Is New York Civilized?

The Philistine

May 1908, Vol. 26 No. 6, pp. 161-166

TO part the hair carefully in the middle each morning, pull on a pair of patent leather books, change your white shirt for a colored one, swallow a cocktail and rush off to business like a hungry rat after a piece of cheese—do these things make a civilized man?

A city of stone and iron and glass, of miles of dark dungeons that are called underground railways, where the air is heavy with sickening stench, of narrow streets with buildings so high on either side that the sun never strikes the pavement except at noon; where the sensitive pedestrian is gradually overcome by the subtle horror of momentarily experiencing the terrible [162] fate of the being in Edgar Allen Poe’s tale, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” who watcht with staring eyes the walls of the pit gradually closing in on him; a city where Noise is a god and Ugliness is a creed—is that a civilized city?

Lunacy, noise and ugliness: that is New York City.

People live so fast in New York that they set fire to their clothes, and forget they are living; they are so intoxicated with movement that they have forgotten all about direction. They make frantic motions like an imprisoned mouse traveling on a revolving cylinder. Motion is not necessarily progress, and civilization has nothing to do with betting on the price of wheat or slowly gasping to death in an underground railway that cost millions of dollars.

Four million people working day and night with fiendish energy constructing buildings almost as high as the Eiffel Tower, then tearing them down; digging hundreds of feet underground, burrowing out their tunnels and holes beneath the beds of rivers like mole-workers; rushing along the streets in short nervous strides, making quick, apoplectic motions to one another that they call salutations; faces the color of ashes in a fireless grate, with eyes that seem capable of boring a hole in a stone, eyes that see every[163]thing but the beauty of sunlight and starlight and the tender blue of heaven—do such people really live, or are they anything more than corpses with a galvanic battery in their spines? No, they do not live; they are merely marionettes with a high fever.

Observe from a central point of traffic in New York City and one sees what appears to be an endless black vomit coming out of what looks to be sewers. The mass is composed of people emerging from underground tunnels.

If a city where beauty, art, culture and leisure count for nothing alongside of the question “How many dollars can I squeeze out of my heart and brain?” is the last word that civilization has to utter, then civilization is in no way superior to barbarism; for what shall it profit a people to keep in everlasting movement if they have no destination in view? The dog that chased its tail thruout eternity was not more foolish or more ludicrous.

New York is intoxicated by names. Nowhere in the world is there a more subservient worship of European art for the sake of the worship, not for the art. She has no love of music, but she idolizes musicians if they have French, Italian, or German names. If Paderewski or Bernhardt had been born in New York City it would have [164] been necessary for them to go to Europe for ten years, grow long hair and come back under another name. Otherwise they would have starved.

The soul of the New Yorker is a mere measuring utensil. It is a gauge for material things only. “What does it cost?” “What can I sell it for?”—are his first questions. He only believes in the things he can handle, smell or see. All art is merchandise; all beauty is presst into the service of advertising pills, porous plasters and beers. If a man has literary skill he is told to write advertisements if he wants to live; if he be a great musician he is directed to a café, where he performs nightly before Stomachs, or he is offered a place in a department store band, where music is given free to the patrons of the ice-cream parlor; if he be a talented painter he is seized by a magazine and employed on cover decorations; if he be a poet—but a poet in New York is as incongruous a thought as a Puritan Bacchante.

No city in the world today approaches New York in barbaric splendor. The splendor of Paris is the splendor of beauty and art—æsthetic taste mingled with pagan pomp; the splendor of London is the splendor of isolation, of pride, of antique state; the splendor of the [164] city of Mexico is the splendor of picturesque pasts; but the splendor of New York is the splendor of glitter, of tinsel, of gigantic soulless things, the splendor of the sound of many things, the splendor of the sound of many trumpets and the vacuity thereof. To attract the New Yorker, things must shine, dazzle, scintillate. Like all true barbarians, the eye and ear must be ravisht always, tho the objects of delight be only a burnisht tin pan or a red rag.

What is civilization? It is the art of living well, living harmoniously, living fully. Any form of life that develops the senses and leaves the soul untoucht, or that makes of the higher faculties of man slaves of material gratification, carries within itself the germs of early decay.

Without mental and spiritual culture there can be no permanent civic or national life. No man can be called civilized who does not instinctively love the beautiful. Thought and mental aspiration must walk hand in hand with action and sensual gratification.

Civilization means the experiencing of the best of everything. It is a great refining process, a method by which the dumb, brutish soul of the savage is changed into a being capable of mingling its inner self with all the choicest things in the material and immaterial universes. It quickens the apprehension of man’s superi[166]ority to the brute and lends to his nature the glamour of ideal aspirations.

New York is but a shadow and a vain show. Her glitter is not a reflection from the undying flame that burns at the core of the civilizing instinct, but is the sinister gleam seen on the spider’s web.

In closing, let me say that I live in New York, but for the life of me I can’t tell why.