The Martyrdom of the Soul

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William Bailie, "The Martyrdom of the Soul," Liberty, 8, 35 (February 6, 1892), 2-3.

The Martyrdom of the Soul.

In my experience of work-a-day life and every-day people there is one thing above all others that I account the most notable, and that by reason of its rarity. Not that I claim a longer or wider experience than the next man, for mine indeed is but short, yet varied enough to give point to the observation. It is true the rare quality I speak of has appeared to me in several individuals who stood out like oases in the desert, or as beacons on the waters, their light glittering with a brightness which served only to show the profundity of the darkness around.

I must crave the exercise of a little patience with my mode of explanation, for instead of defining this notable rarity I shall begin by pointing out its absence in the examples I am about to introduce. With them I shall be lenient, and sympathetic withal, because in their ranks I often, if not always, march myself. We live not in an age of martyrs. People nowadays seldom feel the necessity to enter the state of martyrdom, and least of all the people whom I am about to accuse. Yet consciously in a few cases and in the vast number unconsciously they do exist upon the earth in a state of living, helpless, crucified martyrdom.

We shall examine them as they come, indiscriminately. Take your good citizen, your thriving man of business, conscious of his well-merited success and his neighbors’ respect. Has he ever for one whole moment in his life knowingly cultivated himself,—that is, the part of him which in a careful analysis might be distinguished as essentially him, an entity, an individuality, a something which differentiated him from all others; a feature held not in common with the rest, but in distinction to and separate from all those common attributes?

Like other boys, he received in due course an education; they all received the same. The main object was to prepare him—that is, the parts of him, the powers, passions, capacities, which he held in common with the others—for the busy struggling un-individual life which he now so complacently follows. That exercise did nothing to foster or enlarge the distinctive entity; it helped in its infancy to crush and smother it. Possibly when he left school he did feel some latent yet distinctive desires and predilections. He dreamt of going to sea, or to California, or living in the country, or becoming a philosopher, or a stone-mason, or of reaching the dignity and distinction of a policeman or a President or what not. Whatever may have been his private feelings, his individual leanings, in the matter, nobody consulted, and he soon forgot that such heresies had ever found lodgment in his mind, for like his peers he had early been impressed with the essential object of his bringing up, viz., to make a man of himself by getting more, realizing a position, a standing in the world, from a material point of view, always making the most of his opportunities. In a word, not to be a man, a separate individual, but to tread the same paths the rest were on, do the same things, reach the same goal, feel the same contentment and satisfaction at his success in the beaten path.

Not without sundry rebellions, however, is all this programme accomplished.

His parents put him into a situation which at the time offers the best opportunities. After awhile mayhap its dullness, insipidity, and want of agreement with his natural tastes and ambitions bring a discontent. Another place which has also been selected because of its fulfillment of the general stipulations, is procured, and for awhile the young man is satisfied. Finally he learns to heed no more those inner promptings, but settles down to the life that is laid upon in performing his round of duty, his commercial labors and social engagements, with a sense of their sacredness which completely annihilates the natural proferences and crude yearnings of the individual man. In business hours he associates with many people. To each he is civil, polite, and always tries to converse as if interested in the phase of the weather or other circumstance that each desires to unburden himself of.

He finds himself married. Then arises a variety of duties, impositions, which, whether they correspond with his inclinations or net (they seldom do), he feels obliged to lend himself to, and perform to the satisfaction of another party. Visits, entertainments shopping, and other indifferent locomotory functions which are always dull and often positively abhorrent. The exactions upon his stifled entity belonging to his bi-condition grow with years, and at last he almost ceases to remember that be ever was an individual, n free being.

He has a family. As they grow in years and numbers, his whole thoughts and most of his time are devoted to placing, settling, and worrying about them. If he is considerate and good, fired with the regulation pride of family, he takes to these trying duties kindly, acting as their general omnipotence,

When this period is well through, his head in bald; he probably attends church with more devotion and regularity, for he had not till now much time to spare for ultra-earthly duties or spiritual thoughts.

Now, when he is about worked up, he is free at last to turn his attention to his own cultivation. Whatever of the distinctive personality had once flourished within is long since smothered and dead, so instead of this he thinks of the life to come and spends the remainder of his days in pious contemplation of the projected but uncertain bliss beyond. Thus vegetating has he gone through life. Never did be perpetrate an original deed, or utter a new thought, or feel the influence of an uncommon emotion. No worse can be said of him than this: he has travelled life’s journey as millions more, past, present, and to come, feeling no aspiration, performing no action by which from any of those he might have been distinguished. Wedged in by circumstances, surrounded by conditions, he made not the effort to break the chain they forged that bound him to the beaten path. As he passes from the stage of life, another stops into his place, filling it with equal competency; and, missing him not, the world goes on its way.

Let us shift our ground. Here is another type. A man pitchforked into the rut of life he exists in. One who "earns his broad by the sweat of his brow," the ancient curse still pressing upon him heavily; cast as it were upon a raft, around and upon which cling a multitude scrambling for a hold and a footing secure. About his vocation there is no choice, not even a predilection. Little stimulus here to build a berth, to make a position giving a safe and comfortable competence as did the other. From the outset his life's work seems to be a struggle to subsist, to find a spar, a piece of débris, anything to cling to about the precarious raft of existence. Not seldom in this does he fail completely, dropping unnoticed to the bottom.

Passing over the preparation for life’s battle which the meager education allotted him affords, he begins his career as 'prentice errand-boy, drudge, or general knockabout. Truly he gains an advantage over our first type in that some opportunity may arise in the grim variety and precariousness of this experience to find out and cherish, yet rarely to develop, his personality. When he is settled in life (this you will perceive is a paradox, for he never is settled in life, but always borne hither and thither—insecure), or what is his nearest approach to that condition, the head of a family of which he is the only support, the life he leads is after this fashion. A day of toil extending through twelve or fourteen hours, including meals and going to and fro, which leaves him physically exhausted and mentally inert. Inexorable destiny decrees that to cultivate the vital entity whose latent existence he may perchance dimly feel shall not be the privilege of his condition. The world permits him to live; the repayment of this debt with usurious interest leaves him but little leisure and less opportunity to consciously discover that which is within. The semblance of amusement—the most trivial excitement, the least exalting pleasures absorb the scanty time of rest; and for anything beyond, his weariness proves an effectual barrier.

Imagine for yourself the conditions and surroundings, or perhaps you know already from ripe experience. Whether it be on a street-car, a monotonous but ever vigilant strain; or at the furnace plutonic, or the whirring machine subduing and fashioning the useful metal; or it may be behind the counter of a busy store sustaining the maximum of pressure to the square inch, a dreary and exhausting round of trivialities; else in the din of the flying factory ‘mid the buzzing of a myriad wheels; or in the quieter workshop still feeling the squeeze in the race for life; whether handling the shovel and pick, or following the plough, so needful forms of toil yet se unprofitable; or mayhap treading the ladder with the “hod” while the man at the top does all the work—in every case the result is alike. On duty, a ceaseless effort; off, lassitude needing all the little opportunity for recuperation so again to be capable of the same endurance.

Thus is strangled and annihilated the soul of man.

Here is a veritable martyrdom. True, we may find exceptions, and I am pleased to think, a growing number who escape; but it is only partial, and they are still rare. The conditions are iron-bound, the circumstances imperative, and they effect their stifling and destructive work as surely and as completely as a political party chokes and stamps out an independent opinion.

Upon the home life we need not dwell. Domestic comforts represented too often merely by a sleeping place, where the partner lives who prepares the food and supplies maternity to the children. Comfort, happiness, peace—to cultivate these there is no time.

Family life is a pretence, a shadow, hardly ever a pleasant reality.

Small wonder that the mass of humanity, a few of whose ordinary surroundings and conditions of life in a free (!) country have been imperfectly sketched, moves forward with so little haste. It is made up of an agglomeration of distinct individuals, everyone wedged in by all the others, obliged to fashion and accommodate himself to his environment.

Let us here affirm that each intelligent unit has a distinctive entity, a personality capable of cultivation, which would render it more complete and thoroughly differentiate it from all others. Denied the opportunity to perfect this cultivation, knowledge is lacking, expansion and elevation of the soul impossible, and liberty, dearest of all, not to be attained.

The whole is no greater than all of its parts, and can contain nothing which does not in some of them reside, consequently it partakes of all these negatives, and by its ponderance crushes whatever small stock of asserted self-consciousness a few, by overcoming the pressure of prejudice and circumstance, have audaciously evolved.

The mass can move onward only when the component parts are in the way of progress. No advance were possible, did not some, a minute fraction to be sure, discern that innate personality and give rein to the soul. When each and everyone can do this, freely, spontaneously, the whole mass will have ascended to a higher plane to breathe a purer air, but not till then.

Although the types we have taken to exemplify our theme are of the gender masculine, yet what has been said is none the less true of their coördinates, women. Indeed the sacrifice of the woman’s personality is so absolute and so universal that to handle it here is quite impossible. Tomes might be filled about it; to indite a library would not exhaust it. Therefore with an observation I pass on. It is this. Women are to a greater degree than men the slaves of routine, custom, and conventionality. Their lives under the imperfect civilization of today partake more of the flat, monotonous sameness of the prairie, especially in Old World countries. Hence, while the vacuity of their existence is more perfect and the soul’s suppression less relieved by stray gleams of personal development, the sacrifice is not so galling, the desire of wider individuality hardly so keen, and the unconscious martyrdom enwraps in tighter folds the whole character of woman.

The sensitive mind feels the curb at every turn. Dame Grundy and her progeny, public opinion, custom, respectability, and the rest, are potent factors in preserving mediocrity and rolling out all her subjects—victims, I should say—to one level, insipid and barren. The unlucky wight who drops out of the ranks, steps aside, or strides beyond, how he suffers! Courage and endurance he must possess in good store if he maintain his chosen ground. The soul should be well watered, its roots deep set in a fruitful soil, to endure the assault.

What is more painful, while bordering on the ridiculous, than to see the people whose souls are dormant shocked and scared, ever ready to attack, as the silly turkey a red rag, the slightest manifestation of cultivated individuality. Anything novel in externals, as the fleeting fashions, is received with open arms. But a new idea, the unusual and ill-understood thought or action of a person with a soul, shall be anathema. To be so is to be a crank, an eccentric creature; at best, a fool; at worst, an enemy of society,—an Anarchist.

Do you belong to this category? A modern member of the tribe of Ishmael. How often in company, in the office the work-shop, the club, amongst the companions, not of your own choice exactly, but whom you are, as it were, thrust upon, have you felt it necessary to smother the sentiment or opinion which would only excite their derision and contempt? Why? Simply because it was unusual; they would not understand. The horse or yacht race, the latest murder, the forthcoming election, all the commonplace topics of every-day recurrence you may have your say about, but see to’t that it is what everybody says, else keep it to yourself. And when you think on other matters, pursuing the course toward which a free and distinctive entity urges you, O! tell it not in Gath, publish it not in Eskalon,, that you may escape martyrdom at the hands of the Philistines.

Take this advice with thee. Never despise the inner promptings. Know that thou dost possess something worth cultivating; seek for it, and thon shalt in some direction find it Fear net to think and to express thy thought. Act upon thine own judgment when thou canst brave the calumny and ostracism of the multitude. If thon wouldst possess a soul of thine own, make not gain thy chief business, but be ever ready to sacrifice something for thy soul’s sake.

William Bailie.