The Rebel’s Palimpsest

In part instinctively, in part superficially and self-consciously, each generation of mankind reacts against the last. The grown man turns from the lights that were thrust upon his eyes in childhood. The son shrugs his shoulders at the watchwords that thrilled his father, and with varying degrees of sensitiveness or dullness, of fuller or more fragmentary experience, writes out for himself the manuscript of his creed. Yet, even for the wildest or bravest rebel, that manuscript is only a palimpsest. On the surface all is new writing, clean and self-assertive. Underneath, dim but indelible in the very fibres of the parchment, lie the characters of many ancient aspirations and raptures and battles which his conscious mind has rejected or utterly forgotten. And forgotten things, if there be real life in them, will sometimes return out of the dust, vivid to help still in the forward groping of humanity.

——Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion.

Seed-Ground for Superstition

It is worth remembering that the best seed-ground for superstition is a society in which the fortunes of men seem to bear practically no relation to their merits and efforts. A stable and well-governed society does tend, speaking roughly, to ensure that the Virtuous and Industrious Apprentice shall succeed in life, while the Wicked and Idle Apprentice fails. And in such a society people tend to lay stress on the reasonable or visible chains of causation. But in a country suffering from earthquakes or pestilences, in a court governed by the whim of a despot, in a district which is habitually the seat of a war between alien armies, the ordinary virtues of diligence, honesty, and kindliness seem to be of little avail. The only way to escape destruction is to win the favour of the prevailing powers, take the side of the strongest invader, flatter the despot, placate the Fate or Fortune or angry god that is sending the earthquake or the pestilence.

——Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion

The Devil of Indolence

“But there is a devil—several devils—of indolence in a child.” [H. G. Wells.]

Nevertheless, we are a little distressed when Wells speaks so impatiently of the devil of indolence in a child. We wonder whether he may not mean the child’s invariable desire to do something other than that suggested by parent or teacher. There have been times when H. 3rd has refused my most earnest pleas that he ride his kiddie car up and down the hall. Still, it would hardly be fair to call him indolent simply because he preferred to beat against the front window with a tablespoon. It takes ever so much energy to do that, particularly if you keep it up as long as H. 3rd does. We are not quite ready to believe that it is essential to exorcise the devil, even if he is one of sheer indolence. Naturally it is repugnant to a man like Wells, who realizes so keenly the necessity for us all to get together and do something for the world. There is no denying that it was a rush job. But, after all, God created man in His image. Some of us have the spirit which animated Him during those terrific six days, but we wonder whether the world has no place, and never will have any place, for those others who emulate the God who rested and talked a little, perhaps, and sat around and remembered and dreamed and never lifted a finger to add as much to the world as one more fly or another blade of grass.

——Heywood Broun, Seeing Things at Night.

Cowed by Rules

“Stop,” “Go,” “Keep Off the Grass,” “No Trespassing,” “Beware of the Dog,” “Watch Your Hat and Overcoat,” “Positively No Checks Cashed,” “Do Not Feed or Annoy the Animals”—how can a free and adventurous soul survive in such a world? Don Marquis has celebrated the exploit of one brave rebel, we think it was Fothergil Finch, who strode into the monkey house and crying “Down with the tyranny of the capitalist system,” or words to that effect, threw a peanut into the baboon’s cage. We know an even bolder soul who makes a point of never watching his hat and overcoat in direct defiance of the edict, but he says that the world has become so cowed by rules that nothing ever happens.

——Heywood Broun, “Promises and Contracts and Clocks.”

Little Red Riding-Hood


Then there was the wolf and Little Red Riding-Hood. The general impression seems to be that the child’s grandmother was a saintly old lady and that the wolf was a beast. Let us dismiss this sentimental conception and consider the facts squarely. Before meeting the wolf Red Riding-Hood was the usual empty-headed flapper. She knew nothing of the world. So flagrant was her innocence that it constituted a positive menace to the community. The wolf changed all that. It gave Red Riding-Hood a good scare and opened her eyes. After that encounter nobody ever fooled Red Riding-Hood much. She positively abandoned her practice of wandering around into cottages on the assumption that if there was anybody in bed it must be her grandmother.

——Heywood Broun, “Glass Slippers by the Gross.”