Elisabeth Morris

The tyranny of facts

Once upon a time, very long, ago, when I was young, I used to dream of all the things I would someday possess. As time went on, the nature of the things I coveted changed, but not the dream of possession. Then, as some of these dreams found their fulfillment, a fundamental reconstruction of ideals took place. I dreamed no longer of possession, but of enfranchisement; I no longer wished for more things, but only for the power to cope with the things I already had—or that had me. And at last my strongest desire was to possess nothing—but friends.

Of late, I notice, the same thing that happened in my house has happened in my head. There was a time when I loved to collect in formation. Facts—all facts—were precious to me, and I loved to feel them making piles and stacks and rows in my brain. Every thing was welcome, from the names of the stars to the prepositions that governed the Latin ablative, from the dynasties of Egypt to the geography lists of “state products”—”corn, wheat, and potatoes,” “rice, sugar, cotton, and tobacco.” While this mania was upon me, dictionaries allured me, cyclopaedias held me spellbound. I was even able to read with interest the annals of the “Swiss Family Robinson,” a book which presents more facts per page than any other volume in that great and unclassified mob called “fiction.”

What were the causes and processes of change I cannot say. Possibly an overdose of facts produced reaction. At all events, the change took place, and the time has now come when, just as I deprecate the arrival of new possessions in my house, even thus do I deplore the stream of information whose constant, relentless flow into my unwilling consciousness I am powerless to prevent. For I find that whereas during my years of enthusiasm for accumulation everything combined to help me, now that my endeavors are reversed the powers arrayed against me are mighty. The Sunday newspaper, which is the embodiment of information invading the last stronghold of peace,—this I can and do bar out of my house; but on week-days the news papers have things their own way. They invade my morning quiet, they disturb my evening calm, they render the male section of my family indifferent to morning coffee and dilatory before evening soup. Nor am I my self exempt from the baleful influence. Various digests of the “world’s news” lie constantly upon my table, and I am occasionally weak enough to think it my duty to read them, “so as to be a little intelligent, you know,” as a firm-minded aunt of mine is in the habit of saying. In this unwilling endeavor to acquire intelligence I stultify what little of that faculty I may have been origin ally endowed with, I stuff my brain with cotton, in the form of “science brevities,” “literary jottings,” “religious notes,” “political news,” and so on. And then for a time a violent reaction sets in, and I eschew all informing books and hie me to Lamb, to Shelley, to Malory, to Homer. These are my joy, my recreation, my tonic.

Nor is it only the newspapers and their kind with which I have to contend. My dearest friends are traitors and my foes are they of my own household. For they cling to the possessions of their brains, they are busy amassing more, they survey them with satisfaction and exhibit them with pride, so that I am driven to question, which of us is right? Is the change in me due to growing wisdom or to oncoming senility?

In my outdoor life the same issue is constantly presenting itself. I love birds and flowers. In fact, I believe that I honestly love that grand and joyous conglomerate usually called “Nature.” There was a time, more over, during that remote period of which I have spoken, when I possessed a respectable amount of information about these matters. Just as, in my lust for physical possessions, I collected butterflies and eggs and flowers, even so in my lust for intellectual possessions I accumulated knowledge—I learned all their names, I knew all about their wings and their spots and their petals and their seeds and their roots and whatever else appertained to them. It amazes me now when I occasionally stumble upon some record of my former knowledge. I feel like saying, with the old woman in Mother Goose,—

Lawk a massy on me!
This is none of I!

But following my feeling of amazement there usually comes one of relief—how glad I am that I don’t know all that now! I still love “Nature,” but when I have found the lovely flower in the meadow or the deep wood, I do not hasten to pick it and bring it home and analyze it and press it. I am content to lie down beside it a while and enjoy its companionship, its beauty, its fragrance, whatever it has of charm and comeliness, and then I leave it and pass on. When I hear a sweet bird-note, I pause and listen as it comes again and yet again. But I do not pursue the bird with an opera-glass to count its feathers and estimate its dimensions, and then hurry home to my “bird books” to “look it up” and make a marginal note of the date. When I see butterflies fluttering about the lilacs and the syringas and the phlox, I stand quiet and watch them—those huge pale yellow ones banded with black that love to hang about lavender flowers—do they know what a lovely chord of color they strike? those dark ones with blues and greens splashed on their wing-edges, those rich rusty-red ones, with pure silver flashes on their under sides, those little jagged- winged beauties with all the colors of an Oriental rug—old reds, old blues, old yellows—all mottled together. Ah, they are all delightful, and as I watch this favorite and that, holding my breath lest I scare him into flight, I find myself smiling to think, I knew his name once!

But most of my friends still know their names. They have opera-glasses and note books, and a prodigious amount of information. They keep tally of the number of birds they see in a day or on a walk or on a drive, of the number of new birds or flowers they recognize in a season. They call me up by telephone to tell me that the beautiful creature we had seen in a certain tree was, after all, not the Apteryx Americanus, but the Apteryx Warrensis, a much rarer variety of the same species, with longer tail feathers and two more white feathers in the wing than his commonplace cousin.

Amid such whirlpools of information I feel that I am unable to hold my own, and so I try to drift out, but now and again I am drawn in, and I find myself growing stupid as I bend over my friends bird books. I give myself headaches looking at their butterfly cabinets—real butterflies on the phlox and the lilacs never seem to give me headaches.

I have said that I do not regret the change in myself, that I would not, if I could, gather up the stores of information I once possessed and refurnish my brain with them,—no, not even if I could arrange them all in order, cleaned and dusted and sorted ready to be used or admired. Let them go! Some of them have already gone altogether, thrown away, dropped into cracks, burned up, ground into powder, dissolved into nothing. Some lie, perhaps, piled up in the dusty garrets of my brain, huddled together in formless heaps, or stowed close in the old chests of memory that are never opened. If I searched I might find them, and drag them out, and perhaps among them I might discover some treasures, but I shall never search. I shall let them all lie together in the quiet, dusty twilight, not to be disturbed until the whole mansion, from dim attic to sunlit living-rooms, shall perish to be known no more.


MLA Citation

Morris, Elisabeth. “The tyranny of facts.” 1917. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 8 Oct 2008. 27 Mar 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/morris/tyranny_of_facts/>.

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