Jane Ellen Harrison

Crabbed age and youth

Pace the Passionate Pilgrim, whose psychology is somewhat rudimentary, Crabbed Age—real Old Age—and Youth have rarely, for a reason that will appear directly, found much difficulty in living together. It is notorious that parents, after worrying and bullying their own children, become, as grandparents, almost besottedly tolerant and affectionate. Children and young people, for reasons perhaps not wholly disinterested, usually adore, or at least tolerate, their grandparents.

The real rub—if rub there be—is as to relations that are closer, relations between fairly mature youth and quite early middle age. I apologize for a catchpenny title. I shall use “Crabbed Age” as a convenient term; but when I say “Crabbed Age” I shall mean anything completely or hopelessly grown up—anything, say, well over thirty. After all, age is relative. I remember distinctly when a person of fourteen seemed to me utterly grown up—on the shelf.

Is there, then, as between Youth and this kind of Crabbed Age, any real difficulty, or is it a put-up thing? I confess that personally, being an incurable optimist, I have almost no personal experience of the difficulty. I was brought up myself with the utmost possible strictness, on the good old “seen but not heard” principle, but I always adored being with grown-up people. They were to me as gods, and I only asked to be allowed to observe in peace their magnificent doings. Now that Crabbed Age has come upon me, I feel, though I fight against it, a similar sentiment of veneration towards Youth. Youth is to me, to use its own vocabulary, “simply splendid.”

From this fools’ paradise of imagined mutual admiration and sympathy I was rudely awakened, and but for that awakening it would never have occurred to me to put together my reflections. About two years ago a young and gifted member of the University of Cambridge, though not, I hasten to add, of Trinity College, was heard to utter this momentous statement: “No one over thirty is worth speaking to.”

It was, I confess, a blow. I had overpassed the taboo age myself. I had had more than one conversation with the utterer of the doom, and these conversations I had, in my folly, felt to be worth while. (I may say in a parenthesis that, to my relief, I have been credibly informed that the taboo age limit is slowly moving on now towards forty.)

Now, when I had recovered from the blow to my personal vanity—for, of course, it was nothing else—I said to myself: “This is really very interesting and extraordinarily valuable. Here we have, not a reasoned conclusion, but a real live emotion, a good solid prejudice, a genuine attitude of gifted Youth to Crabbed Age. It is my business to understand and, if I can, learn from it. Give me an honest prejudice, and I am always ready to attend to it.” The reasons by which people back up their prejudices are mostly negligible—not reason at all at bottom, but just instinctive self-justifications; but prejudice, rising as it does in emotion, has its roots in life and reality.

Then I asked myself, Had I, in my poor way as Crabbed Age, any corresponding prejudice? Honestly I thought I had not. But I was self-deceived. A mere accident brought the truth out. A friend asked me one day to come and “dine quietly.” I accepted. As she went out she turned at the door and said: “Oh, I forgot to tell you, we shall be just a set of middle-aged fogies—it will be deadly dull! Do you mind?” I said: “What! No young people, no ‘really good conversation’! Oh, thank Heaven!” (I ought to explain that, among a certain set, “really good conversation” is slang for an acute form of dialectic, freely seasoned by obscure epigrams.)

Well, the moment I had said that I blushed spiritually. If I had reflected or reasoned for a moment, I never should have said it, but it just came out. It was a self-revelation. There was I with a counter-prejudice against Youth, just as crude, and in its way insulting, as the Gifted One’s utterance. There was I feeling that Crabbed Age and Youth could not or had better not dine together—would enjoy themselves more apart. The plot began to thicken. There really was a rub somewhere.

The three subjects at which I was at work at the time—they were mainly professional, and all of them helped me to shape my conclusion—do not sound very relevant. They were—

(a) Savage initiation ceremonies.

(b) That remarkably well-worn subject, the rise of the Greek drama.

(c) In an amateurish fashion, the philosophy of M. Henri Bergson.

I am almost ashamed to mention any one of these three subjects, they have been recently, in their respective circles, one and all so shamelessly boomed. Moreover, as regards the last (M. Bergson), I am well aware that his philosophy is discredited by some of the keenest wits of this University. None the less, it is to these three influences I owe my conclusions, for what they are worth, so I make my acknowledgements.

I will not weary you with the tortuous processes by which I arrived at my conclusion, or, rather by which it half unconsciously grew up. I will simply state these conclusions at the outset for clearness’ sake.

There is, I believe, a certain amount of inherent and inevitable friction between Youth and Crabbed Age. This friction may, if rightly understood and considerately handled on both sides, take the form of mutual stimulus and attraction. More often, from ignorance of its true source, it causes a blind irritation. The cause of this friction I believe to be mainly this:

Youth and Crabbed Age stand broadly for the two opposite poles of human living, poles equally essential to any real vitality, but always contrasted. Youth stands for rationalism*, for the intellect and its concomitants, egotism and individualism. Crabbed Age stands for tradition, for the instincts and emotions, with their concomitant altruism.

*Note: Due allowance of course being made for the anti-intellectual reaction in the present generation.

A word to avoid misunderstanding. When I say Youth is egotistic, and Crabbed Age altruistic, I am not praising Crabbed Age and blaming Youth—I am long past blame and praise, or, rather, I am not yet ready for them; there is so much still waiting to be understood. The whole art of living is a delicate balance between the two tendencies. Virtues and vice are but convenient analytic labels attached to particular forms of the two tendencies. Of the two, egotism, self-assertion, are to the youth as necessary—sometimes, I sadly think, more necessary—to good living than altruism. Moreover, the egotism of youth is compulsory, inevitable, and equally the altruism of age is ineductable.

I will take my points in order, and, first—

Youth stands for intellectualism, rationalism, egotism. Youth has a clear head and a—comparatively—cold heart.

What evidence have I for a statement dead against the conventional view—a mere paradox? Youth, we are always told, is emotional. Young people are carried away by passion. “They were dangerous guides, the ‘feelings,’” and so on.

When we want to find out the mainsprings of action in a person or a class, naturally we look to their characteristic occupations on the occasions—they are rare—when such persons are free. As contrasted with Crabbed Age, the characteristic amusements of Youth are, we shall all roughly agree, athletics, dancing, writing poetry, acting, debating. Athletics I rule out of my discussion. I know nothing of it; besides, I am not sure that, but for sheer physical inability, Crabbed Age would not remain addicted to athletics to the end. Dancing comes under acting; poetry will come in presently by the way. The two pursuits I want to examine for the moment, the two which really advance my argument, are (1) debating, (2) acting.

Who is it, I ask, who starts and keeps going Debating Societies? How is it that Heads of Houses have no clubs for the discussion of abstract questions, no Sunday Essay Societies? How is it that the Ad Eundum and the Ambarum Clubs, to name two venerable Crabbed Age societies, meet to dine and gossip, but never, so far as I know, for abstract discussion? It is certainly not that their hoary members are too inert. Some among them are quite remarkably and even terribly busy. It is not that they are too dull. Many, most of them, are men of acute intelligence. It is simply that among normal people, once thirty passed, once Crabbed Age fairly sets in, then abstract discussion, save for strictly specialist purposes, is apt to pall; the middle-aged palate is satiated, jaded.

There are exceptions, perhaps foolish exceptions, and the writer of this paper is conscious of proving the rule. But I venture to think anyone who cares passionately for abstract discussion, be his hair never so grey, his hand never so palsied, is in spirit young. I do not say this is an advantage. It is possible to stay young too long. There is a “time to grow old.” If you stay young beyond your time, you gain some ways; but you will pay for it: it is a form of hybris, of transgression, of “uppishness.”

When I speak of this passion for abstract discussion in the young, I shall be told, I know, that this world of Cambridge in which I live is narrow and academic—hyperintellectualized; that the ordinary young man and maiden are dancing and making love, or earning their livings, and not concerned to discuss abstractions. This may be partially true, and I only pretend to speak of the worlds I know. Professional and literary London I have known, academic Cambridge I do know. That other Youth—that is, happy peasants, coal-heavers, opulent stockbrokers, and the higher form of young barbarians—I do not know, and of them I do not speak. I accept my limitations.

My next characteristic of Youth is—acting.

Leave together a large number of young people under thirty, provide them food and leisure, or supposed leisure, such as is carefully provided in this University. I will undertake to say that before long some form of amateur drama will be the outcome. Leave together the same number of people over thirty-five or forty—to be quite safe—and I will undertake to say no such drama will arise. Acting—in a special sense to be defined presently—is instinctively felt to be a young thing. I said not long ago to a middle-aged woman who acted remarkably well, “Why on earth don’t some of you people who really can act start a club, and give us a play once or twice a term?” And she said, “Oh, it would be delightful, but I don’t think we could. Acting is a young people’s sort of thing.”

But what has acting to do with youthful or any other egotism? Surely, it will be urged, acting is typically altruistic; the actor sinks himself in another’s personality.

True enough of real acting. But—and this is just the instructive point—the young do not as a rule act at all; they do what is the very opposite pole of acting—they masquerade.

Again I mean no disparagement. Acting is sinking your own personality in order that you may mimic another’s. Masquerading is borrowing another’s personality, putting on the mask of another’s features, dress, experiences, emotions, and thereby enhancing your own. Masquerading is often quite as beautiful as acting or more; neither actor nor masquerader is to my mind an artist. But that is by the way. Personally, for my own amusement, I would rather be a good mimic than anything in the world—it must be such pure altruistic joy; but, for the spectator’s pleasure of watching it, give me a fine personality masquerading. In a parenthesis, I may say that I believe a good part of Mr. Gordon Craig’s interesting tirade against the personality of the actor is due to the fact that he does not recognize the beauty and legitimacy of the masquerader. But this is a separate story. My point for the moment is that Youth, and especially shy Youth, is strongly possessed by the instinctive desire to masquerade. Youth is inhibited artificially from enhancing personality by the normal means of living; he eagerly seizes the chance of doing it in borrowed plumes.

Why does Crabbed Age cease to masquerade? Crabbed Age is still both proud and vain. Crabbed Age still loves Art. It may be we love only le faux bon, but still we love it. Crabbed Age crowds to Music-hall, and “Miracles,” and Russian Ballets, and “Œdipus Rexes,” it makes any excuse to take children to pantomimes. It is not even that Crabbed Age at thirty is too stiff and clumsy to dance. Some of the finest dancers I have known off the stage have been over fifty. Crabbed Age simply doesn’t want to masquerade. Masquerading bores Crabbed Age. Why?

Simply because the impulse to imaginative self-enhancement dies down as soon as liberty to live is granted. Man’s natural megalomania has found its natural outlet. Crabbed Age is busy living, not rehearsing, and living, if sometimes less amusing, is infinitely more absorbing. It takes so much out of you. Of course, needless to say, the real actor, the born mimic, goes on acting with one foot in the grave.

Now, real life—and here comes the important point—real life, as contrasted with life imagined and rehearsed, on the whole compels at least a certain measure of altruism. There are many methods of compulsion, some gentle, some violent. We will consider for a moment only two, and these the most normal.

Normally, in the first place, life itself will lure you, catch you, and marry you, make a father or a mother of you, and your children will soon stop your masquerading, and teach you that you are not the centre of their universe—nay, compel you to revolve round the circumference of theirs. Marriage, through the lure of passion for the individual, compels your service to the race. This great education in altruism is necessarily more drastic and complete for woman than for man.

But suppose you elude the natural lure of life. There is society waiting with its artificial lure—waiting to catch you and make an official of you, a functionary, a thing that is only half or a quarter perhaps yourself, and a large three-quarters that tool and mouthpiece of the collective conscience. How often one has seen a year’s officialdom turn a man’s spiritual hair grey! The gist of all officialdom is not its labels, its honours, but the sacrifice of the individual will; and for this society is always ready, and rightly, to pay a big price. Of course, though there is loss, there is great gain in officialdom as in marriage. Each is a godly discipline by which the young man learns not to be the centre of his own universe.

This being the centre of your own—of course, quite fictitious—universe is best seen in the extreme case of the megalomania of young children, as yet untaught by life. Their own experience is always illuminating. I had as a child—I was about seven—a very kind and much-adored aunt, aged about forty. At forty-one she quite unexpectedly married. I can never forget the shock her marriage gave me. My whole universe was deranged. My other uncles and aunts, of course, held that she was “a disgrace to her sex” for marrying at over forty. An uncle, happily married himself at forty-three, was especially strong on this chapter. This was not what troubled me and that set my whole world out of gear. What was wrong was that I was disorientated. I had been at the centre of my own universe, my aunt gently and protectively hovering over that centre. Suddenly she had made a centre of her own, and I was out at the circumference, with no tendency at all to hover sympathetically round her. Of course, I could not see that at the time. At seven years old one cannot analyze, so one must agonize. That is why it is so terrible to be a child, or even a young thing at all. One sees things, feels them, whole. There is no such devastating, desolating experience as to have been at the centre, warm and sheltered, and suddenly to be at the outmost circumference, and be asked to revolve as spectator and sympathizer round a newly-formed centre. It needs a new heart, it spells conversion. But of that elsewhere.

To make this ego-centrism of youth clearer, may I use an analogy? It is merely an analogy, but I think instructive. Greek drama, we have been told ad nauseam, arose out of the chorus, which then differentiated into chorus and spectators, and ultimately into actors and spectators. That is what happens, or should happen, in life. Youth is a chorus. Every single member of that chorus, by virtue of masquerade, feels himself to be the centre of the action. He is the centre of it to himself. A chorus is an aggregate of pas seuls, a congregation of—shall we say Morning Stars, dancing together? As long as you want to be, and feel yourself to be, the whole of life, as long as you do not specialize and become a functionary, you do not co-operate, you cannot apprehend or be interested in the personalities of others. You are only one of a great chorus, all masquerading, all shouting, “Me, Me—look at ME!” Once you specialize, once you become an actor with a part in life, then you need all the other actors; the play cannot go on without them. Even your part in it depends on them. The me becomes us.

I cannot here go into the question of the altruism of specialization and its relation to co-operation. It has all been splendidly worked out by Professor Durkheim in his Le Travail Social. He shows that, far from it being true that specialization narrows the individuality, specialization is almost the condition of any true individualism. Through co-operation the sense of personality is born and nourished. Savages who all do everything are not individuals, they are merely members of an undifferentiated herd. We all know how the normal individual developes and enlarges as soon as he gets a piece of work in the world. The narrow, tedious people are those who are “living their own lives” and consciously “developing their own individualities”—trying to out-shout the other members of the chorus instead of singing in tune, playing their part as actors in a troupe.

Specialization, limitation, then, is essential to life and growth. Marie Claire, or, rather, M. le Curé, in Marie Claire, says “à quinze ans on a toutes les vocations.” Mr. Forster, in Howards’ End, says (p. 260) of Margaret when she comes to Crabbed Age: “As for discussion-societies, they attracted her less and less. She began to ‘miss’ new movements, she was passing from words to things. Some closing of the mind is inevitable after thirty, if the mind itself is to become a creative power.” Here, then, is one secret of division. Youth is bored by Crabbed Age because Youth “a toutes les vocations”; it wonders at the dullness of Age, which refuses to be excited about everything, Crabbed Age is bored by Youth. It is only le bon Dieu who can rightly claim to have toutes les vocations, and it is this God-Almightiness of Youth, and specially gifted Youth, which is to Crabbed Age stupid and tedious. Once Youth condescends to specialize, to drop the God-Almighty masquerade, once, through the compulsion of life, through marrying, through having a bad illness, through accepting a “post,” through any bit of actual work or responsibility, Youth takes a part in life, becomes a real part, instead of claiming a theatrical whole, straight-way Youth mellows, becomes interesting and easier to live with.

This “easier to live with” comes out in another way. When and how is companionship, equal comradeship, possible between Youth and Crabbed Age? Instantly and easily if you are bent on a common inquiry or on any form of common work. Who, save as a matter of curiosity, asks whether a fellow man of science is twenty or forty? And why not? Because the scientific inquirer is not quâ inquirer the centre of his own universe; he is intent, not on the relations of things to himself, but of things among themselves—the hot personal focus is non-existent. Similarly, the dramatic as contrasted with the lyrics artist is bent on uttering, not his own emotions towards the outside world, but on the interplay of others’ emotions. Youth of necessity breaks out into lyric, own cousin to masquerade. Crabbed Age, if he be artist, attempts drama. First poems, first novels, are almost always lyrical.

To go back to and have done with my drama metaphor, the chorus of masquerading Youth differentiates into actors, each specialized, in all humility, to a part. But last there is a third stage. Some withdraw from the stage into the theatre-place and become spectators.

This is real Old Age, and it should never be crabbed. These actors have first masqueraded, rehearsed life in imagination, then lived to the full, and last, discharged from life, they behold it. It is the time of the great Apocalypse. It is one of the tragic antinomies of life that you cannot at once live and have vision.

If another figure may be pardoned, looking back on life I seem to see Youth as standing, a small, intensely-focused spot, outside a great globe or circle. So intense is the focus that the tiny spot believes itself the centre of the great circle. Then slowly that little burning, throbbing spot that is oneself is sucked in with thousands of others into the great globe. Humbled by life it learns that it is no centre of life at all; at most it is one of the myriads of spokes in the great wheel. In Old Age the speck, the individual life, passes out on the other side, no longer burning and yet not quite consumed. In Old Age we look back on the great wheel; we can see it a little because, at least partially, we are outside of it. But this looking back is strangely different from the looking forward of Youth. It is disillusioned, but so much the richer. Occasionally nowadays I get glimpses of what that vision might be. I get my head for a moment out of the blazing, blinding, torturing wheel; the vision of the thing behind me and without me obscurely breaks. It looks strange, almost portentous, yet comforting; but that vision is incommunicable.

People ask: “Would you or would you not like to be young again?” Of course, it is really one of those foolish questions that never should be asked, because they are impossible. You cannot be—you that are—young again. You cannot unroll that snowball which is you: there is no “you” except your life—lived. But apart from that, when you rise from what somebody calls “the banquet of life,” flushed with the wine of life, can you want to sit down again? When you have climbed the hill, and the view is just breaking, do you want to reclimb it? A thousand times no! Anyone who honestly wants to be young again has never lived, only imagined, only masqueraded. Of course, if you never eat, you keep your appetite for dinner.

Youth, then, analyzes and masquerades. Crabbed Age specializes, lives, acts a part. Now, in the light of these considerations, I seem to see something of the cause of the manifold mistakes they make in trying to live together.

And here, though naturally my sympathies are with Crabbed Age, I say advisedly the fault lies in the main at his door. Age lives, and he must learn to let live. The remedy, the only remedy, for Youth’s excessive rationalism and egotism, is life, more life—that is, being in fuller and freer relation with more people and things. What does Crabbed Age, or, rather, what did Crabbed Age, say on this chapter? “We must guard the young—shield them from life.” My generation used to talk of life as if it were a sort of miasma or mosquito charged with malaria, and always watching to bite the unwary, or a sort of personal devil walking about seeking whom it might devour. “See,” they said, “what foolish, rash things young people do when left to themselves; they are not fit to face life, they must profit by our experience.”

Ah, here is the great fallacy, the pathetic fallacy, of Crabbed Age. It is useless, or almost useless, to offer to Youth the treasures of experience gathered by Age. “When you are my age,” says Crabbed Age, “you will know what I know, see as I see.” Nothing could be more profoundly false. History does not repeat itself. Evolution forbids. When you are my age, you will not know what I know, but something quite different. Experience is not a counter to be handed from age to age. I have often thought in bygone transitional days that, when I was really old, I would write down briefly, for the sake of the young, what I had learnt by living—not what I ought to have learnt, but what I really had learnt. It seemed to me then that this would be useful. That book will never be written. I know better know. The race does not tread the same stream twice. It is a waste of time putting up signposts for others who necessarily travel by another, and usually a better, road. Old people are apt to make disastrous confusion between information that can be accumulated and conveyed, that is identical for all time, that is knowledge, and experience, that which must be lived and cannot be repeated.

But Old Age does worse than that. In trying to impose its experience as a law to youth it sins not only through ignorance, but from sheer selfishness. Parents try to impose their view of life on their children not merely or mostly to save those children from disaster—that to a certain extent and up to a certain age we must all do—but from possessiveness, from a desire, often unconscious, to fill the whole stage themselves. This egotism of Age is ranker, more inexcusable, than any egotism, any masquerading, of Youth. It has only to be seen clearly for what it is to be—by all generous if elderly souls—at once rejected. Parents must learn, and are fast learning, to regard their children, not as property to be exploited for personal use, but as “experiments in the life force”*—I borrow Mr. Bernard Shaw’s phrase—to be reverently cherished. A child who grows up the counterfeit presentment of its parent, who walks in his parents’ footsteps, is an evolutionary failure.

*Note: Equally, of course, the parent is an experiment in the life-force, but the young child is powerless to control or hamper that experiment.

Crabbed Age is here not without some excuse. The truth that it has failed to grasp is a hard one for human nature. This truth is that, in all matters that can be analyzed and known, Youth starts life on the shoulders of Age, and therefore, ceteris paribus, he sees farther and is actually more likely to be right. This is at the back of some of the irritation of Crabbed Age. It is, perhaps, just a little mortifying, if you have expended much energy and emotion, say, on the question of a Future Life, to find a generation arise which treats the Immortality of the Soul as though it were a sort of dusty Early Victorian photograph. I am conscious myself of a certain soreness on this chapter. I spent some eager years of youth as an evangelist of dancing; I helped to found a “jig-club.” Few joined, and no one outside acclaimed my new gospel. Now that my own feet begin to falter, a whole new generation is dancing, and shouting my own gospel, on my shoulders.

Of course, if we aged ones are right-minded, we shall take it all as a compliment. Mr. Sheppard well says: “When the fathers think that the Age of Reason is achieved, the sons may be trusted, if they are of good stock, to see that it is still far off.” When we who teach see our spiritual children turn against us, hit us on the head with those very weapons we helped them to forge, it behoves us to remember that it is because they are “of good stock,” but it isn’t pleasant, all the same.

In another respect Age sins worse than youth. Age dominates, possesses Youth, uses Youth for its own selfish purposes, demands its sympathy and adulation, and then expects Youth to be grateful. Youth does not make the like demand on Age. This word “grateful” is always a danger-signal; it means a certain denial of friendship and equality. Youth is pathetically “grateful” and therefore it is difficult for Youth and Age to be friends. The relation is that of helper and helped, not of mutual comradeship, where help is given and taken without account. I once knew a tutor, who, rash man, thought he had made a friend of a pupil. The pupil wrote, as it happened, to announce his marriage, and used the occasion to say how “grateful” he was and for what. “I owe you eternal gratitude: you have helped me to find … myself—that self which I am now about to dedicate to another.” The tutor’s face was old and grey as he laid down the letter. But the young man was quite sincere: his tutor had been to him, not a friend, but a door by which he might enter, a ladder by which he might spiritually climb. The friendship between Crabbed Age and Youth is always beset on both hands by the fiend of megalomania; the younger enhances himself through the skill and knowledge of the elder, the elder feeds his vanity on the open-eyed admiration of the younger. Only very delicate souls can live unhurt in such an atmosphere.

But am I right in saying that each generation, as new to the part, really stands better equipped? am I not begging some dreadful Mendelian question or assuming that acquired characteristics are inherited? I do not know whether they are or not. What I do know is a different matter. Acquired institutions and acquired language are inherited. The present generation comes into a world equipped with different and sharper weapons. It goes to better schools and Universities; it uses a finer, richer, acuter terminology. It does not spend its young strength on the educational futilities that were arranged for my edification. I never now meet a child who spends its Saturday mornings repeating the dates of the Creation, 4004 B.C., and the date of the Flood, 2378 B.C. Nor do I often meet anyone who agonizes as I did over the question of Eternal Punishment. People say, to comfort me, that it all went to strengthen my moral and mental fibre. I can only say that the price paid was in excess of the commodity purchased, and that I should have been better employed learning cuneiform and hieroglyphics. For myself, I face facts, and admit that the younger generation stands upon my shoulders, and for that reason it would be a scandal if I were not found sitting at its feet.

Can Youth, then, learn nothing from Age? In the matter of experience, I believe almost nothing; in the matter of communicable knowledge Youth is already ahead. But something remains. Crabbed Age is not always, I admit, a work of Art, but it is a work of Life. As such it should be reverently contemplated. If we Crabbed Ones were artists, and could express our experiences as a whole, as a living thing it would be priceless. Most of us cannot, but there remains always, for better for worse, for precept for warning, that imago, that paradeigma, that is ourselves.

I have been concerned to emphasize the fact that Youth is naturally and necessarily egocentric, Crabbed Age by compulsion altruistic; they stand, it seems, for the two integral factors of our morality—self and the other.

But though egotism is the is the rule for the young, and altruism for the old, we all have known exceptions. We have known the ancient egotist, a most unlovely and not quite infrequent sight, and perhaps we have known, also, one who is delicately and beautifully young, scarcely more than a child, and who yet by some heaven-born instinct is old in altruism, sensitive to others from the outset, who never needs to learn. It frightens us a little; we feel such a one must die, for he knows all things. Others, rarer still, have a sort of impersonal, almost aloof, altruism. They are born with an intense consciousness of the whole of things, they come unto the world haunted, as it were, by the unseen faces of the souls that have been and that will be, a vision denied to most of us at any age.

These exceptions, it may be, only prove the rule, but they bring me to my last point.

All class distinctions, whether of age or station, are survivals of savagery, and savagery surviving out of time is apt to savour of vulgarity.

I think it was Blake who said, “The man who generalizes is an idiot.” That is rather a sweeping statement. The man who generalizes—if an idiot—is a most useful and necessary idiot in providing the tools for life. But it is quite true that life itself escapes him, slips though his clumsy, classifying fingers. The man who handles life by means of generalization—that is, who treats individuals merely or mainly as members of classes—is not exactly and idiot, but for social purposes a rather tiresome, blundering savage. It saves time and trouble to treat your tutor as a member of the class “don,” or your pupil as an “undergraduate,” it saves thinking and still more feeling; but who save the coward and shirker wants to be saved thinking and feeling?

The conviction of this later-day stupidity and savagery came over me when I was working at initiation ceremonies. An initiation ceremony is primarily nothing but a tremendous emphasis on the transit from childhood to full manhood, from Youth to Crabbed Age, from being outside the club or the circle to being inside. It takes among most savages weeks, or even months, to get it done, and very anxious and painful months they are. You retire into a hut, or, better still, that your seclusion may be the more complete, you carry a small hut about over your head. When you sit down, your maternal uncle sits down by you and preaches to you by the hour on tribal customs, tribal morality, tribal traditions. It is a comfort to know that from time to time there will be an interlude, when he will teach you a tribal dance. Then it all comes to a head. You are beaten about the head with a club and half killed, some of your front teeth are knocked out, you are scarified, your hair is cut in some amazing pattern, a joint of one of your fingers is cut off, and then at last you are allowed to be a man. The whole gist of the, to us, monstrous performance is to emphasize the difference between Youth and Age, to show how prodigiously important and different grown-up people are, and how essential it is that the young should learn in meekness. Crabbed Age has got the upper hand and will show his supremacy.

Initiation ceremonies among savages are most severe and protracted in the case of young men. Sometimes for girls they do not exist at all; the girl has no social soul to be saved. But the last survivals of savagery linger on as so often among women. In the higher barbarian circles girls still in my young days went regularly through a process, not of “going in,” but of its correlative, “coming out.” After strict seclusion in nursery and schoolroom, a girl’s hair was suddenly put up, her skirts were lengthened, she was allowed to wear jewels, and she made a sudden epiphany at a dance given in her honour by her kinsfolk. To support her through this ordeal, she was allowed to kiss the hand of the reigning Sovereign; she thereby obtained much Mana.

One great factor in the advance of civilization is the minimizing of distinctions, the abolition of these temporal crises, the treating of human beings, not as classes, but as individuals.

This point comes out very clearly in people’s manners. People with second-rate good manners—le faux fin—always observe and emphasize class distinctions, both of age and station. There is with them a touch of kindly condescension to Youth and inferior station, something of genial unbending just to set the pupil at his ease, a shade of graceful deference to the Bishop or the reverent senior. I have one friend with supremely good manners, and I have found out his secret. He has no manners at all! He speaks with exactly the same slightly colourless courtesy to child, young man, great lady, Archbishop. He is not, I regret to say, a Socialist, but his mind does not work in classes; in his eyes we are all—human individuals.

My moral, then, is this: Forget the subject of this paper; decline the crudity of class distinctions; ignore Crabbed Age and Youth as classes, and you will find that as individuals they will and can most happily live, and even dine, together.


MLA Citation

Harrison, Jane Ellen. “Crabbed age and youth.” 1915. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 7 Mar 2007. 23 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/harrison/crabbed_age_and_youth/>.

Patrick Madden's New Book
Quotidiana by Patrick Madden

Join Us on Facebook
facebook logo

Generate PDF

Related Essays

“Crabbed age and youth”

Robert Lewis Stevenson

To have a catchword in your mouth is not the same thing as to hold an opinion.

“An essay on an old subject”

Alexander Smith

Youth is a lyrical poet, middle age a quiet essayist, fond of recounting experiences and of appending a moral to every incident.

“On the danger of sentimental or romantic connexions”

Hannah More

Young people never shew their folly and ignorance more conspicuously, than by this over-confidence in their own judgment, and this haughty disdain of the opinion of those who have known more days.

“Of vicissitude of things”

Francis Bacon

In the youth of a state, arms do flourish; in the middle age of a state, learning; and then both of them together for a time; in the declining age of a state, mechanical arts and merchandize.

“Happiest days”

Gail Hamilton

You are "getting into years." Yes, but the years are getting into you,--the ripe, rich years, the genial, mellow years, the lusty, luscious years.