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The Genial Idiot: His Views and Reviews

The Genial Idiot: His Views and Reviews

Author:John Kendrick Bangs


"Good!" cried the Idiot, from behind the voluminous folds of the magazine section of his Sunday newspaper. "Here's a man after my own heart. Professor Duff, of Glasgow University, has come out with a public statement that the maxims and ...
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  "Good!" cried the Idiot, from behind the voluminous folds of themagazine section of his Sunday newspaper. "Here's a man after my ownheart. Professor Duff, of Glasgow University, has come out with a publicstatement that the maxims and proverbs of our forefathers are largelyhocus-pocus and buncombe. I've always maintained that myself from themoment I had my first copy-book lesson in which I had to scrawl theline, 'It's a long lane that has no turning,' twenty-four times. Andthen that other absurd statement, 'A stitch in the side is worth two inthe hand'--or something like it--I forget just how it goes--whatTommy-rot that is."

  "Well, I don't know about that, Mr. Idiot," said Mr. Whitechoker,tapping his fingers together reflectively. "Certain great moralprinciples are instilled into the minds of the young by the old proverbsand maxims that remain with them forever, and become a potent influencein the formation of character."

  "I should like to agree with you, but I can't," said the Idiot. "I don'tbelieve anything that is noble in the way of character was ever fosteredby such a statement as that it's a long lane that has no turning. In thefirst place, it isn't necessarily true. I know a lane on mygrandfather's farm that led from the hen-coop to the barn. There wasn'ta turn nor a twist in it, and I know by actual measurement that itwasn't sixty feet long. You've got just as much right to say to a boythat it's a long nose that has no twisting, or a long leg that has nopulling, or a long courtship that has no kissing. There's infinitelymore truth in those last two than in the original model. The leg that'snever pulled doesn't go short in a stringent financial market, and acourtship without a kiss, even if it lasted only five minutes, would betoo long for any self-respecting lover."

  "I never thought of it in that way," said Mr. Whitechoker. "Perhaps,after all, the idea is ill-expressed in the original."

  "Perfectly correct," said the Idiot. "But even then, what? Suppose theyhad put the thing right in the beginning and said 'it's a long lane thathas no ending.' What's the use of putting a thing like that in acopy-book? A boy who didn't know that without being told ought to bespanked and put to bed. Why not tell him it's a long well that has nobottom, or a long dog that has no wagging, or a long railroad that hasno terminal facilities?"

  "Oh, well," interposed the Bibliomaniac, "what's the use of beingcaptious? Out of a billion and a half wise saws you pick out one to jumpon. Because one is weak, all the rest must come down with a crash."

  "There are plenty of others, and the way they refute one another is tome a constant source of delight," said the Idiot. "There's'Procrastination is the thief of time,' for instance. That's a clearinjunction to youth to get up and hustle, and he starts in with all theimpulsiveness of youth, and the first thing he knows--bang! he runs slapinto 'Look before you leap,' or 'Second thoughts are best.' That last iswhat Samuel Johnson would have called a beaut. What superior claims thesecond thought has over the first or the seventy-seventh thought, thatit should become axiomatic, I vow I can't see. If it's morality you'reafter I am dead against the teachings of that proverb. The secondthought is the open door to duplicity when it comes to a question ofmorals. You ask a small boy, who has been in swimming when he ought tohave been at Sunday-school, why his shirt is wet. His first thought isnaturally to reply along the line of fact and say, 'Why, because it fellinto the pond.' But second thought comes along with visions of hardspanking and a supperless bed in store for him, and suggests the ideathat 'There was a leak in the Sunday-school roof right over the placewhere I was sitting,' or, 'I sat down on the teacher's glass of water.'That's the sort of thing second thought does in the matter of morals.

  "I admit, of course, that there are times when second thoughts arebetter than first ones--for instance, if your first thought is to namethe baby Jimmie and Jimmie turns out to be a girl, it is better to obeyyour second thought and call her Gladys or Samantha--but it is notalways so, and I object to the nerve of the broad, general statementthat it _is_ so. Sometimes fifth thoughts are best. In science I guessyou'll find that the man who thinks the seven hundred and ninety-sevenththought along certain lines has got the last and best end of it. And soit goes--out of the infinitesimal number of numbers, every mother's sonof 'em may at the psychological moment have a claim to the supremacy,but your self-sufficient old proverb-maker falls back behind theimpenetrable wall of his own conceit, and announces that because he hasnothing but second-hand thoughts, therefore the second thought is best,and we, like a flock of sheep, follow this leader, and go blatting thatsentiment down through the ages as if it were proved beyond peradventureby the sum total of human experience."

  "Well, you needn't get mad about it," said the Lawyer. "I never saidit--so you can't blame me."

  "Still, there are some proverbs," said Mr. Whitechoker, blandly, "thatwe may not so summarily dismiss. Take, for instance, 'You never miss thewater till the well runs dry.'"

  "One of the worst of the lot, Mr. Whitechoker," said the Idiot. "I'vemissed the water lots of times when the well was full as ever. You missthe water when the pipes freeze up, don't you? You--or rather I--Isometimes miss the water like time at five o'clock in the morning aftera pleasant evening with some jovial friends, when there's no end of itin the well, but not a drop within reach of my fevered hand, and Ihaven't the energy to grope my way down-stairs to the ice-pitcher.There's more water in that proverb than tangible assets. From thestandpoint of veracity that's one of the most immoral proverbs of thelot--and if you came to apply it to the business world--oh, Lud! As arule, these days, you never _find_ the water till the well has beenpumped dry and put in the hands of a receiver for the benefit of thebond-holders. Fact is, all these water proverbs are to be regarded withsuspicion."

  "I don't recall any other," said Mr. Whitechoker.

  "Well," said the Idiot, "there's one, and it's the nerviest of 'emall--'Water never runs up hill.' Ask any man in Wall Street how high thewater has run up in the last five years and see what he tells you. Andthen, 'You may drive a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink,'is another choice specimen of the Waterbury School of Philosophy. I knowa lot of human horses who have been driven to water lately, and suchdrinkers as they have become! It's really awful. If I knew the name ofthat particular Maximilian who invented those water proverbs I'd do mybest to have him indicted for doing business without a license."

  "It's very unfortunate," said Mr. Whitechoker, "that modern conditionsshould so have upset the wisdom of the ancients."

  "It is too bad," said the Idiot. "And I am just as sorry about it as youare; but, after all, the wisdom of the ancients, wise and wisdomatic asit was, should not be permitted to put at nought all modern thought. Whynot adapt the wisdom of the ancients to modern conditions? You can'tbegin too soon, for new generations are constantly springing up, and Iknow of no better outlet for reform than in these self-same Spencerianproverbs which the poor kids have to copy, copy, copy, until they aresick and tired of them. Now, in the writing-lessons, why not adapt yourmeans to your ends? Why make a beginner in penmanship write over andover again, 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush?'--which itisn't, by-the-way, to a man who is a good shot--when you can bear in onhis mind that 'A dot on the I is worth two on the T'; or, for theinstruction of your school-teachers, why don't you get up a proverb like'It's a long lesson that has no learning'? Or if you are interested inhaving your boy brought up to the strenuous life, why don't you have himmake sixty copies of the aphorism, 'A punch in the solar is worth six onthe nose?' You tell your children never to whistle until they are out ofthe woods. Now, where in the name of all that's lovely should a boywhistle if not in the woods? That's where birds whistle. That's wherethe wind whistles. If nature whistles anywhere, it is in the woods.Woods were made for whistling, and any man who ever sat over a biglog-fire in camp or in library who has not noticed that the logsthemselves whistle constantly--well, he is a pachyderm."

  "Well, as far as I can reach a conclusion from all that you have said,"put in Mr. Whitechoker, "the point seems to be that the proverbs of theancients are not suited to modern conditions, and that you think theyshould be revised."

  "Exactly," said the Idiot.

  "It's a splendid idea," said Mr. Brief. "But, after all, you've got tohave something to begin on. Possibly," he added, with a wink at theBibliomaniac, "you have a few concrete examples to show us what can bedone."

  "Certainly," said the Idiot. "Here is a list of them."

  And as he rose up to depart he handed Mr. Brief a paper on which he hadwritten as follows:

  "You never find the water till the stock falls off twenty points."

  "A stitch in time saves nothing at all at present tailors' rates."

  "You look after the pennies. Somebody else will deposit the pounds."

  "It's a long heiress that knows no yearning."

  "Second thoughts are always second."

  "Procrastination is the theme of gossips."

  "Never put off to-day what you can put on day after to-morrow."

  "Sufficient unto the day are the obligations of last month."

  "One good swat deserves another."

  "By Jove!" said Mr. Brief, as he read them off, "you can't go back onany of 'em, can you?"

  "No," said the Bibliomaniac; "that's the great trouble with the Idiot.Even with all his idiocy he is not always a perfect idiot."