imposed upon man by the wrath of God.  In  order to redeem himself man must do constant penance, must repudiate  every natural and healthy impulse, and turn his back on joy and beauty.

Puritanism celebrated its reign of terror in England during the  sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, destroying and crushing every  manifestation of art and culture.  It was the spirit of Puritanism which  robbed Shelley of his children, because he would not bow to the dicta  of religion. It was the same narrow spirit which alienated Byron from  his native land, because that great genius rebelled against the  monotony, dullness, and pettiness of his country. It was Puritanism,  too, that forced some of England's freest women into the conventional  lie of marriage: Mary Wollstonecraft and, later, George Eliot. And  recently Puritanism has demanded another toll--the life of Oscar Wilde.  In fact, Puritanism has never ceased to be the most pernicious factor in  the domain of John Bull, acting as censor of the artistic expression of  his people, and stamping its approval only on the dullness of  middle-class respectability.

It is therefore sheer British jingoism which points to America  as the country of Puritanic provincialism. It is quite true that our  life is stunted by Puritanism, and that the latter is killing what is  natural and healthy in our impulses. But it is equally true that it is  to England that we are indebted for transplanting this spirit on  American soil. It was bequeathed to us by the Pilgrim fathers. Fleeing  from persecution and oppression, the Pilgrims of Mayflower fame  established in the New World a reign of Puritanic tyranny and crime. The  history of New England, and especially of Massachusetts, is full of the  horrors that have turned life into gloom, joy and despair, naturalness  into disease, honesty and truth into hideous lies and hypocrisies. The  ducking-stool and whipping-post, as well as numerous other devices of  torture, were the favorite English methods for American purification.

Boston, the city of culture, has gone down in the annals of  Puritanism as the "Bloody Town." It rivaled Salem, even, in her cruel  persecution of unauthorized religious opinions. On the now famous Common  a half-naked woman, with a baby in her arms, was publicly whipped for  the crime of free speech; and on the same spot Mary Dyer, another Quaker  woman, was hanged in 1659. In fact, Boston has been the scene of more  than one wanton crime committed by Puritanism. Salem, in the summer of  1692, killed eighteen people for witchcraft. Nor was Massachusetts alone  in driving out the devil by fire and brimstone. As Canning justly said:  "The Pilgrim fathers infested the New World to redress the balance of  the Old." The horrors of that period have found their most supreme  expression in the American classic, The Scarlet Letter.

Puritanism no longer employs the thumbscrew and lash; but it  still has a most pernicious hold on the minds and feelings of the  American people. Naught else can explain the power of a Comstock. Like  the Torquemadas of ante-bellum days, Anthony Comstock is the autocrat of  American morals; he dictates the standards of good and evil, of purity  and vice. Like a thief in the night he sneaks into the private lives of  the people, into their most intimate relations. The system of espionage  established by this man Comstock puts to shame the infamous Third  Division of the Russian secret police. Why does the public tolerate such  an outrage on its liberties? Simply because Comstock is but the loud  expression of the Puritanism bred in the Anglo-Saxon blood, and from  whose thraldom even liberals have not succeeded in fully emancipating  themselves. The visionless and leaden elements of the old Young Men's  and Women's Christian Temperance Unions, Purity Leagues, American  Sabbath Unions, and the Prohibition Party, with Anthony Comstock as  their patron saint, are the grave diggers of American art and culture.

Europe can at least boast of a bold art and literature which  delve deeply into the social and sexual problems of our time, exercising  a severe critique of all our shams. As with a surgeon's knife every  Puritanic carcass is dissected, and the way thus cleared for man's  liberation from the dead weights of the past. But with Puritanism as the  constant check upon American life, neither truth nor sincerity is  possible. Nothing but gloom and mediocrity to dictate human conduct,  curtail natural expression, and stifle our best impulses. Puritanism in  this the twentieth century is as much the enemy of freedom and beauty as  it was when it landed on Plymouth Rock. It repudiates, as something  vile and sinful, our deepest feelings; but being absolutely ignorant as  to the real functions of human emotions, Puritanism is itself the  creator of the most unspeakable vices.

The entire history of asceticism proves this to be only too  true. The Church, as well as Puritanism, has fought the flesh as  something evil; it had to be subdued and hidden at all cost. The result  of this vicious attitude is only now beginning to be recognized by  modern thinkers and educators. They realize that "nakedness has a  hygienic value as well as a spiritual significance, far beyond its  influences in allaying the natural inquisitiveness of the young or  acting as a preventative of morbid emotion. It is an inspiration to  adults who have long outgrown any youthful curiosities. The vision of  the essential and eternal human form, the nearest thing to us in all the  world, with its vigor and its beauty and its grace, is one of the prime  tonics of life."1 But the spirit of purism has so perverted the human mind that it has  lost the power to appreciate the beauty of nudity, forcing us to hide  the natural form under the plea of chastity. Yet chastity itself is but  an artificial imposition upon nature, expressive of a false shame of the  human form. The modern idea of chastity, especially in reference to  woman, its greatest victim, is but the sensuous exaggeration of our  natural impulses. "Chastity varies with the amount of clothing," and  hence Christians and purists forever hasten to cover the "heathen" with  tatters, and thus convert him to goodness and chastity.

Puritanism, with its perversion of the significance and  functions of the human body, especially in regard to woman, has  condemned her to celibacy, or to the indiscriminate breeding of a  diseased race, or to prostitution. The enormity of this crime against  humanity is apparent when we consider the results. Absolute sexual  continence is imposed upon the unmarried woman, under pain of being  considered immoral or fallen, with the result of producing neurasthenia,  impotence, depression, and a great variety of nervous complaints  involving diminished power of work, limited enjoyment of life,  sleeplessness, and preoccupation with sexual desires and imaginings. The  arbitrary and pernicious dictum of total continence probably also  explains the mental inequality of the sexes. Thus Freud believes that  the intellectual inferiority of so many women is due to the inhibition  of thought imposed upon them for the purpose of sexual repression.  Having thus suppressed the natural sex desires of the unmarried woman,  Puritanism, on the other hand, blesses her married sister for  incontinent fruitfulness in wedlock. Indeed, not merely blesses her, but  forces the woman, oversexed by previous repression, to bear children,  irrespective of weakened physical condition or economic inability to  rear a large family. Prevention, even by scientifically determined safe  methods, is absolutely prohibited; nay, the very mention of the subject  is considered criminal.

Thanks to this Puritanic tyranny, the majority of women soon  find themselves at the ebb of their physical resources. Ill and worn,  they are utterly unable to give their children even elementary care.  That, added to economic pressure, forces many women to risk utmost  danger rather than continue to bring forth life. The custom of procuring  abortions has reached such vast proportions in America as to be almost  beyond belief. According to recent investigations along this line,  seventeen abortions are committed in every hundred pregnancies. This  fearful percentage represents only cases which come to the knowledge of  physicians. Considering the secrecy in which this practice is  necessarily shrouded, and the consequent professional inefficiency and  neglect, Puritanism continuously exacts thousands of victims to its own  stupidity and hypocrisy.

Prostitution, although hounded, imprisoned, and chained, is  nevertheless the greatest triumph of Puritanism. It is its most  cherished child, all hypocritical sanctimoniousness notwithstanding. The  prostitute is the fury of our century, sweeping across the "civilized"  countries like a hurricane, and leaving a trail of disease and disaster.  The only remedy Puritanism offers for this ill-begotten child is  greater repression and more merciless persecution. The latest outrage is  represented by the Page Law, which imposes upon the State of New York  the terrible failure and crime of Europe, namely, registration and  identification of the unfortunate victims of Puritanism. In equally  stupid manner purism seeks to check the terrible scourge of its own  creation--venereal diseases. Most disheartening it is that this spirit  of obtuse narrow mindedness has poisoned even our so-called liberals,  and has blinded them into joining the crusade against the very things  born of the hypocrisy of Puritanism-- prostitution and its results. In  wilful blindness Puritanism refuses to see that the true method of  prevention is the one which makes it clear to all that "venereal  diseases are not a mysterious or terrible thing, the penalty of the sin  of the flesh, a sort of shameful evil branded by purist malediction, but  an ordinary disease which may be treated and cured." By its methods of  obscurity, disguise, and concealment, Puritanism has furnished favorable  conditions for the growth and spread of these diseases. Its bigotry is  again most strikingly demonstrated by the senseless attitude in regard  to the great discovery of Prof. Ehrlich, hypocrisy veiling the important  cure for syphilis with vague allusions to a remedy for "a certain  poison."

The almost limitless capacity of Puritanism for evil is due to  its intrenchment behind the State and the law. Pretending to safeguard  the people against "immorality," it has impregnated the machinery of  government and added to its usurpation of moral guardianship the legal  censorship of our views, feelings, and even of our conduct.

Art, literature, the drama, the privacy of the mails, in fact,  our most intimate tastes, are at the mercy of this inexorable tyrant.  Anthony Comstock, or some other equally ignorant policeman, has been  given power to desecrate genius, to soil and mutilate the sublimest  creation of nature--the human form. Books dealing with the most vital  issues of our lives, and seeking to shed light upon dangerously obscured  problems, are legaly treated as criminal offenses, and their helpless  authors thrown into prison or driven to destruction and death.

Not even in the domain of the Tsar is personal liberty daily  outraged to the extent it is in America, the stronghold of the Puritanic  eunuchs. Here the only day of recreation left to the masses, Sunday,  has been made hideous and utterly impossible. All writers on primitive  customs and ancient civilization agree that the Sabbath was a day of  festivities, free from care and duties, a day of general rejoicing and  merry making. In every European country this tradition continues to  bring some relief from the humdrum and stupidity of our Christian era.  Everywhere concert halls, theaters, museums, and gardens are filled with  men, women, and children, particularly workers with their families,  full of life and joy, forgetful of the ordinary rules and conventions of  their every-day existence. It is on that day that the masses  demonstrate what life might really mean in a sane society, with work  stripped of its profit-making, soul-destroying purpose.

Puritanism has robbed the people even of that one day.  Naturally, only the workers are affected: our millionaires have their  luxurious homes and elaborate clubs. The poor, however, are condemned to  the monotony and dullness of the American Sunday. The sociability and  fun of European outdoor life is here exchanged for the gloom of the  church, the stuffy, germ-saturated country parlor, or the brutalizing  atmosphere of the back-room saloon. In Prohibition States the people  lack even the latter, unless they can invest their meager earnings in  quantities of adulterated liquor. As to Prohibition, every one knows  what a farce it really is. Like all other achievements of Puritanism it,  too, has but driven the "devil" deeper into the human system. Nowhere  else does one meet so many drunkards as in our Prohibition towns. But so  long as one can use scented candy to abate the foul breath of  hypocrisy, Puritanism is triumphant. Ostensibly Prohibition is opposed  to liquor for reasons of health and economy, but the very spirit of  Prohibition being itself abnormal, it succeeds but in creating an  abnormal life.

Every stimulus which quickens the imagination and raises the  spirits, is as necessary to our life as air. It invigorates the body,  and deepens our vision of human fellowship. Without stimuli, in one form  or another, creative work is impossible, nor indeed the spirit of  kindliness and generosity. The fact that some great geniuses have seen  their reflection in the goblet too frequently, does not justify  Puritanism in attempting to fetter the whole gamut of human emotions. A  Byron and a Poe have stirred humanity deeper than all the Puritans can  ever hope to do. The former have given to life meaning and color; the  latter are turning red blood into water, beauty into ugliness, variety  into uniformity and decay. Puritanism, in whatever expression, is a  poisonous germ. On the surface everything may look strong and vigorous;  yet the poison works its way persistently, until the entire fabric is  doomed. With Hippolyte Taine, every truly free spirit has come to  realize that "Puritanism is the death of culture, philosophy, humor, and  good fellowship; its characteristics are dullness, monotony, and  gloom."

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