Elisabeth Morris

A meditation concerning forms

It was years ago, in Heidelberg. A group of young Americans, strolling down one of the quaint old streets of the town, approached the office of the American Consul, before which hung an American flag. As they passed the house one of the young men took off his hat. The man beside him looked at him, then glanced quickly about, as men do, to locate the person he was greeting. Another of the party fell back and said to him, “Did you see a friend?” When one is abroad, chance meetings gain in importance. The young man smiled. “Why—yes—a friend of mine—and of yours too, I suppose.” He pointed back toward the flag, which they had now passed. “Oh!” said the other, feeling a little flat.

“You see,” went on the young man, a little sheepishly, an American man is always sheepish when detected in what may seem a bit of sentiment,—“I served in the militia a good while, and I got in the habit of saluting the colors; and over here—somehow—”

“Is he apologizing because he saluted his flag?” broke in one of the young women. “I think it’s the rest of us that ought to apologize.”

The party moved on, and the incident was forgotten until, years afterward, one of the group learned that it had borne fruit: it had set a fashion, established a tradition. For since that time Americans in Heidelberg have always saluted their flag where it hangs before the office of their consul.

All this came into my mind last winter while I watched another little scene, this time in our own country, in a New England city. The President of the United States had been a guest in a house where some of us had been asked to meet him. The President was taking leave, and I made one of a group at a window watching the Chief Executive and his escort take their places in the automobiles. Groups of men and boys, who had in some way discovered what was happening, were lounging about on the street corners, gazing curiously at the Presidential party. The honorable guests and the honored host exchanged salutes, and the motor-cars moved off, while the crowd watched, with its hands in its pockets.

As the group in the window looked out at the scene one of them exclaimed: “Well! if that isn’t the limit!”

“What?” I asked.

“Why, didn’t you see? Not a man of them saluted. They just rubbered!”

Every one laughed, then we grew grave. “What an example for those small boys!” said some one. And we fell into a discussion of American manners compared with European.

Again, last summer, I was one of a huge audience witnessing an outdoor pageant. It was evening, band music filled the air, spectacular performances were going on in a brilliant electric illumination. All open spaces were thronged and bleachers were full. Suddenly a few people among those on the bleachers rose to their feet. “Down! Down in front! Sit down, can’t you?” was variously shouted by those behind, and there were growling comments about people who stood up when, if everybody sat down, every body could see. The offenders remained standing. The growling comments went on, until suddenly someone muttered, “Shut up! It’s The Star-Spangled Banner!” Where upon the comments died away, and before the band had ended the bleacher crowd was all on its feet, half ashamed, half amused.

Now, I find that these three scenes group themselves persistently in my mind, and persistently recur, producing an undercurrent of speculation and perhaps even of moralizing. “Ought these things so to be?” I wonder. We Americans are often congratulated, we often congratulate ourselves, on our emancipation from conventions, from forms, from traditions. But are we, I wonder, altogether to be congratulated? Is it entirely to our credit that we are able to stand on street corners with our hats on our heads and our hands in our pockets while our Country, embodied in its Chief Executive, passes by? Shall we unreservedly felicitate ourselves that we can stroll past our country’s flag without an impulse to salute it? that we can hear one of our national hymns without an impulse to rise? Is this emancipation, or is it something else?

Certainly, informality and unconventionality are good things within limits, but are we perhaps passing these limits? For, as psychologists tell us that we cannot think long without words, so perhaps it is also true that we cannot feel long without acts—and acts are forms. Unquestionably the spirit of loyalty may exist while one’s hat is on. But I wonder if taking off one’s hat may not perhaps give it a bit of encouragement—like a friendly pat on the shoulder of a boy who is doing well.

Moreover, among the young people who are growing up among us, who “know not Joseph,” who think of war as something in a textbook, and loyalty as something mentioned in poetry and history—among these, would it not give some suggestion and stimulus to the spirit of patriotism, innate in all of us, if they saw those around them giving some tangible evidences of the feeling? It is undoubtedly true that in some cases a feeling grows through being repressed, but it is much more often true that it grows through being expressed. To throw stones at a cat tends to make a boy cruel, while to feed it and pet it and care for it tends to make him tender hearted. The feeling causes the action, but the action reacts on the feeling. This is the vital circuit.

So it is with the feelings of loyalty and patriotism. From the ages of savagery down ward, kings and priests, whether they formulated the theory or not, acted in accordance with sound psychology when they instituted elaborate ceremonials by which the people might give expression to their feeling of reverence. We do not wish to return to barbarism. We do not even wish to wrap ourselves about in all the forms and ceremonies of modern European life, as they appear in some of its phases. But I wonder whether, in throwing off these cumbrous vestments, we have not got rid of a little too much. Might there not be something midway between the full regalia of a coronation procession and—let us say a bathing suit?—I wonder, to change the figure, whether, in our reaction from all formality, we are not in danger, as the Germans say, of “throwing out the child with the bath.”

(1917)

MLA Citation

Morris, Elisabeth. “A meditation concerning forms.” 1917. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 8 Oct 2008. 25 Jun 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/morris/meditation_concerning_forms/>.

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